Wee Cho Yaw
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Wee Cho Yaw (b. 1928, Quemoy, Taiwan - ) is the chairman and former chief executive officer of United Overseas Bank. In 2011, Forbes magazine listed him as Singapore’s wealthiest individual with a net worth of S$5 billion. Wee and his family control substantial stakes in companies such as UOB, United Overseas Land (UOL), United Industrial Corporation (UIC) and Haw Par Corporation. Wee is also known for his many years of service in the business and Chinese communities.
Wee was born in Quemoy (also known as Kinmen), a group of islands off Taiwan. His mother was the second wife of Sarawak-based businessman Wee Kheng Chiang and in 1937, Wee and his family fled to Kuching in Malaya to escape the Sino-Japanese war. He lived with the family of his father’s first wife for about a year before moving to Singapore, where he attended Gong Shang Primary School and Chinese High.
His education was disrupted by the Japanese invasion of Singapore and Malaya, and Wee spent most of the Japanese Occupation with his family in Karimun in Indonesia. After the Japanese Occupation, Wee returned to Singapore and attended Chung Cheng High School. There he was involved in anti-colonial politics, and was investigated by the British authorities before his father then pulled him out of school.
In 1949, Wee started work at Kheng Leong, a business owned by his family that traded commodities such as rubber, pepper and sago flour. He stayed close to his father and learned the ways of business, taking on his millionaire father’s wide range of contacts and connections. In 1958, Wee became the youngest director on the board of United Chinese Bank (UCB), which his father had founded in 1935. He then spent several months attached to a British bank in London to study its operations, before returning to work in UCB.
United Chinese Bank
In 1960, Wee Kheng Chiang stepped down as managing director of UCB (while remaining as chairman), and Wee took over the post from 1 July. The bank had previously dealt only with local businesses, but Wee moved the bank into foreign exchange and international trade financing. In 1964 UCB applied to open a branch in Hong Kong, and was renamed United Overseas Bank (UOB) from January 1965 to avoid a clash of names with an existing bank there. By this time, Wee had grown the bank’s trade financing business more than a hundred-fold from before he took control of its operations. He had also raised its authorised capital and issued capital, grown its loans business and enlarged its assets nearly nine-fold.
Growth of UOB
Under Wee’s direction, UOB expanded its branch network in Singapore and internationally, and further diversified into the finance business, property, insurance, realty, trustee and executor services, lease financing and merchant banking. The bank went public in 1970, and Wee was appointed vice-chairman a year later. In June 1971, UOB acquired 49.8% of the Chung Khiaw Bank, and Wee made the newspaper headlines for sealing the deal for a bank that at the time had a larger asset base and a larger network of branches. The S$22 million deal saw UOB beat more than six rivals to the deal and doubled UOB’s size, creating the second largest banking group in Singapore and Malaysia. Wee later named the Chung Khiaw deal as one of his most important, as it marked UOB’s take-off into the wider Asian market.
In 1972, UOB was listed on the Hong Kong exchange and acquired Lee Wah Bank. Two years later, when his father retired as chairman of UOB, Wee was his successor. By the end of the 1970s, Wee was also chairman of Haw Par Brothers International and the Chinese newspaper Sin Chew Jit Poh, and sat on the boards of the Development Bank of Singapore (DBS), Sime Darby and Straits Steamship.
The UOB group continued to grow in the 1980s, acquiring Far Eastern Bank and the Industrial and Commercial Bank. Wee took UOB into stockbroking, fund management and futures trading, and acquired property including hotels and shopping malls. The Business Times named Wee Singapore’s Businessman of the Year for 1990 and again in 2001, and the ASEAN Business Forum named him its ASEAN Businessman of the Year in 1995.
While a critic of the government’s plan to liberalise Singapore’s banking sector and allow foreign banks more market access in the 1990s, Wee restructured UOB’s operations to meet the increased competition and to continue the bank’s expansion in the region.
In June 2001, UOB acquired the Overseas Union Bank (OUB) in a S$10 billion cash-and-shares deal. Wee was credited with a surer grasp of local business culture that allowed him to edge out the government-linked DBS, which also sought to acquire OUB. A day after DBS’s unsolicited bid for OUB, Wee visited OUB founder Lien Ying Chow and was able to convince the Lien family to sell their stakes to UOB. Wee later said in an interview that he would have bid for OUB regardless of Lien’s response, as the acquisition was vital to the survival of UOB.
Challenges and succession
In the mid-2000s, Wee faced a challenge to maintain his family’s control over various companies in the UOB group amid a restructuring of the companies’ interlocking shareholdings. This situation arose after the government mandated that banks would have to reduce their shareholdings in non-core businesses to stipulated levels. As companies such as United Overseas Land (UOL), Overseas Union Enterprise (OUE), United Industrial Corporation (UIC) and Haw Par Corporation held stakes in UOB and vice versa, the loss of any one would weaken the Wee family’s control of the group and even the core business of UOB. Wee however managed to fend off a bid for UOL from government investment company Temasek Holdings as well as maintain control of UIC, after Filipino billionaire John Gokongwei’s failed takeover attempt.
In November 2006, Wee received the inaugural Credit Suisse-Ernst & Young Lifetime Achievement Award for his pioneering work in Singapore’s financial industry. A newspaper report then named him the best paid local banking executive, with a renumeration of between S$9 million and S$9.25 million in 2006.
At UOB’s 65th annual meeting in April 2007, Wee stepped down as the bank’s chief executive officer and was succeeded by his eldest son Ee Cheong. He remained as chairman of UOB, which he had grown into Singapore’s largest bank by market capitalisation with more than 500 branches and offices in 18 countries.
Public service and work with community
In 1969, Wee was appointed to the Economic Development Board and the Currency Board, and as chairman of the Singapore Science Centre board the following year. He was also elected as president of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce (later Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI)) and served for two separate terms.
In 1974, Wee received the Bintang Masyarakat Bakti (Public Service Star), and became the first president of the Singapore Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (SFCCI). The following year, he was head and spokesman of the ASEAN Chambers of Commerce and Industry. Wee also headed the Hokkien Huay Kuan (clan association) from 1972 to 2010, and was founding president of the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations (SFCCA), an umbrella group for 190 associations, from 1985 to 2010.
Wee had been appointed chairman of the Nanyang University council in 1970, and he led efforts to modernise the university by updating its curriculum and establishing English as its medium of instruction. After the government merged Nanyang with the University of Singapore in 1980, Wee was appointed to the council of the newly-formed National University of Singapore. In 2004, he became pro-chancellor of the Nanyang Technological University (NTU).
Wee was a prime mover in the formation of the Chinese Development Assistance Council (CDAC) in 1992 and became chairman of its board of trustees.
In February 2009, the Wee Foundation was set up with an initial S$30 million endowment from the Wee family. The charitable foundation focuses on education and welfare for the under-privileged, and also promotes the Chinese language and culture as well as social integration. In August 2011, Wee received the Darjah Utama Bakti Cemerlang (Distinguished Service Order) in recognition of his work with the SFCCA and as pro-chancellor of NTU.
Wife: Chuang Yong Eng
Sons: Ee Cheong, Ee Chao, Ee Lim
Daughters: Wei Ling, Wei Chi
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The information in this article is valid as at 2012 and correct as far as we can 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.