Lee Kong Chian
Lee Kong Chian (b. 18 October 1893, Nan’an, Quanzhou, Fujian, China - d. 2 June 1967, Singapore), alias Geok Kun, was a philanthropist and multi-millionaire businessman who made his mark in rubber and later expanded into pineapple, coconut oil and sawmills, among others. Lee also invested large sums in big enterprises like the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation, Great Eastern Life, Sime Darby (Singapore), Cold Storage and Straits Trading Company. Though a corporate magnate, he led a simple life and was known to be humble. The last 15 years of his life were devoted to charity work under Lee Foundation, of which the beneficiaries included Singapore Chinese High School, Nanyang University, the University of Malaya and the National Library.
Lee was born in Furong village, Nan’an district, Fujian province. He received his early education in a traditional private tuition school in his hometown. Lee's father, Lee Kuo Chuan, was a poor tailor and turned to Singapore to make a better living, bringing his son with him. They arrived in Singapore in 1903. Lee went to the Anglo-Tamil School at Serangoon Road. Though it was a Tamil school, Lee learnt English. He then enrolled in Chong Cheng School to continue his Chinese education. Subsequently, Lee switched to attend classes at Tao Nan School in 1907.
In 1908, the 15-year-old Lee was among 15 overseas students given a Manchu government scholarship to study in Ji’nan School in Nanjing. He excelled in his studies and graduated as the top student two years later, after which he went to Qinghua College in Beijing for advanced study (a two-year course of pre-university standard). Lee subsequently went to the College of Mining and Communication in Tang Shan to study engineering. However, China's political developments and internal turmoil as the country headed towards becoming a republic put a stop to Lee's educational pursuit in China and he came back to Singapore in 1912.
In Singapore, Lee's drive and energy took him through four jobs and two courses. His working day started from dawn as an assistant in the Survey Department, a job that lasted until noon. He then translated English articles into Chinese at Lat Pau Chinese Press. At night, he taught at Tao Nan School and Chong Cheng School. Lee’s thirst for knowledge led him to take up two courses - a Special Survey Class run by the Survey Department and a correspondence course in civil engineering with an American university. But before he could put the knowledge to use, Lee was courted into business.
Career in business
In 1915, upon noticing Lee's talent, Cheng Hee Chuan invited him to join China National Products Company, an entity formed to import goods from Malaya into China as European merchandise was in shortage during World War I. When Chee invited public investments, Lee subscribed to a number of shares and was appointed assistant English secretary to the company. The venture did not take off but another opportunity came two years later, when rubber tycoon Tan Kah Kee hired Lee to manage his rubber company. Tan was planning to expand his rubber business to America and Europe, and saw Lee’s bilingual ability as an asset.
Tan's rubber company, Khiam Aik, grew significantly under Lee's management and Tan took Lee into his family by marrying his eldest daughter to Lee. In 1920, Lee was promoted to the position of treasurer in Tan Kah Kee’s company. Tan also led Lee into the banking business. In 1923, Lee was elected as a member of the board of directors of Chinese Commercial Bank.
In 1927, Lee started his own business and formed Lee Smoke House in Muar, Johore. Renamed Lee Rubber Company in 1928, the company survived the hard times of the 1930s during the Great Depression, which forced many enterprises including Tan Kah Kee Ltd to wind up. Lee reorganised his business into a limited company, getting his bosom friend Yap Geok Twee and his clansman Lee Pee Soo to be directors of the company. Cash-rich at a time when land prices were extremely low, Lee acquired acres of rubber land and rapidly expanded his enterprise. He began trading with various parts of the world, and separate companies in Indonesia and southern Thailand were set up and developed independently. Besides establishing himself as a rubber tycoon, Lee diversified his business interests to include pineapple, coconut oil, sawmills, biscuits and raw material trading. In 1931, the year he established Lee Rubber Co Pte Ltd, Lee also set up Lee Pineapple, Lee Produce, Lee Sawmills, Lee Printing and Lee Biscuits.
After the Wall Street stock market crash of 1929, which marked the beginning of the Great Depression, Lee facilitated the merger of the Oversea-Chinese Bank, Ho Hong Bank and Chinese Commercial Bank. The merged entity, the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC), was formed by the end of 1932 and it was the largest bank in Singapore. Lee assumed chairmanship of OCBC in 1938 and held this post until his death in 1967.
