Lee Seng Gee



Lee Seng Gee (b. 25 June 1921, Singapore–d. 10 May 2016, Singapore) was the former chairman of Lee Foundation and Lee Rubber Group. He was known for his charitable and philanthropic contributions towards education, the underprivileged and the arts,1 continuing the legacy of giving set by his father, Lee Kong Chian, and his maternal grandfather, Tan Kah Kee.2

Early life
Born the eldest of six children,3 Lee began his education at the age of four-and-a-half at a kindergarten in Tanjong Pagar.4 He then enrolled in two primary schools because his parents wanted him to have a bilingual education. He attended 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.5 As a student, Lee helped to raise funds for the China Relief Fund, a war effort headed by his grandfather, Tan Kah Kee, that supported China’s resistance against the invading Japanese forces.6


In 1939, aged 18, Lee travelled to the United States to read economics at the University of Pennsylvania, and graduated in 1943. He then obtained a Master of Business Administration degree from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in 1944.7 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.8

Career
Lee’s father, Lee Kong Chian, was well known as a rubber magnate, industrialist and banker who founded companies such as Lee Pineapple Company, Lee Sawmills Ltd., Lee Oilmills, Lee Biscuits, Lee Printing Company and Lee Produce Company, and had foreign holding companies in Indonesia, Thailand and New York.9 Although Lee would eventually head the family business empire, he entered the company as an apprentice. This experience allowed him to become acquainted with the staff and to develop an understanding of the business operations.10


In 1947, Lee was sent to Indonesia to rebuild the rubber-processing factories that had been destroyed or burnt down during the war.11 Working closely with the Dutch authorities, he had the business up and running within two years.12 The business began to turn in profits the following year, aided in part by the Korean War rubber boom.13

Lee took on more responsibilities when his father shifted his attention to the work of the Lee Foundation, which the elder Lee had established in 1952. In 1954, Lee took over the reins from his father, and was placed in charge of managing the Lee Group of companies.14

Success in business
Lee attributed the company’s success to its cautious and careful approach towards business.15 Continuing his father’s business philosophy, Lee ensured that the company’s managers do not speculate in rubber, though it was a common industry practice that brings quick profits.16


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. Although 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 their autonomy, the employees 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.17

To earn the trust of his staff, Lee adopted a non-forceful and persuasive management style when he first returned from the United States. 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. With new and younger staff, however, he was firm with his decisions.18

Lee Foundation
Lee was synonymous with the Lee Foundation, of which he was made chairman in 1967.19 Established by his father in 1952, the foundation seeks to aid the advancement of education, medicine and cultural activities, as well as helping the underprivileged and assisting victims of disasters such as fire, flood and famine.20 As of June 2016, the Lee Foundation is said to have donated close to S$1 billion towards social welfare for the less privileged, the arts, medical assistance, disaster relief, community outreach, women’s issues, and sports.21 In keeping with the family’s private and modest ways, not all the beneficiaries of the Lee Foundation are made known.22 Among its notable contributions include a S$60-million donation towards the building of the new National Library in 2003,23 a S$50-million donation to the Singapore Management University in 2004,24 S$25 million for the construction of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum in 200925 and S$150 million to Nanyang Technological University’s new medical school in 2011.26 Lending a personal touch to the monetary contributions, Lee also visited welfare homes during festive occasions.27


The generosity of the Lee Foundation has been recognised with awards such as the inaugural Ee Peng Liang Award in 1992 – the National Council of Social Service’s highest award for voluntarism – Distinguished Patron of the Arts Award by the National Arts Council for several years, and the National Volunteerism and Philanthropy Awards’ Special Recognition Award in 2004.28

Awards
Lee himself was also lauded with awards in his lifetime. In 2007, he earned the Credit Suisse-Ernst & Young Lifetime Achievement Award for his success as a pioneering entrepreneur.29 In addition, he was conferred an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University in 2002 and 2009 respectively.30


Personal life
Lee was known to be a man of simple tastes who enjoyed the company of family and friends.31 He married his first wife, Lora Tong, in 1944 while studying in America, with whom he had four children.32 She was the daughter of the first prime minister of the Republic of China, Tang Shao-yi. Tong passed away in 30 May 1978 after a short illness.33 In 1991, he married Della Suantio, the granddaughter of Thio Siong Soe, a well-known Indonesian philanthropist and long-time business associate of his father.34 She worked alongside Lee in his philanthropic work and started the DS Lee Foundation in 2004.35


Death
Lee passed away on 10 May 2016 at the age of 95. He was survived by his wife, two sons, a daughter and six grandchildren.36




