Lee Wee Nam
Lee Wee Nam (b. 1881, Theng Hai, Guangdong, China–d. 24 January 1964, Singapore) was an eminent entrepreneur and community leader. Better known as Wee Nam Yia, a title given by the Teochews to a distinguished man of high position, Lee was the chairman and managing director of Sze Hai Tong Banking & Insurance Company Ltd (later known as Four Seas Communications Bank, and now part of OCBC Bank). He also founded Lee Hiok Kee Pte Ltd, and was the co-founder of Singapore’s first school for Chinese girls, Ngee Ann Girls’ School. Wee Nam Road in the Newton area was named after him.1
The second son in his family, Lee was born in 1881 in Theng Hai district in the Guangdong province of China. He lost his mother at a young age and was raised by his father who worked as a coffin maker. At the age of 16, Lee left his hometown to seek a better life in Singapore. He had little formal education and started out as an apprentice at the firm Kong Meng Chay, earning just $2 a month. The diligent Lee was well-liked by his employer, but was subsequently recruited by Lim Song Teng to work for him in Kuala Lumpur, Malaya. Lee then returned to Singapore to take up a key post at the firm, Siam Hong Chan. Before long, he caught the attention of Leow Chia Heng, co-founder of Sze Hai Tong Banking & Insurance Company Ltd, and was recruited as a broker in 1909.2
In 1910, Lee was appointed the manager of Sze Hai Tong’s branch in Bangkok, Thailand. When he returned to Singapore in 1911, Lee was made assistant manager of the bank. He was promoted to manager two years later and, in 1932, became its chairman and managing director. Lee also had business interests in various companies, including two remittance shops, Chye Hua Seng Wee Kee and Buan Yak Seng, and a trading firm, Chye Soon Long. In addition, he was the proprietor of two shops in Seremban, Malaya, called Hai Chua and Hai Chua Chan.3
Lee was a highly respected community leader, a great philanthropist, and a strong advocate of education. In 1929, he helped to raise funds for Henan, Hunan and Gansu provinces in China when they were hit by famine. He co-founded Ngee Ann Girls’ School in 1940 to provide education for Chinese girls. During the Sino-Japanese War, Lee chaired the Teochew Section of the China Relief Fund and participated in the sale of Liberty Bonds for China. Due to his involvement in these activities, Lee was jailed and tortured by the Japanese army during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore.4
Lee passed away on 24 January 1964, at the age of 83, after a long illness.5 The year before, he had established Lee Hiok Kee Pte Ltd – a finance and investment company – with shares held by his sons and grandsons.6
In June 2001, following the philanthropic spirit of its founder, the company donated a sum of $10 million to Nanyang Technological University for the Lee Wee Nam Endowment Fund in Life Sciences. In recognition of the donation, the university renamed one of its libraries Lee Wee Nam Library.7
1920–64: Served as vice-president of Ngee Ann Kongsi (at various times).
1927–28: Vice-president of Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce.
1929–30: President of Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce.
1930–48: President and vice-president of Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kwan.
1933: First president of Malayan Teochew Association.
1939: First president of Kwangtung Hui Kuan, Singapore.
1940: President and trustee of Tuan Mong School.
Other key appointments which Lee held included the following:
Co-founder of Ngee Ann Girls’ School.
Committee member of Chinese High School.
Committee member of Nan Hwa Girls’ School.
Chairman of China Relief Fund (Teochew Section).
Member of Chinese Advisory Board.
Member of Po Leung Kuk.9
Member of St John’s Island Visiting Committee.10
Joshua Chia Yeong Jia
1. Victor Sim, ed., Biographies of Prominent Chinese in Singapore (Singapore: Nan Kok Publication Company, 1950), p. 7 (Call no. RCLOS 920.05957 SIM); “Teochew Leader and Banker Wee Nam Dies, 83,” Straits Times, 24 January 1964, 6 (From NewspaperSG); D. S. M. Ho, “Official Launch of the Lee Wee Nam Library @ NTU,” NTU Library Bulletin 10, no. 4 (December 2011): 2. (Call no. RSING 020.5 NTULB)
2. Sim, ed., Biographies of Prominent Chinese in Singapore, 7; “Coffin Maker’s Son Made His Fortune Here,” Straits Times, 13 November 1991, 22 (From NewspaperSG); Ho, “Official Launch of the Lee Wee Nam Library,” 4.
3. Sim, ed., Biographies of Prominent Chinese in Singapore, 7; “Teochew Leader and Banker Wee Nam Dies, 83.”
4. Ho, “Official Launch of the Lee Wee Nam Library,” 2; Sim, ed., Biographies of Prominent Chinese in Singapore, 7.
5. “Teochew Leader and Banker Wee Nam Dies, 83”; Coffin Maker’s Son Made His Fortune Here.”
6. Serene Lim, “Local Tycoon’s Family Loses Part of Estate to Relatives in Thailand,” Straits Times, 25 January 1992, 3; “Another Legal Tussle over the Estate of Lee Wee Nam,” Singapore Monitor, 14 May 1983, 4; “About This Case,” Straits Times, 15 March 1996, 33. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Ho, “Official Launch of the Lee Wee Nam Library,” 1–2; “School of Biological Sciences Welcomes Lee Family,” NTU News no. 54 (October–December 2004), 14.
8. Sim, ed., Biographies of Prominent Chinese in Singapore, 7; “List of the Board of Directors in 1939,” Singapore Kwangtung Hui Kuan, accessed 4 April 2019.
9. Sim, ed., Biographies of Prominent Chinese in Singapore, 7.
10. Ho, “Official Launch of the Lee Wee Nam Library,” 2; Sim, ed., Biographies of Prominent Chinese in Singapore, 7.
The information in this article is valid as at June 2019 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.