George Lien Ying Chow
George Lien Ying Chow (b. 2 August 1906, Guangdong, China–d. 6 August 2004, Singapore) was an entrepreneur, banker and philanthropist. He is best known as the founder of Overseas Union Bank (OUB), one of Southeast Asia’s largest banks before it was acquired by United Overseas Bank (UOB) in 2001.1 Lien’s family ranked among Forbes Singapore’s 50 richest, with a fortune estimated at S$1.18 billion in 2016.2 As a philanthropist, he was closely associated with education, and had established the Lien Foundation.3
A Teochew, Lien was born in the village of Dapu in China’s Guangdong province, where his grandfather Lien Chye was the village head. In line with traditional beliefs relating to feng shui, Lien was named Ying Chow after an island located between China and Japan.4
Lien’s father, Lien Swee Seng, ran a textile business and taught him the basics of business and calligraphy, and instilled in him moral sensibility and a strong work ethic. While attending school, Lien helped his father prepare and collect bills.5
Lien’s mother, Zhao Yin De, passed away in 1916, and with his father falling victim to a plague the following year, Lien went to live with a great-granduncle. In 1918, he moved to Hong Kong, where he worked for two years. Subsequently, with assistance from a relative and savings of HK$10, Lien bought a ticket to Singapore in 1920.6
Move to Singapore
Lien arrived in Singapore with only a singlet, a pair of short pants and a samfu outfit. With the help of a family friend, Tay Joo Chian, Lien became an assistant at a ship chandler, Kian Thye, on Robinson Road. His salary was $10 a month. Lien’s diligence impressed the boss, Tay Woo Seng, who became his mentor and made him an assistant shipping clerk at just 16. Lien then rose to become assistant manager with a monthly salary of $120. In 1926, he married Wee Siew Kim, the sister of his English teacher Wee Siang Hock.7
Lien left Kian Thye in 1927. With $5,000 in savings, he set up his own ship chandler but wound up the business after six months. In 1929, with another partner, How Wan Hong, Lien formed Wah Hin & Co., in which he held a 60 percent share. Wah Hin operated from shophouses Nos. 23 and 25 on Robinson Road, and supplied provisions to the British armed forces.8
Having made connections with large companies such as Guthrie, Boustead and John Little while at Kian Thye, Lien was able to obtain credit terms for Wah Hin. The business thrived and expanded to Malayan towns like Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Ipoh, and Wah Hin began to supply provisions to British forces across Malaya. Around 1936 or 1937, the company also purchased its own premises at Robinson Road.9
By the late 1930s, Lien had become one of the most successful businessmen in Singapore. He was elected chairman of clan association Teo Yeoh Huay Kuan, and president of the Provision and Wine and Spirit Association. In 1941, 34-year-old Lien became the youngest president of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI).10
Japanese Occupation and post-war years
As SCCCI’s president, Lien helped organise relief efforts during Japanese bombing campaigns before the 1942 invasion. Shortly before the fall of Singapore on 15 February, he escaped to Perth, Australia, on the S.S. Gorgon with some cash and two diamonds hidden in the lining of his clothes. He then joined his family in China, where he met with Chiang Kai-shek, and was appointed to the government’s Wartime Political Council representing overseas Chinese.11
Lien subsequently served on the Wartime Political Council to represent overseas Chinese in Singapore, Malaya, and Southeast Asia. He was also appointed to serve on the Committee of Foreign Policy in an ambassadorial role for China, during which he worked with prominent British officials, and helped the Chinese and British governments recruit university students for war operations in Malaya. In Chongqing, Lien gathered business leaders from Singapore, Malaya, Burma and India to form the Overseas Chinese Union Bank (OCUB), of which he was executive president. Many of the bank’s customers were Chinese fleeing the conflict in Southeast Asia.12
Upon the fall of the Japanese, Lien returned to Singapore in October 1945. As a community leader, he worked with the British Military Administration, advising on issues pertaining to the economy, food supplies and relief work. Lien advocated Singapore citizenship rights for immigrants, and was one of the first to become a Singapore citizen in 1957. Between 1946 and 1949, Lien often hosted meetings attended by political leaders seeking Malayan independence from British rule, including Malaysia’s then future first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tan Cheng Lock (a political and social leader and founding president of the Malayan Chinese Association13) and Yong Shook Lin (a popular lawyer and Yong Pung How’s father).14