Author

Shivaranjani Subramaniam



References
1. $60m donation for National Library HQ. (2003, September 16). The Straits Times, p. 1; Lee Foundation supports arts and old folk, too, now. (1996, August 15). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Yen, F. (2011, January 12). Philanthropist renews marriage vows. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Lee Kong Chian dies at 75. (1967, June 3). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Persekutuan Seruan Islam Singapura. (2005). Bakti terpahat = Noble deeds inscribed. Singapore: Jamiyah Singapura, p. 51. (Call no.: RSING q361.7632092 BAK)
5. Quah, I. (Interviewer). (1996, July 12). Oral history interview with Lee Seng Gee [Transcript of cassette recording no. 001775/09/01, p. 2]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
6. Quah, I. (Interviewer). (1996, July 12). Oral history interview with Lee Seng Gee [Transcript of cassette recording no. 001775/09/02, p. 17]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/; Leo, S. (Ed.). (2010). Tan Kah Kee and Lee Kong Chian in the making of modern Singapore and Malaysia. Singapore: Chinese Heritage Centre: Tan Kah Kee Foundation; National Library Board, pp. 9–10. (Call no.: RSING 959.5703092 TAN)
7. Persekutuan Seruan Islam Singapura. (2005). Bakti terpahat = Noble deeds inscribed. Singapore: Jamiyah Singapura, p. 51. (Call no.: RSING q361.7632092 BAK)
8. Quah, I. (Interviewer). (1996, July 12). Oral history interview with Lee Seng Gee [Transcript of cassette recording no. 001775/09/03, pp. 24–25]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
9. Ng, B. K. (2012). Lee Kong Chian. In L. Suryadinata (Ed.). Southeast Asian personalities of Chinese descent: a biographical dictionary. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, pp. 519–520. (Call no.: RSING 959.004951 SOU)
10. Quah, I. (Interviewer). (1996, October 22). Oral history interview with Lee Seng Gee [Transcript of cassette recording no. 001775/09/04, p. 31]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
11. Quah, I. (Interviewer). (1996, October 22). Oral history interview with Lee Seng Gee [Transcript of cassette recording no. 001775/09/04, p. 33]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/

12. Persekutuan Seruan Islam Singapura. (2005). Bakti terpahat = Noble deeds inscribed. Singapore: Jamiyah Singapura, p. 51. (Call no.: RSING Malay q361.7632092 BAK)
13. Quah, I. (Interviewer). (1996, October 22). Oral history interview with Lee Seng Gee [Transcript of cassette recording no. 001775/09/04, p. 34]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
14. Quah, I. (Interviewer). (1996, October 22). Oral history interview with Lee Seng Gee [Transcript of cassette recording no. 001775/09/04, p. 36]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/

15. Quah, I. (Interviewer). (1997, March 14). Oral history interview with Lee Seng Gee [Transcript of casette recording no. 001775/09/07, p. 61]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/

16. Quah, I. (Interviewer). (1996, October 22). Oral history interview with Lee Seng Gee [Transcript of cassette recording no. 001775/09/06, pp. 48–50]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/

17. Quah, I. (Interviewer). (1996, October 22). Oral history interview with Lee Seng Gee [Transcript of casette recording no. 001775/09/05, pp. 41, 43]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/

18. Quah, I. (Interviewer). (1996, October 22). Oral history interview with Lee Seng Gee [Transcript of casette recording no. 001775/09/05, p. 43]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/

19. Quah, I. (Interviewer). (1997, March 14). Oral history interview with Lee Seng Gee [Transcript of cassette recording no. 001775/09/09, p. 70]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/

20. Lee Foundation supports arts and old folk, too, now. (1996, August 15). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Tan, T. (2016, June 26). Long-time givers: Who’s who. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/; Quah, I. (Interviewer). (1997, March 14). Oral history interview with Lee Seng Gee [Transcript of cassette recording no. 001775/09/09, pp. 69-70]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
22. Major donor avoids the limelight. (2007, August 9). The Straits Times, p. 41. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. $60m donation for National Library HQ. (2003, September 16). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Mulchand, A. (2004, May 5). SMU receives record $200m donation. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. Vaughan, V. (2010, July 23). $46m raised for natural history museum. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26 Chang, A-L. (2011, March 5). Creating Dr Right. The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. President’s Office. (2016, May 12). President Tony Tan’s eulogy for Dr Lee Seng Gee. Retrieved 2016, July 20 from The Istana website: http://www.istana.gov.sg/news/speeches/2016/president-tony-tans-eulogy-dr-lee-seng-gee
28. Lee Foundation wins the first Ee Peng Liang award. (1993, February 16). The Straits Times, p. 19; They were big on heart and action. (2004, November 24). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
29. Stealing the limelight. (2007, December 11). The Business Times, p. 16. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
30. Registrar’s Office. (2016). Honorary degree recipients. Retrieved 2016, July 20 from National University of Singapore website: http://www.nus.edu.sg/registrar/administrative-policies/university-statutes-and-regulations/honorary-degrees-recipients.html; Leow, S. W. (2009, 24 July).  NTU honours US don, S’pore philanthropist. The Straits Times, p. C2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG. 
31. Geh, M. (2005). Uncle Seng Gee. In Leeward = Chengyi. Singapore: Jamiyah Singapore, p. [22]. (Call no.: RSING q361.7632092 LEE); Persekutuan Seruan Islam Singapura. (2005). Bakti terpahat = Noble deeds inscribed. Singapore: Jamiyah Singapura, pp. 48–49. (Call no.: Malay RSING q361.7632092 BAK)
32. Quah, I. (Interviewer). (1996, July 12). Oral history interview with Lee Seng Gee [Transcript of cassette recording no. 001775/09/03, p. 25]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/; Rubber boss Lee's wife dies. (1978, May 31). New Nation, p. 2; 无标题. (1978, June 1). 《南洋商报》 [Nanyang Siang Pau], p. 20. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
33. Rubber boss Lee’s wife dies. (1978, May 31). New Nation, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG
34. Untitled. (1991, July 6). The Straits Times, p. 25. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Mohamad S. Hidayat. (2005). Golden assets. In Leeward = Chengyi. Singapore: Jamiyah Singapore, p. [20]. (Call no.: RSING q361.7632092 LEE)
35. Lee Foundation and D.S. Lee Foundation. (2008, July 27). The Straits Times, p. 63. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
36. Kok, X. H. (2016, May 13). President attends Lee Seng Gee’s funeral. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/



The information in this article is valid as at 2016 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
Businessmen--Singapore
Lee, Seng Gee, 1921-
Personalities
Philanthropists--Singapore
Award winners--Singapore
People and communities>>Social groups and communities
Personalities>>Biographies