Lee Kong Chian



Lee Kong Chian (Dr) (b. 18 October 1893, Nan’an, Quanzhou, Fujian, China–d. 2 June 1967, Singapore), also known as Geok Kun, was a philanthropist and multi-millionaire businessman who made his mark in the rubber trade and later the pineapple, coconut oil and sawmill businesses, among others.1 Lee also invested large sums in enterprises such as the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC), Great Eastern Life Insurance, Sime Darby (Singapore), Cold Storage and Straits Trading Company.2 In spite of his wealth, he led a simple life and was known to be frugal and kind. Lee donated millions of dollars to charitable causes through the Lee Foundation, which he created in 1952. The beneficiaries of the foundation include Nanyang University, the University of Malaya and National Library.3

Early life
Lee was born in Furong village in Nan’an county in Fujian, China. He received his early education in a traditional Chinese school. While studying, he reared cattle to supplement his family’s income. Lee’s father, Lee Kuo Chuan, who made ends meet teaching, tailoring and hair-dressing in China, moved to Singapore with him in 1903 to make a better living. To save money, they resided in a shophouse belonging to fellow countryman, Lim Loh, the father of Lim Bo Seng.4 In Singapore, Lee enrolled in the Anglo-Tamil School, which was located at Serangoon Road, learning English and mathematics. On weekends, he studied Mandarin at Chong Cheng School located at Aliwal Street. Subsequently, Lee switched to Tao Nan School and St Joseph’s Institution.5


In 1908, the Qing government awarded 15-year-old Lee a government scholarship to study in Jinan School in Nanjing.6 He excelled in his studies and graduated as the top student two years later.7 In 1911, Lee enrolled in Tsinghua College in Beijing, but shortly after transferred to the College of Railway and Mining in Tangshan, Hebei Province, majoring in engineering.8 However, political upheavals in China disrupted Lee’s education and he returned to Singapore in 1912.9

In Singapore, Lee’s drive and energy took him through four jobs and two courses.10 He woke up at 5 am daily, and started work at 6 am as an assistant in the Survey Department.11 In the afternoon, he translated English articles into Chinese for the Chinese newspaper, Lat Pau. At night, he taught at Tao Nan School and Chong Cheng School.12 Lee aspired to be an engineer during this period, leading him to undertake two courses: a special survey and geodesy class run by the Survey Department, as well as a correspondence course in civil engineering offered by an American university. Lee completed both courses in 1914 at age 21.13 However, before he could put the knowledge to use, Lee was courted into business.

Career
In the same year, upon noticing Lee’s talent, Cheng Hee Chuan invited him to join his company, which sought to import goods from China into Malaya, to make up for the shortage of European merchandise during World War I.14 Cheng also offered to pay compensation to the government, as Lee would have had to break his five-year bond with the Survey Department if he joined Cheng. Understanding that his future in the colonial service would be limited due to the colour bar, Lee accepted Cheng’s offer. The venture, however, did not take off as products from China were inferior in quality during this time.15 Another opportunity arose two years later when rubber tycoon Tan Kah Kee hired Lee as manager of Khiam Aik, with the task of overseeing his rubber export business.16 At that time, Tan was planning to expand his rubber business to America and Europe, and saw Lee’s bilingual ability as an asset.17


Tan’s rubber company, Khiam Aik, grew significantly under Lee’s management. In 1920, Lee married Tan’s eldest daughter, Tan Ai Leh.18 Tan also brought Lee into the banking business, by selling 100 shares of the Chinese Commercial Bank (CCB) to him, for $10,000.19 In 1923, Lee was elected as a member of the board-of-directors of the CCB.20

In 1927, Lee left Khiam Aik and started a rubber smoking business in Muar, Johor.21 He also bought a rubber plantation and named it Furong Garden in 1928, as well as set up the company, Nam Aik.22 Nam Aik survived the Great Depression during the 1930s, which forced many companies, including Tan Kah Kee and Co. Ltd, to wind up. Lee re-organised his business into a limited company in 1931, appointing his bosom friend Yap Geok Twee and his clansman Lee Pee Soo as directors of the company.23 Cash-rich at a time when land prices were extremely low, Lee acquired acres of rubber land and rapidly expanded his business, which soon had branches in Indonesia and Southern Thailand.24 Besides establishing himself as a rubber tycoon, Lee diversified his business interests to include sawmills and the trading of pineapple, coconut oil, biscuits and raw material.25 In 1931, he established Lee Rubber Co. Pte Ltd, and also set up Lee Pineapple, Lee Produce, Lee Sawmills, Lee Printing and Lee Biscuits.26

