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The Business Empire of Asia’s Ultra-Rich: The Lee Foundation – Part 1

In my series about Asia’s Godfathers – some of the wealthiest self-made businessmen in the Asian region – I’m looking into the histories of their business empires.

This article would see me exploring the history of the Lee Foundation, one of the most philanthropic organisations in Singapore. It was founded in 1952 by Tan Sri Dato’ Dr. Lee Kong Chian, one of the richest men in Singapore at that time.

The Lee Foundation has since donated hundreds of millions to charitable causes in the Asian region. It is particularly involved in philanthropy work related to education. Most notably, the Foundation has contributed to the building of the Singapore National Library.

The history of Lee Kong Chian

The man behind this great legacy is of course, Lee. He was born in China in 1883 and followed his father to Singapore at the age of 10. In 1915, he went to work in a rubber factory owned by a very wealthy Singaporean then, Tan Kah Kee. Lee worked through the ranks and was known to be Tan’s protégé. He even ended up marrying Tan’s daughter as well. Unfortunately, good times didn’t last for Tan as his business was badly affected during a recession in the early 1930’s.

Several years later, Lee started his own rubber factory. He soon diversified and started growing his business. He was so successful that he became commonly known as the “Rubber and Pineapple King” and his business empire, which stretched throughout the region, made him one of the richest men in Asia.

During his ‘reign’ as the Rubber and Pineapple King, Lee was also involved in a merger of three banks that would form the first version of the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (SGX: O39) of today. Lee would eventually end up as the Chairman of the bank.

Currently, Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation is the second largest bank in Southeast Asia. Lee’s family and foundation remains as its largest shareholder.

Foolish Summary

The Lee Foundation can be considered as an exemplar for a Southeast-Asian family office. Personally, I see them as Southeast Asia’s Rockefellers. The Rockefellers are an incredibly wealthy family in the U.S.A. that’s well-known for their philanthropic efforts. In a similar vein to the Rockefellers, the Lee Foundation has used its immense wealth to help fund major philanthropic efforts and extend a helping hand to many parts of Asia.

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The information provided is for general information purposes only and is not intended to be personalised investment or financial advice. Motley Fool Singapore contributor Stanley Lim doesn’t own shares in any companies mentioned.