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The Lee Foundation

The Lee Foundation’s generous commitment of US$2.5 million in two installments has made possible the creation of the Lee Kong Chian NUS-Stanford Initiative on Southeast Asia.  This is yet another instance of the Foundation’s legendary generosity to numerous causes, and especially higher education, notably in Singapore and Malaysia.  This gift strongly reflects the benevolence of the man who established the Foundation, Dr. Lee Kong Chian, of whom it was penned, “There is no other Chinese in the world comparable to him in generosity.”  The Singapore government’s 1:1 matching commitment will eventually double the underlying endowment to US$5 million, making this a well supported research initiative on Southeast Asia.

lkcIt is appropriate that the Foundation should be supporting cooperation between a Singaporean and an American university to deepen scholarship on Southeast Asia.  Lee Kong Chian was a well read and erudite man.  At one point during World War II he delivered lectures on Southeast Asia at Columbia University.  The Foundation’s gift thus directly reflects the legacy and interests of its founder.

Lee Kong Chian arrived in Singapore, then the British Straits Settlement of Singapore, as a ten-year-old lad in 1903.  He arrived with his father, one of many Fujian Chinese who had come to seek their fortunes in Nanyang or the “Southern Seas,” as the Chinese called Southeast Asia.  While helping his father in a tailoring business, the able and diligent young Lee went to school, where he excelled and won a Manchu government scholarship.  Returning to China in 1939, he continued to succeed in school and went on to study engineering until the fall of the Manchu dynasty.  This political turn of events ended the funding he had received and his hope of completing formal tertiary education. 

lkc libUndaunted and already bilingual in English, Lee returned to Singapore.  There he worked at as many as four jobs in one day while pursuing his higher education by correspondence.  Eventually he took up the rubber trade with Tan Kah Kee, a local tycoon and philanthropist who later became his father-in-law.  Lee’s remarkable intelligence helped to distinguish him at work, and he eventually set out on his own in the rubber business.  His progressive business acumen and scientifically oriented mind were rare among local entrepreneurs in that era.  These assets and sheer industriousness helped him weather the economic turbulence of the 1930s, from which he emerged as a substantial landholder.  Lee went on to diversify his business interests beyond rubber to include other agricultural products, real estate, insurance, and banking.

In the 1950s, when the Korean War drove up rubber prices, Lee’s financial fortunes appreciated.  So did his interest in philanthropy and his public standing as a benefactor.  In 1952 he placed his benevolent activities on a firmer basis by establishing the Lee Foundation.  The Foundation’s mission was, and remains, to advance education, health, welfare, and culture including aid to the poor and needy and to victims of disasters such as fire, flood, and famine.  Indicative of Lee’s commitment to higher learning was the honorary degree he received from the University of Malaya in 1958. 

lkc picDr. Lee passed away in 1967.  In his testamentary bequest, this firm believer in the value of education left half of his sizeable estate to the foundation named after him.  Thereby the legacy of this extraordinary man continues, in the 21st century, to bless the lives of many.

 

 
 

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