Lee was twice elected as president of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce. He also headed the Rubber Trade Association of Singapore, and as its president he represented the association in various rubber conferences. At the end of 1941, he was attending one such conference in Washington D.C. when the Japanese descended on Malaya. He stayed in New York during the Pacific War and was appointed as a lecturer for Columbia University, educating the United States military and civil officers on Southeast Asia.
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. He established Lee Foundation with a capital sum of $3.5 million in 1952 and, through the foundation, began using his wealth to support education. Generous donations to school-building funds and charities have continued since.
Lee Foundation was looked after by a committee whose task was to channel interests derived from Lee's properties into cultural, educational, charitable and public organisations. This was to ensure the longevity of the foundation's work, to provide steady and continuous support to organisations and charities in both good and bad times.
Many have benefitted from Lee Foundation's generosity. Among the educational institutions were Singapore Chinese High School, Nanyang University, the University of Malaya and the Amoy University in Fujian. In 1965, Lee donated $1 million to the Singapore Medical Research Funds to start the Institute of Medical Specialties. By March 1967, 15 years after it was set up, Lee Foundation had donated a total of $10 million.
Lee was conferred the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws by the University of Malaya in 1958. On 3 June 1962, he was installed as chancellor of the University of Singapore, the highest honour for a civilian. However he had to withdraw from the post in 1965 due to ill health. When Lee passed away in 1967, he left half of his fortune to Lee Foundation so that it could continue his philanthropic work.
Major contributions and awards
1918 : Became a member of the management committee of Chinese High School.
1927 : Became a member of the management committee of Singapore Chinese Girls' School.
1929 : Donated to Singapore Chinese Girls' School.
1933 : Donated to St Theresa´s Convent.
1934 – 1955 : Served as chairman of the management committee of Chinese High School. In 1949, he convinced the principal to introduce bilingual education. He also built a science block, a sports field, a teachers´ hostel and Kuo Chuan Library (named after his father), among his other gifts to the school.
1935 – 1955 : Served as president of Chinese Swimming Club.
1938 : Founded Kuo Chuan Girls´ School (today part of Kuo Chuan Presbyterian Secondary School).
1938 : Founded Guozhuan Primary School in his hometown of Furong, China.
1939 – 1940 : Served as president of Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce.
1941 : Donated $100,000 towards the establishment of Nanyang Chinese Normal School at Kim Yam Road.
1943 : Founded Guoguang Secondary School in Furong.
1946 – 1947 : Served as president of Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce.
1949 : Started two clinics at Guoguang Secondary School.
1949 : Donated $250,000 to the University of Malaya Endowment Fund over two years (instead of the planned 15 years). He donated an additional $250,000 in 1951, for acquiring library resources and promoting Oriental studies and science.
1950 – 1954 : Contributed towards Xiamen University and the schools set up by Tan Kah Kee in China.
1951 : Set up Nan´an Guozhuan Private Hospital (now known as Quanzhou City Guozhuan Hospital) in Furong.
1951 – 1952 : Served as chairman of Thong Chai Medical Institution, a free hospital in Singapore, and planned the purchase of land for the hospital´s permanent building.
1952 : Established Lee Foundation with a capital sum of $3.5 million, with the aim of supporting cultural, educational, charitable and public organisations.
1953 : Proposed introducing bilingual and trilingual education, and equal treatment for schools of all language streams. His proposals were accepted by the colonial government and included in the White Paper on Education Policy that introduced a unified education system for Singapore.
1953 : Donated $375,000 to the construction of the National Library, on the condition that it would be a free public library.
1953 : Pledged to donate 10% of the total funds raised by the public for the setting up of Nanyang University. The public fundraising effort raised $10 million by 1957 and Lee donated $1 million to match.
1953 : Donated $300,000 to the founding of Kong Hwa School.
1954 : Mediated between the colonial government and protestors from Chinese schools during the student demonstrations against the National Service Ordinance. Subsequently, he donated $30,000 to engage a Queen´s Counsel to represent the students during their trial.
1955 : Donated $30,000 to build the Islamic College in Klang, Malaysia.
1957 : Conferred the title of Datuk Paduka Mahkota Johore by the Johore Sultan.
1957 : Donated 75% of the total building cost for Umar Pulavar Tamil School in Singapore.
1958 : Became chairman of Singapore Council of Social Services (now National Council of Social Services).