Overseas Union Bank and other interests
After World War II, the OCUB’s business in China was shut down due to poor economic conditions. In 1947, Lien started OUB in Singapore with 27 employees and $2 million in paid-up capital. Despite some initial doubts about OUB’s prospects, the bank thrived and by the end of its third year had declared a 5 percent dividend to its shareholders.15
From the mid-1950s, OUB expanded overseas with branches in Hong Kong, Tokyo and London; it became the first Singapore bank to open in New York in 1973. By 1968, the bank had 32 branches in Singapore. The S$500 million OUB Centre at 1 Raffles Place was opened in 1988 – the same year Lien was named Businessman of the Year. Lien had begun buying land for the 60-storey building in 1948, which took 40 years to acquire in its entirety.16
Lien retired as chairman and director of OUB in 1995 and was named honorary life counsellor.17 As of 2001, Lien and his family owned about 15.7 percent of OUB’s shares. When the Development Bank of Singapore entered a bid of S$9.4 billion for OUB, Lien was distressed at the prospect of a hostile takeover for the bank he had founded. After talks with UOB Chairman Wee Cho Yaw, Lien backed the UOB bid, which was successful. The Lien family’s 157 million OUB shares were traded for 81.8 million UOB shares (around 5.2 percent stake in UOB) and S$632 million in cash.18
Outside of banking, Lien had invested in the Cathay Hotel and Ocean Park Hotel in Singapore as well as hotels in Fiji.19 In 1964, Lien sought to enter the hotel industry, with a dream of what later became the Mandarin Singapore Hotel.20 General manager Owyang felt that the bank should not bear the potential risks of the project, hence a separate company, Overseas Union Enterprise (OUE), was established.21 OUB and OUE held cross-shareholdings. The Mandarin Singapore Hotel was opened in 1971.22 Through OUE, Lien also held stakes in office buildings, private condominiums, and hotels in Singapore, China and Turkey. During the 1960s, he diversified into the soft drink bottling business with Union Ltd.23
Public service and community contributions
In post-war Singapore and Malaya, Lien served on the Advisory Board of Malaya and the Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Council; and was a municipal commissioner in the 1950s. He received the Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal) in 1964.24 Lien later became chairman of the Preservation of Monuments Board in 1972.25
Lien’s contacts with many leading political figures made him a logical choice for diplomatic service, and he became High Commissioner to Malaysia in 1966.26 Bilateral relations were fractured following Singapore’s separation from Malaysia, but Lien helped improve ties during his term, due largely to his friendship with then Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman. Lien then went on to form Club 200 in 1974, a club for foreign ambassadors in Singapore, diplomats, public officials and business leaders.27
Lien was closely associated with education throughout his life. He supported Chinese schools such as Chinese High School, and later played a key role in the founding of Nanyang University and Ngee Ann College (now Ngee Ann Polytechnic).28 He assisted with the merger between Nanyang University and the University of Singapore in 1980, and was chairman of the first council of the National University of Singapore (NUS) until 1992. In that year, he was appointed Pro-Chancellor and awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree by NUS.29
In 1980, Lien donated almost half of his wealth to set up the Lien Foundation to help the needy in society. He hoped that the younger generation would strive for a better future for Singapore.30
Lien died on 6 August 2004, five days after his 98th birthday. His funeral was attended by business leaders, politicians, civil servants and employees.31
Lien had four wives. The aforementioned Wee, who was his first wife, passed away after giving birth to seven children. Lien’s next two marriages to Mok Mei Lan and Kay Leong ended in divorce. In 1964, he married Margaret Chan Wen Hsien, better known as Margaret Lien, who survived him when he died. Lien had four sons, Seow Wah (Tommie), Chin Wah (Johnnie), Tiong Wah (Sonnie) and Kok Wah (Eddie); and four daughters, Geck Choo (Judy), Geck Chin (Margaret), Geck Ling and Geck Cheng (Lily). Mok was the mother of his youngest child, Geck Cheng.32
1. “OUB Founder Dies,” New Paper, 7 August 2004, 7; Joyce Koh, “Inspiring Story of Lien Ying Chow Lives On,” Business Times, 9 August 2004, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
2. “Forbes Singapore’s 50 Richest,” Forbes Media LLC, accessed 6 June 2017.
