Lee Hee Seng
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Lee Hee Seng (b. 1927 - d. 4 February 2012, Singapore) is a retired banker with a long record of public service. He was part of the leadership at the former Overseas Union Bank (OUB) for 27 years and was OUB's chairman when it merged with United Overseas Bank (UOB) in 2001. Lee has also chaired the Housing & Development Board, Public Service Commission, Presidential Elections Committee, Police & Civil Defence Services Commission and Education Service Commission.
Education and early career
Lee was educated at Raffles Institution in Singapore and the Administrative Staff College in the United Kingdom. Upon graduation, he joined the Commonwealth Development Corporation, the British government's investment arm for developing countries. He was immediately seconded to Malaya Building Society Berhad (MBSB) in 1950 as their accountant, later becoming its director and general manager. Lee helped build up MBSB and when he left in 1971, it was the seventh largest company in Singapore and Malaysia in terms of total assets.
Having been on the board of the Housing Development Board (HDB) since 1966, Lee became the chairman of the HDB in 1971. Under his chairmanship, the HDB launched its Third Building Programme, which was described as its most ambitious to that date and achieved a then-record of 23,224 flats built in 1973. Under Lee's leadership, the HDB tackled problems of labour supply, workmanship and material supply. He also helped revise the government's resettlement policy, with increased compensation rates for property owners.
In 1976, Lee received the Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal). The citation for the award noted that he had provided the necessary leadership to the HDB, increased its building programme, speeded up construction and improved the design and layouts of the major housing estates.
Move to OUB
OUB founder Lien Ying Chow had first met Lee in Kuala Lumpur, when Lee was with MBSB and Lien was then Singapore's High Commissioner to Malaysia. Lien was impressed with Lee and sought his services for OUB, but it would take weekly lunches over a three year period before Lee joined the bank.
The early and mid-1970s were challenging times for Singapore's traditional banks. There was increased competition from the Development Bank of Singapore (DBS), set up by the government in the late 1960s, as well as from the revamped Post Office Savings Bank and foreign banks when the government opened up the industry.
Lien realised that OUB had to move on from its culture of a traditional Chinese family-owned bank, and to modernise and innovate. In 1974, Lee joined OUB as its chief general manager, having been on the OUB board since 1972. His appointment, and eventual succession of Lien as chairman, was a move by Lien to turn away from nepotistic hiring practices.
Among his first tasks at OUB were to prepare the bank for a public listing and to introduce computer technology into its daily workings. OUB was listed on the Stock Exchange of Singapore in 1975 and Lee became its first executive director. He also had to initiate proper personnel policies, improve work processes, efficiency and productivity, and establish appropriate lines of reporting and control at OUB. Some of the bank's staff were used to working under an informal style of management, and were unhappy at the change of corporate culture.
As Lien's right-hand man, Lee oversaw OUB's overseas forays, with the bank setting up branches in the United States, United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Japan and Brunei. When he joined OUB in 1974, the bank had a paid-up capital of S$50 million, total assets of S$1 billion and an after-tax annual profit of S$6 million. For the next decade, the bank's profit would grow at an average annual rate of 25 percent. In the 1990s, OUB was the fifth-largest bank in South-East Asia, in terms of group shareholders' funds.
In 1988, Lee became the deputy group chairman of OUB and its subsidiary companies. When the bank's founder Lien retired in 1995, Lee took over the helm as group chairman.
Takeover by UOB and retirement
In 2001, OUB rejected a hostile takeover bid from DBS and accepted instead a friendly S$10 billion takeover from the United Overseas Bank, whose bid Lee and other OUB directors backed. Lee oversaw the merger through his role on the Integration Steering Committee and the divestment of some of the combined entities' non-core assets. He then joined the UOB board and became its senior deputy chairman until his retirement in May 2003.
Role in newspaper industry
In the early 1980s, the Singapore government sought the banking industry's assistance in taking over the financially troubled Nanyang Siang Pau newspaper. The Singapore News & Publications Limited was set up and Lee became the chairman of its executive committee, also launching a new publication in the Singapore Monitor.
In 1984, Singapore News & Publications Ltd merged with the Straits Times Group to form Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), with Lee as a director and member of its executive committee. Lee, who sat on SPH's board from 1984-2003, said that he derived "immense satisfaction in having played a significant role in this historic event in the Singapore newspaper industry".
Public service and death
Having become the first chairman of the HDB from outside the government in 1971, Lee was appointed a member of the Public Service Commission which oversees appointments in the civil service and the disbursement of scholarships in 1980, and was the Commission's chairman from 1988-1998. Lee was also appointed chairman of the Presidential Elections Committee, which assesses the suitability of presidential candidates as laid out in the Singapore constitution, in 1993. He has also been chairman of the Police & Civil Defence Services Commission, the Education Service Commission and the Lee Kuan Yew Exchange Fellowship.
In 1989, Lee was awarded the Darjah Bakti Utama Cemerlang (Distinguished Service Order). He passed away on 4 February 2012.
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Tan, M. (2012, February 6). A banking giant who played many roles. The Straits Times. Retrieved February 6, 2012, from Factiva.
United Overseas Bank. (2003, February 28). Retirement of Mr Lee Hee Seng, Senior Deputy Chairman of the UOB Group [Press release]. Retrieved May 12, 2009, from http://www.uobgroup.com/assets/pdfs/about/news/2003/news_28feb03_retirement.pdf
The information in this article is valid as at 2012 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.