After the Wall Street stock market crash of 1929, which marked the beginning of the Great Depression, Lee played a central role in facilitating the merger of the Oversea-Chinese Bank, the Ho Hong Bank and the CCB.27 The merged entity – the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC) – was formed by the end of 1932, becoming the largest bank in Singapore. Lee served OCBC as vice-chairman from 1932, and assumed chairmanship of OCBC in 1938, holding this post until his death in 1967.28

Lee was elected as president of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce twice.29 At the end of 1941, he represented the Singapore Chinese Rubber Dealers and Millers Association in a meeting held in New York when the Japanese invaded Malaya.30 He stayed in New York during the Pacific War and was appointed as a lecturer at Columbia University, educating the United States military and civil officers on Southeast Asia.31

Lee was known for his progressive business style, exemplified by his success in transforming a traditional rubber business into a modern corporation. His simplicity and humility also impressed his peers.32

Philanthropic work
In 1952, Lee established Lee Foundation with a capital sum of $3.5 million, envisaging it as a provider of monetary aid to charities in the long run.33 Lee Foundation is looked after by a committee whose task is to channel interests derived from Lee’s properties into cultural, educational, charitable and public organisations.34


Many have benefitted from the generosity of the Lee Foundation.35 Among the educational institutions that were beneficiaries are The Chinese High School, Nanyang University, University of Malaya and Amoy University in Fujian. In 1965, Lee donated $1 million to the Singapore Medical Progress Fund to start the Institute of Medical Specialties.36 By March 1967, 15 years after it was set up, the Lee Foundation had donated a total of $10 million.37

Lee was conferred the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws by the University of Malaya in 1958, and the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters by the University of Singapore in 1965.38 On 12 June 1962, Lee was installed as chancellor of the University of Singapore.39 However, he resigned in 1965 due to ill health.40 When Lee passed away in 1967, he left half of his fortune to the Lee Foundation so that it could continue his philanthropic work.41

Major contributions and awards
1924:
 Becomes a member of the management committee of Singapore Chinese Girls’ School.42

1934: Takes over Tan Kah Kee’s biscuit factory, agreeing to donate one-third of its annual profits to Xiamen University and Jimei Schools in China. He also rents out his rubber mills in Singapore, with an understanding that Lee would allocate 20 percent of its annual profits to these educational institutions.43
1934–1955: Serves as chairman of the management committee of The Chinese High School. In 1949, he convinces the principal to introduce bilingual education. He also builds a science block, a sports field, a teachers’ hostel and Kuo Chuan Library (named after his father), among his other gifts for the school.44
1938: Founds Kuo Chuan Primary School in his home town of Furong, China.45
1939–1940: Serves as president of Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce (SCCC).46
1943: Founds Kuo Chuan Secondary School in Furong.47
1946–1947: Serves as president of Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and as a member of the Singapore Advisory Council.48
1949: Starts two clinics at Kuo Chuan Secondary School. Donates $250,000 to the University of Malaya Endowment Fund over two years (instead of the planned 15 years); donates an additional $250,000 in 1951 for the acquisition of library resources and promotion of Oriental studies and science.
1951: Sets up Nan’an Guozhuan Private Hospital (now known as Quanzhou City Guozhuan Hospital) in Furong.49
1951–1952: Serves as chairman of Thong Chai Medical Institution, a free hospital in Singapore, and plans the purchase of land for the hospital’s permanent building.
1952: Establishes Lee Foundation with a capital sum of $3.5 million, with the aim of supporting cultural, educational, charitable and public organisations.50
1953: Represents SCCC and Chinese schools to seek increased government aid and clarification on the new bilingual policy to be implemented in Chinese schools;51 donates $375,000 to the construction of the National Library, on the condition that it would be a free public library;52 pledges to match 10 percent of the total funds raised by the public for the setting up of Nanyang University. The public fund-raising effort raises $10 million by 1957 and Lee donates $1 million to match; donates $300,000 to the founding of Kong Hwa School.53
1954: Mediates between the colonial government and protestors from Chinese schools during the student demonstrations against the National Service Ordinance.54
1955: Donates to the Islamic College in Klang, Malaysia.55
1957: Conferred the title of Datuk Paduka Mahkota Johore by the Sultan of Johor;56 donates 75 percent of the total building cost of Umar Pulavar Tamil School in Singapore.57
1958–1964: Becomes chairman of Singapore Council of Social Services (now National Council of Social Services).58
1958: Conferred the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws by the University of Malaya.59
1959: Conferred the title of Datuk Sri Paduka Mahkota Kelantan by the Kelantan Sultan;60 donates to the Needham Research Institute in England, a centre for the study of East Asian science, technology and medicine.61
1961: Donates $25,000 to help the victims of the Bukit Ho Swee fire.62 He previously donated to help the victims of many other kampong (village) fires that occurred during the late 1950s and early 1960s.
1962–1965: Serves as the first chancellor of the University of Singapore.63
1962: Donates $1 million towards the setting up of a medical college in the University of Singapore.64
1963: Donates RMB$1,200,000 to help the Huaqiao (Overseas Chinese) University in China to build the Tan Kah Kee Memorial Hall.65
1964: Conferred the title of Panglima Mangku Negara (Commander of the Order of the Defender of the Realm) by the head of state of Malaysia;66 donates $200,000 towards the building of the Singapore Council of Social Services headquarters.67
1965: Donates $1 million to the Singapore Medical Progress Fund for the setting up of the Institute of Medical Specialties at Singapore General Hospital;68 conferred the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters by the University of Singapore in recognition of his services to the university and his contributions to arts and education.69