3. “About Us,” Lien Foundation, accessed 10 October 2016.
4. Lien Ying Chow and Louis Kraar, From Chinese Villager to Singapore Tycoon: My Life Story (Singapore: Times Books International, 1992), 31, 53. (Call no. RSING 338.092 LIE)
5. Lien and Kraar, Chinese Villager to Singapore Tycoon, 53, 55.
6. Lien and Kraar, Chinese Villager to Singapore Tycoon, 57–59.
7. Lien and Kraar, Chinese Villager to Singapore Tycoon, 61–62, 66.
8. Lien and Kraar, Chinese Villager to Singapore Tycoon, 67.
9. Lien and Kraar, Chinese Villager to Singapore Tycoon, 68–69.
10. Lien and Kraar, Chinese Villager to Singapore Tycoon, 70.
11. Lien and Kraar, Chinese Villager to Singapore Tycoon, 74–75.
12. Lien and Kraar, Chinese Villager to Singapore Tycoon, 77.
13. “About Tun Dato Sir Tan Cheng Lock,” ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute, accessed 13 June 2017.
14. Lien and Kraar, Chinese Villager to Singapore Tycoon, 43, 87.
15. Lien and Kraar, Chinese Villager to Singapore Tycoon, 89-90.
16. Lien and Kraar, Chinese Villager to Singapore Tycoon, 91, 121, 155.
17. United Overseas Bank Limited, & Overseas Union Bank Limited, “Towards a Smooth Integration of UOB and OUB,” press release, 28 September 2001.
18. G. Warden, “Why are the Liens Raising their UOB Stake?” Edge Singapore, 7 April 2003. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
19. Chuang Peck Ming, “The Making of a S’pore Tycoon,” Business Times, 17 February 1992, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Joyce Koh, “Inspiring Story of Lien Ying Chow Lives On,” Business Times, 9 August 2004, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Chuang, “Making of a S’pore Tycoon.”
22. Lien and Kraar, Chinese Villager to Singapore Tycoon, 99.
23. “Survey of Soft Drinks Mart,” Straits Times, 29 March 1965, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
24. Amy Balan, “Shrewdness, Foresight and a Sharp Eye for Ventures,” Business Times, 30 January 1989, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
25. “Board formed to Preserve Monuments,” Straits Times, 22 April 1972, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
26. Lien and Kraar, Chinese Villager to Singapore Tycoon, 102.
27. Zuraidah Ibrahim, “Networking for Envoys in Elite Club called 200,” Straits Times, 17 April 1993, 33. (From NewspaperSG)
28. Lien and Kraar, Chinese Villager to Singapore Tycoon, 230.
29. “NUS Honours Lien Ying Chow,” Business Times, 1 September 1992, 2; ‘Cheong Siew Keong New Chairman of NUS Council,” Straits Times, 30 August 1992, 20. (From NewspaperSG)
30. Lien Foundation, “About Us.”
31. “PM, SM Pay Tribute to OUB Founder,” Today, 9 August 2004, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
32. Lien and Kraar, Chinese Villager to Singapore Tycoon, 9.
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 subject.