Entrepreneur, Educator and Philanthropist
The late Tan Sri Dato’ Lee Kong Chian was a very knowledgeable and successful businessman with a great passion for education and philanthropy. In 1952, he established the Lee Foundation with the noble mission of advancing education, science and medical research, culture and social welfare including aid to the poor and needy and other charitable work. The legacy of this extraordinary man continues into the 21st century to bless the lives of many with the opportunities of higher education and better livelihood. Tan Sri Lee’s life story is truly inspiring and mirrors his achievement attitude, strong positive values and perseverance.
The late Tan Sri Dato’ Lee Kong Chian’s benevolence and generous support for education and his contributions towards those in need remain an honourable and commendable achievement until today as indicated by the faculties named after him.
The Early Years
The late Tan Sri Dato’ Lee Kong Chian was born in Furong Village in Fujian, China. He received his early education in a private Chinese school in his hometown. His mother passed away when he was 8 years old.
Tan Sri Lee went to Singapore in 1903 at the age of 10 to join his father, Lee Kuo Chuan (Lǐ Guózhuān). In Singapore, he studied the English Language in Anglo-Chinese School and the Chinese Language in Yung Cheng School.
In 1908, upon the recommendation by The Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry Committee, at the age of 15, Tan Sri Lee was awarded a scholarship (offered by the Qing Government in China) to study in Nanjing specialising in Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry. In 1911, he studied Civil Engineering at Tangshan Engineering College in north China but returned to Singapore in 1912 due to the political turmoil in China.
Tan Sri Lee worked as a primary school teacher at Tao Nan School (formerly Yung Cheng School) upon returning to Singapore from China in 1912. He also served as a translator for Lat Pau (a Chinese Language newspaper). He was admitted to geodesy school set up by the British government in Singapore and did self-study in Civil Engineering offered by an American University through correspondence but did not complete his studies.
Over the years, his passion for education led him to continue reading the English financial magazines to know more about the international rubber trade. In addition, he studied Bahasa Melayu after Malaya’s Independence through a Malay teacher and through listening to BM FM radio even though he was already 70 years old at that time.
In 1914, Tan Sri Lee graduated from geodesy school and worked for the government. At that time, he met a Chinese community leader named Chuang Si Tsuan. Chuang helped him pay compensation to the government and invited him to work in China Guohuo Company.
In 1915, he joined the China Guohuo Company and was responsible for purchasing and for Chinese-English Language clerical work. He played an important role in purchasing new syllabus textbooks to replace the late Qing old style textbooks. This opened a new chapter for Chinese culture in Singapore and Malaysia.
In 1916, he joined Tan Kah Kee Rubber Company because Tan needed an assistant who could communicate in Chinese and English for his rubber business. In 1918, he was promoted to the rank of manager of Tan Kah Kee Rubber Company because of his outstanding performance.
Tan Sri Lee married Tan Kah Kee’s eldest daughter, Tan Ai Leh in 1920 when he was 27 years old. He worked for Tan Kah Kee Rubber Company for 12 years from 1916 to 1928. From there, he learnt about the operations of the rubber business and established a broad network of contacts that helped him play an active role in the international rubber market later on.
Nam Aik Rubber Company
Tan Sri Lee left Tan Kah Kee Rubber Company in 1928 to set up his own company, Nam Aik Rubber Company. The word ‘Nam’ referred to his family origin Nan’an and ‘Aik’ was from Khiam Aik Company (Tan Kah Kee’s rubber company). The words were chosen in remembrance of his origin and with gratitude to his mentor.
Because of his good business tactics, his Nam Aik Rubber Company withstood the world economic crisis between the late of 1920s and early 1930s.
Nam Aik Rubber Company grew rapidly together with the success of his pineapple planting and canning, shipping, timber, printing and financial industry business. He was also the largest shareholder for the Overseas Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC) and Great Eastern Life Assurance. Tan Sri Lee became the Chairman of OCBC for 27 years from 1937 to 1964.
Tan Sri Lee used the ‘east meets west’ style of management to operate Nam Aik Rubber Company. He was very familiar with both Chinese and Western ways, especially Chinese culture and Western business management. He treasured and nurtured subordinates who had real ability and interest in learning.
Contribution Towards Education
Tan Sri Lee poured his wealth into education and other philanthropic work. Many schools in Singapore and Malaysia benefited from his donations.He donated to Jimei School Village and Xiamen University founded by his father-in-law Tan Kah Kee. Tan Sri Lee founded and financed the Guozhuan Primary School in his home village of Furong and set up the Guoguang Secondary School. He also donated to Huaqiao University.
In 1953, Tan Sri Lee donated $1.04 million to Nanyang University. He also donated $250,000 to the Singapore government after World War II to build the National Library with the proviso that the fund be used to purchase Malay, Chinese and Tamil Language books, and Science books.
Tan Sri Lee was conferred an honorary degree in law by University of Malaya in 1958. In his speech, he emphasised on the importance of cultural exchange. He said that the education facilities in Singapore and Malaya were second to none in Southeast Asia and geographically, both countries were in the transportation hub between East and West with a combination of Arabic, Chinese, Indian and Western culture.
Tan Sri Lee became the first chancellor of the University of Singapore in 1962. He was also the first Chinese businessman who was appointed as university chancellor in Singapore/Malaysia. In order to be competent in the job, he went to Europe to study their university education, research and development of their universities.In his 4 years (1962-1965) as the chancellor, he incorporated the traditional culture of various ethnic groups as one of the missions of the university.
In 1952, Tan Sri Lee established the Lee Foundation with his eldest son, Lee Seng Gee, in support of charity to promote education, medicine and cultural activities, and to help the poor, disaster victims and those in need.
In 1964, Tan Sri Lee donated all his equity in Nam Aik Company (48% of the shares of Nam Aik Company) to Lee Foundation as funds and Lee Foundation became the biggest shareholder in Nam Aik Company. Every year, Lee Foundation used the profits gained from Nam Aik Company to sponsor activities in culture, education, science and medical research, social welfare and other charities.
Lee Foundation contributed to various universities, Chinese Independent schools and Chinese primary schools (SJKC) in both Singapore and Malaysia. Donations were given to Universiti Malaya, Nanyang Technological University, National University of Singapore, Ngee Ann Polytechnic, KTAR, UTAR and others. In addition, Lee Foundation spared no efforts in contributing generously in the field of medicine and donations were given to the Negeri Sembilan Chinese Maternity Hospital (NSCMH) Medical Centre and the Chinese Medical Aid Department. Lee Foundation provided academic scholarships and grants to students from low income families and helped those students to complete their studies regardless of their gender, race, religion, place of origin or geographical location, as long as the applicants have excellent academic performance and fulfill the requirements.
Tan Sri Lee garnered multiple honours for his contributions to the society. He was conferred the Honorary Doctor of Laws in 1958 by University of Malaya, Singapore, and the Honorary Doctor of Letter in 1965 by University of Singapore.
In 1964, he received the Panglima Mangku Negara which carries the honorific title ‘Tan Sri’. He received the Seri Paduka Mahkota Johor in 1957 and the Seri Jiwa Mahkota Kelantan in 1959.
Positions Held in Schools, Centres and Societies
During his lifetime, Tan Sri Lee held numerous positions in schools, centres and societies. He was the President of The Royal Commonwealth Societies, President of Great Britain-China Centre, President of The Federation of Commonwealth Chambers of Commerce, President of Britain Burma Society, and President of The Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry Committee. In addition, he was also the Chairman of Singapore Chinese School.