1958 : Conferred the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws by the University of Malaya.
1959 : Conferred the title of Datuk Sri Paduka Mahkota Kelantan by the Kelantan Sultan.
1959 : Donated to Needham Research Institute in England, a centre for the study of East Asian science, technology and medicine.
1960 : Conferred the title of Datuk Sri Paduka Mahkota Johore by the Johore Sultan.
1961 : Donated to help the victims of the Bukit Ho Swee fire. (He also donated to help the victims of many other kampong fires that happened between the late 1950s and early 1960s.)
1962 – 1965 : Served as the first chancellor of the University of Singapore.
1962 : Donated $1 million towards the setting up of a medical college in the University of Singapore.
1963 : Donated $120,000 to help the Huaqiao (Overseas Chinese) University in China build the Tan Kah Kee Memorial Hall.
1964 : Conferred the title of Panglima Mangku Negara (Companion of the Order of the Defender of the Realm) by the Head of State of Malaysia.
1964 : Donated $200,000 towards the building of the Singapore Council of Social Services headquarters.
1965 : Donated $1 million to the Singapore Medical Research Funds for the setting up of the Institute of Medical Specialties at Singapore General Hospital.
1965 : 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.
Illness and death
Lee's health deteriorated in 1964 and he was admitted to Queen Mary's Hospital in Hong Kong for treatment of liver cancer. He recovered after an operation, and in 1965 he proceeded to Shanghai for further examination by Chinese physicians. He came back to Singapore three months later and his health improved following months of rest. However, his condition later took a turn for the worse and he passed away peacefully on 2 June 1967 at his mansion in Mount Rosie. His funeral service was held at Mount Vernon Crematorium and many people from various walks of life, from millionaires to rubber tappers, came to pay their last respects. Lee was survived by his wife, three sons, three daughters and several grandchildren.
In 1953, Lee donated $375,000 for the construction of the National Library's new building at Stamford Road on the condition that the library waived its annual fees and became a free public library. Lee officiated the laying of the foundation stone on 16 August 1957. In 2003, 50 years after this first donation, Lee Foundation donated another S$60 million to the National Library. To honour the contribution, the new reference library at Victoria Street was named Lee Kong Chian Reference Library. Continuing Lee's strong support for higher education, Lee Foundation contributed S$50 million to the Singapore Management University (SMU) in 2004. In recognition of this generosity, SMU named its School of Business, the building and its university-wide scholars programme after Lee Kong Chian.
Wife: Tan Ai Leh, (married in 1920).
Sons: Seng Gee, Seng Tee, Seng Wee.
Daughters: Seok Kheng, Seok Tin, Seok Chee.
Nor-Afidah Abd Rahman and Jane Wee
Chew, M. (1996). Leaders of Singapore (pp. 23-28) . Singapore: Resource Press.
(Call no.: RSING 920.05957 CHE)
Final tribute to Lee Kong Chian [Microfilm: NL 12194]. (1967, June 5). The Straits Times, p. 9.
From rags to "rubber King" [Microfilm: NL 12194]. (1967, June 3). The Straits Times, p. 11.
Lee Kong Chian dies at 75 [Microfilm: NL 12194]. (1967, June 3). The Straits Times, p. 1.
Li, Y. R. (1998). Li guang qian zhuan. Xianggang: Ming liu chu ban she.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 LYR -[HIS])
Make it simple, was Dato Lee's last wishes...[Microfilm: NL 12194]. (1967, June 4). The Straits Times, p. 3.
Ministry of Education. (2004). Speech by Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Minister for Education, at the dinner in appreciation of the Lee Foundations gift to the Singapore Management University at the Istana on Tuesday, 17 August 2004, at 7:30 pm. Retrieved May 26, 2006, from http://www.moe.gov.sg/speeches/2004/sp20040817a.htm
Obituary - Tan Sri Dr. Lee Kong Chian. (1967). Dong nan ya yan jiu [Journal of Southeast Asian Researches], 3, 1-8.
(Call no.: RCLOS Chinese 959 JSAR)
Tan, B. H. (1987, November 10). Rubber tycoon who never forgot the poor. The Straits Times, p.4.
Zhang, B. S. (1997). Li guang qian zhuan. Beijing: Zhong guo hua qiao chu ban she.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 ZBS -[HIS] )
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.