Rubber King, humble philanthropist, Lee Kong Chian (born 1893 - died 1967)



Wealth fascinates, and the lives of the rich captivate. But when it comes to leaving a legacy, it is not cash, cars or bungalows that endure.

An excellent illustration of this comes from the life of Lee Kong Chian. In his lifetime, people remember that Kong Chian was a visionary businessman who survived and thrived during the Great Depression. Today, few people know first-hand how Kong Chian made his money. But many know the difference he has made in their lives through the Lee Foundation, such as students who access a world of knowledge at the National Library and generations who attended schools he funded. 

Like many of his contemporaries, Kong Chian had a humble background. Arriving in Singapore in 1903, he attended the Anglo-Tamil School in Serangoon Road, with its cheap school fees of 25 cents per month. He went on to study at Tao Nan School and Qinghua College in Beijing, having won a scholarship from the Chinese government.

On his return to Singapore, Kong Chian started work with the colonial government, and showed his prodigious capacity for hard work. From dawn to noon, Kong Chian worked at the Survey Department, before going on to his second job translating articles at a Chinese newspaper in the afternoons. At night, he taught at two schools, before returning home to continue his studies.

Kong Chian’s drive took him into business and after working with his eventual father-in-law Tan Kah Kee, he made his fortune with shrewd moves during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when other major rubber companies were failing. Lee Rubber became the region’s biggest exporter of rubber, and he expanded his businesses into other industries. He also led the merger of three banks to form the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation, and served as its chairman until his death in 1967.

His interest in social and philanthropic work started early. In 1918, Kong Chian was a member of the management committee of Chinese High School, founded by his father-in-law, Kah Kee. He shared Kah Kee’s dedication to education, and donated to Singapore Chinese Girls’ School, St Theresa’s Convent, Chinese High among other schools. He also donated $1 million to Nanyang University and the University of Malaya.

Kong Chian’s generosity was not restricted by race or religion– he was one of the first Chinese businessmen to introduce a scholarship scheme for Malay students in 1951, and donated to the Islamic College in Klang, Malaysia. He also provided 75% of the funds needed to build the Umar Pulavar Tamil School in Singapore.

One of Kong Chian’s gifts to public education was $375,000 towards the construction of the National Library at Stamford Road in 1953, on which he laid the condition that it would be a free public library. 

Kong Chian did far more than just write cheques to give money. He also gave his time, for example, as a leader and advocate of various causes. For example, in education, he was chairman of Chinese High’s management committee between 1934 and 1955. He helped introduce bilingual education in the school, and provided the funds to build science and sports facilities and a library. 

In 1953, Kong Chian’s proposals for nationwide bilingual and trilingual education were incorporated into the colonial government’s education policy. The following year, he was personally involved in negotiations between the government and students from Chinese schools who were demonstrating against proposed national service.

As the first chairman of the Singapore Council of Social Service, Kong Chian was an engaged leader. When there were disasters such as the Bukit Ho Swee fire of 1961, he would be at the scene with funds and to help relief efforts. A former member of the Council recalled: “What marked the Council from the early days was the type of leadership provided by the late Dato Lee Kong Chian. He was humble, energetic and always at the field of action.”

Indeed, Kong Chian was well known for his humility and humanity. Said Malcolm MacDonald, former Commissioner-General for the United Kingdom in Southeast Asia: "Dato Lee has remained utterly unspoilt, humble and unassuming, in spite of the extraordinary influence that he can exercise in commerce, finance and politics. His humanity is one of the marks of his true greatness."

After his death in 1967, an editorial in The Straits Times remembered Kong Chian “not just as a leading businessman or an outstanding philanthropist but as the nearest thing the republic has had to an authentic folk hero. He was known to and liked by a vast number of Singaporeans and Malaysians, which is much more important than being merely respected for wealth.

During his lifetime, Kong Chian’s philanthropy was structured in the form of the Lee Foundation, which he founded in 1952 and tended to full-time for the last 14 years of his life. Kong Chian started the Foundation with $3.5 million, and later endowed around half of his shares in his companies to the Foundation. In 2011, the Foundation had total assets of almost $1.6 billion.

As the Lee Foundation has been around since 1952, it is often the first place those who need funds go to. The foundation receives over 100 requests and appeal letters daily.

Having started as one of the first private charitable foundations in Singapore, the Lee Foundation has become a leader in philanthropy, with hundreds of millions of dollars funding a wide array of causes and institutions, such as the $60 million donation for the new National Library at Victoria Street and a $50 million donation to Singapore Management University.

The Lee Foundation was the unanimous choice for the Special Recognition Award at the Inaugural National Volunteerism and Philanthropy Awards in 2004, and received the Presidential Medallion for Social Philanthropy 2011.

A fitting legacy indeed for a Singapore folk hero.

By Alvin Chua