Lee Seng Gee (b. 25 June 1921, Singapore - ), long-standing Chairman of the Lee Foundation and the Lee Rubber Group, is known for his many charitable and philanthropic contributions towards education, the underprivileged and the arts. He continues the legacy of giving set by his father, Lee Kong Chian, and his maternal grandfather, Tan Kah Kee.
The eldest of five children, Lee began his education at the age of four-and-a-half in the Sin Chew Kindergarten at Tanjong Pagar. He then enrolled into two primary schools because his parents wanted to him to have a bilingual education. So he would attend the Anglo Chinese Primary School, an English-medium school, in the morning, followed by the Tao Nan School, a Chinese-medium school, in the afternoon. This practice continued through to his secondary school days when he studied at the Anglo Chinese School, and the Industrial and Commercial Continuation School. As a student, he helped in raising funds for the China Relief Fund, a war effort headed by his grandfather, Tan Kah Kee, that supported China's resistance against Japan.
In 1939, Lee traveled to the United States at the age of 18 to read Economics at the University of Pennsylvania where he graduated in 1943. He then obtained his Masters in Business Administration from the Wharton Business School in 1944. In the same year, he married his first wife, the late Lora Tong, with whom he had four children. Tong was the daughter of the first prime minister of the Republic of China, Tang Shao-yi. Lee was in the midst of his doctorate programme when he was called back to Singapore in 1946 to rebuild the family business after the war.
The Lee Rubber Group had investments in rubber, oil palm and pineapple plantations in Malaya. They were also one of the leading exporters of refined rubber to industralised nations around the world. Though Lee would eventually head the family business empire, he entered the company as an apprentice at the factories. This experience allowed him to become acquainted with the staff and to develop an understanding of the business operations.
In 1947, he was sent to Indonesia to rebuild the rubber processing factories which had been destroyed or burnt down during the war. Working closely with the Dutch authorities, he had the business up and running within two years. The next year, the business began to turn in profits, aided in part by the Korean War rubber boom.
Lee took on more responsibilities when his father shifted his attention to the work of the Lee Foundation which he established in 1952. In 1955, Lee was placed in-charge of the Lee Group's Indonesian companies. Ten years later, he took over the reins as chairman and chief executive officer of the entire Lee Group.
Success in Business
Though there is a common Chinese saying that most family businesses do not last beyond the passing of each generation, the Lee Group continues to thrive. Lee attributes the company's success to its cautious and careful approach towards business. Continuing his father's business philosophy, Lee ensures that the company's managers do not speculate in rubber, though it is a common industry practice which brings in quick profits. The company also does not believe in borrowing from banks for the acquisition of fixed assets, such as the building of factories for the purpose of business expansion.
Besides heeding his father's sound business advice, Lee is also a discerning and insightful leader in his own right. Under his management, the Lee Group became one of the earliest companies in Singapore to computerise its business operations. Seeing the benefits that computerisation brought to companies in the West, Lee installed IBM business machines in 1954 to monitor the operations at its branch offices. Though the move was initially met with resistance from some staff who felt that the investment was an extravagance for a low-tech business and a restriction on the autonomy which they had, they were eventually bought over when they saw the dividends it reaped. The branch offices with computers could track the price movements of rubber more accurately and efficiently. This, in turn, led to greater profits.
To earn the trust of his staff, Lee adopted a non-forceful and persuasive management style when he first returned from the United States. He decided then to abandon the American style of management for a more conciliatory approach. With the long-serving staff, he did not impose his views but rather explained the benefits of his proposed changes and allowed the managers to decide. However with new and younger staff, he was firm with his decisions.
The Lee Foundation
Today, Lee is synonymous with the Lee Foundation which he was made chairman in 1967. Established by his father in 1952, the foundation seeks to aid "the advancement of education, medicine and cultural activities; helping the poor; and assisting victims of fire, flood and famine". The Lee Foundation is largest foundation in Singapore. In keeping with the family's private and modest ways, not all the beneficiaries of the Lee Foundation are known. Among its notable contributions include a $60 million donation towards the building of the new National Library in 2003, a $50 million donation to the Singapore Management University in 2004, and a $30 million gift to the National University of Singapore in 2005. Since its establishment, the Foundation has donated over $400 million to various causes comprising social welfare for the less privileged, the arts, medical assistance, disaster relief, community outreach, women issues and sports. Lending a personal touch to the monetary contributions, Lee also visits welfare homes during festive occasions.
The generosity of the foundation has earned them many accolades such as the Distinguished Patron of the Arts Award by the National Arts Council for several years, and the National Volunteerism and Philanthropy Award Special Recognition Award in 2004.
Lee, himself, has been the recipient of many awards. In 1992, he was awarded the Public Service Star, and in the following year, he received the Ee Peng Liang award by the National Council of Social Services for his philanthropic efforts. He was also conferred an honorary Doctor of Letters from the National University of Singapore in 2002. More recently, he earned the Credit Suisse-Ernst & Young Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007 for his success as a pioneering entrepreneur.
Lee is known to be a man of simple tastes who enjoys the company of family and friends. In 1991, he married Della Suantio, the granddaughter of Thio Siong Soe, an well-known Indonesian philanthropist and long-time business associate of his father. She now works alongside Lee in his philanthropic work and started the DS Lee Foundation in 2004.
"Among the values I treasure, hard work is clearly one of them. Even those who are born into rich families should develop this value. They must know that they, for a start, are well-off by chance. Frugality, when it comes to your personal spending habits, matters too. People who are affluent shouldn't throw their money around but use it in proper ways. Otherwise, there is no bigger meaning in having wealth."
"What I have done through the Lee Foundation over the years has been but a drop in the ocean. I hope that more Singaporeans will come forward to help the less privileged and to make our society a much better place to live in."
Maternal grandfather: Tan Kah Kee
Father: Lee Kong Chian
Mother: Tan Ai Leh
Brothers: Lee Seng Tee, Lee Seng Wee
Sisters: Lee Siok Kheng, Lee Siok Tin, Lee Siok Chee
Ernst & Young. (2009). Credit Suisse - Ernst & Young Lifetime Achievement Award pays special tribute to Singapore's pioneer entrepreneurs for their lifetime achievements. Retrieved January 8, 2009, from http://www.ey.com/global/content.nsf/Singapore/LA_Award_Overview
Major donor avoids the limelight. (2007, Aug 9). The Straits Times. Retrieved January 8, 2009, from Factiva database.
NAC invites more private sponsors for the arts. (2007, October 3). Business Times Singapore. Retrieved January 8, 2009, from Factiva database.
National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre (2004). Press release: The inaugural National Volunteerism & Philanthropy Awards. Retrieved January 8, 2009, from http://www.nvpc.org.sg/Library/Documents/PressRelease/Awards%20Results%20Release%20_21%20Nov_.PDF
Quah, I. (Interviewer). (1996, July 12). Oral history interview with Lee Seng Gee (transcript of Cassette Recording No. 001775). Retrieved January 8, 2009, from National Archives of Singapore Web site http://www.a2o.com.sg
The information in this article is valid as at 2009 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.