Philanthropist and businessman Lee Seng Gee dies

Singapore - Lee Seng Gee, the long-standing chairman of the Lee Foundation and the Lee Rubber Group, died on Tuesday after a long illness. He was 95.

Like his father Lee Kong Chian and maternal grandfather Tan Kah Kee, the very private Mr Lee was known for his many charitable and philanthropic contributions to education, the poor and the arts.

The eldest of five children, he was synonymous with the Lee Foundation, which he had headed since 1967. The foundation, Singapore's largest, was started in 1952 by his father, a prominent businessman and one of South-east Asia's richest men.

The foundation seeks to aid the advancement of education, medicine and cultural activities, help the poor and the victims of fire, flood and famine.

Lee Foundation chairman Lee Seng Gee dies

  • The chairman of the respected Lee Foundation charity, Mr Lee Seng Gee, died at his home at age 95 yesterday, with his wife Della at his side.
  • Mr Lee, who had been ill for some years, was the eldest son of philanthropist Lee Kong Chian, one of the founders of OCBC Bank.
  • He is survived by his wife, two sons, a daughter and their spouses, and six grandchildren.
  • Mr Lee's philanthropic efforts earned him the Public Service Star in 1992 and an honorary Doctor of Letters from the National University of Singapore in 2002.
  • In 2009, he received an honorary Doctor of Letters from Nanyang Technological University for his contribution to education in Singapore and his stewardship of the Lee group of companies.
  • Mr Lee took over the chairmanship of the Lee Foundation in 1965, which had been set up by his father in 1952.
  • The Lee Foundation is practically synonymous with philanthropy. Among its donations, it contributed $25 million to the building of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, which opened its doors last year.
  • In a Facebook post, President Tony Tan Keng Yam said Singapore has benefited from Dr Lee's "lifelong contributions" in the business and social sectors.

Given the family's private and modest ways, it has not made public all the beneficiaries of the foundation. But among some of the foundation's contributions include a S$60 million donation to build the new National Library in 2003, S$50 million to the Singapore Management University in 2004 and S$30 million to the National University of Singapore (NUS) in 2005.

Lee Foundation has also given away more than S$400 million to causes that have included social welfare for the poor, the arts, medical assistance, disaster relief, community outreach, women's issues and sports.

The foundation has been given many accolades, among them the Distinguished Patron of the Arts Award by the National Arts Council for several years, and the National Volunteerism and Philanthropy Special Recognition Award in 2004.

Mr Lee himself has also been bestowed many awards, including the Public Service Star, the Ee Peng Liang award, honorary Doctor of Letters from NUS and the Credit Suisse-Ernst & Young Lifetime Achievement Award.

But the man was modest about his contributions. He once said: "What I have done through the Lee Foundation over the years has been but a drop in the ocean. I hope that more Singaporeans will come forward to help the less privileged and to make our society a much better place to live in."

Little is known about his business career, except that Mr Lee, who read economics at the University of Pennsylvania and earned a Masters in Business Administration from the Wharton Business School - took over the reins of Lee Rubber in 1965.

Lee Rubber invested in rubber, oil palm and pineapple plantations in Malaysia, and was a leading exporter of refined rubber to industrialised countries.

It has continued to thrive. Mr Lee attributed its success to the company's cautious approach toward business.

He was known as a man of simple tastes and who believed in hard work. "Even those who are born into rich families should develop this value," he said. "They must know that they, for a start, are well-off by chance."

He had four children with his first wife, the late Lora Tong, who was the daughter of Tang Shao-yi, the first prime minister of the Republic of China.

Mr Lee's second wife, Della Suantio, is the granddaughter of Thio Siong Soe, a well-known philanthropist in Indonesia.

Mr Lee's demise on Tuesday came nearly a year after the death of his youngest brother Lee Seng Wee, the former chairman of OCBC Bank.


This article was first published on May 11, 2016.
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