Illness and death
Lee’s health deteriorated in 1964 and he was admitted to Queen Mary’s Hospital in Hong Kong for liver cancer treatment.70 He recovered after an operation, and in 1965, proceeded to Shanghai for further examination by Chinese physicians. He returned to Singapore three months later and his health improved following months of rest.71 However, his condition later took a turn for the worse and he passed away peacefully on 2 June 1967 at his mansion at Mount Rosie.72 His funeral service was held at Mount Vernon Crematorium and many people from all walks of life came to pay their last respects.73 Lee was survived by his wife, three sons, three daughters and several grandchildren.74


Legacy
In 1953, Lee donated $375,000 for the construction of the National Library at Stamford Road on the condition that the library waived its annual fees and became a free public library.75 On 16 August 1957, Lee officiated the laying of the foundation stone.76 In 2003, 50 years after this first donation, Lee Foundation donated another S$60 million to the National Library. To honour the contribution, the reference library at Victoria Street was named the Lee Kong Chian Reference Library.77 Continuing Lee’s strong support for higher education, Lee Foundation contributed S$50 million to the Singapore Management University (SMU) in 2004.78 In recognition of this, SMU named its School of Business, the building and its university-wide scholarship programme after Lee.79


In 2011, Lee Foundation donated S$150 million to Nanyang Technological University’s (NTU) new medical school. NTU’s president, Professor Bertil Andersson, noted that this was the largest donation for academia locally.80 The Lee Foundation also contributed S$25 million towards the construction of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum at the National University of Singapore, which houses three dinosaur skeletons and over a million specimens from Southeast Asia.81

Family
Wife:
Tan Ai Leh.

Sons: Seng Gee, Seng Tee, Seng Wee.
Daughters: Seok Kheng, Seok Tin, Seok Chee.82



Authors

Nor-Afidah Abd Rahman and Jane Wee



References
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Further resource
陈维龙 [C. W. L.]. (1989). 《李光前先生传》 [Biography of Lee Kong Chian]. 南洋文摘 [Nanyang Wen Zhai], 8(11), 127–132.




The information in this article is valid as at 2011 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

 

Subject
Politics and Government>>Education
Education
Economy
Philanthropists--Singapore--Biography
Trade and industry
Commerce and Industry
Personalities
Pioneers
Pioneers--Singapore--Biography
Community and Social Services
Personalities>>Biographies>>Pioneers
People and communities>>Social groups and communities
Li, Guangqian, 1893-1967