President Tony Tan’s Eulogy for Dr Lee Seng Gee

Dr Della Lee

The Family of the late Dr Lee Seng Gee

Ladies and Gentlemen

My wife Mary and I convey our deepest condolences to Dr Della Lee and the family of the late Dr Lee Seng Gee on Dr Lee’s passing. 

It is definitely not an overstatement that Singapore has lost a pillar in the business and philanthropic worlds. Seng Gee led a full life, and contributed significantly to Singapore throughout his life.

Seng Gee was known to treasure hard work as a value. He always believed that everyone, including those born to rich families, should develop this value, because they are well-off only by chance. Seng Gee exemplified this himself when he started work in the Lee Rubber Group as an apprentice in its factories, even though it was his family business. He thoroughly studied the operations of the business as he worked his way up the company. Seng Gee did not see his background as a reason to be accorded privileges in the company.

Seng Gee was well-loved by his staff, not least because of his humility. Many remembered him as a very caring person who was genuinely concerned about their welfare, and did not put on any airs. When I visited Seng Gee in his company when he was already the Chairman, I found to my surprise that he did not have a private office but worked alongside his staff in an open office.

Seng Gee was a successful businessman who demonstrated tenacity and resilience when he guided his family businesses through challenging times, including the World War II. Eventually as Chairman of the Lee Rubber Group, he led the company to be one of Singapore’s leading exporters of rubber, establishing Singapore as a global trading hub for rubber and contributing significantly to Singapore’s economy in the early years of the country’s development. Later, as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the Lee Group of businesses, Seng Gee grew the group to be one of the largest conglomerates in Singapore.

Despite his success in business, Seng Gee remained a selfless and humble person, who saw it as his life mission to help others who were less fortunate.

Seng Gee was a strong supporter of various social causes, especially education, medicine, welfare for the underprivileged and the arts. After taking over Chairmanship of the Lee Foundation from his father, Seng Gee grew the tradition of philanthropy started by the late Mr Lee Kong Chian and led the Lee Foundation to become the largest private charitable foundation in Singapore, donating close to $1billion to many good causes, regardless of race, language and religion. Many of our universities have benefitted from generous contributions from the Lee Foundation which made quality university education more accessible to Singaporeans regardless of their family or financial background. Under Seng Gee’s leadership, the Lee Foundation made major contributions to the development of public amenities for the benefit of Singaporeans from all walks of life, including the National Library and the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum.

Seng Gee was also a long-time supporter of national philanthropic movements including the President’s Challenge and the Community Chest. Over the years, the Lee Foundation has donated $16 million to the President’s Challenge, the largest among all donors.

Seng Gee’s desire to help others extended beyond his monetary contributions. His genuine concern for the less fortunate was particularly evident and touching in how he often made private visits to welfare homes, especially during festive occasions. Even when he was frail, Seng Gee continued to attend official functions supported by his loving wife Della so that he could further the good causes that he believed in.

Seng Gee once said that what he has “done through the Lee Foundation over the years has been but a drop in the ocean (and that he hopes) that more Singaporeans will come forward to help the less privileged and to make our society a much better place to live in.”  It is therefore no surprise that Seng Gee made it a point to emphasise the value of giving in our youths. A strong believer in shaping our next generation to grow up with the right character, Seng Gee ensured that the many scholarships and bursaries given out by the Lee Foundation every year not only encourage student to strive for excellence, but also emphasise the importance of community service. On top of impacting the lives of many young people, these gifts have enabled us to build a caring and compassionate society.

Today we bid farewell to a beloved friend. One who was gracious in friendship, humble despite his background and made time for others. When Mary and I visited Seng Gee and Della, Seng Gee despite his frailty always made an effort to personally receive us and was a most gracious host.

Singapore has benefitted from Seng Gee’s lifelong contributions in the business and social sectors. His spirit of perseverance, resilience and giving back to society will continue to be an inspiration to Singaporeans across generations. 

Della, Yuen-Shih, Han Shih and Ying – our hearts go out to you as you grieve the loss of your beloved husband and father. But I hope that you take comfort that you do not mourn alone. Seng Gee had impacted many people and organisations in his lifetime. The many contributions to the community and the tradition of giving he built are also examples for the rest of us, and left him a legacy that will be unmatched. We will miss Seng Gee, but will continue to honour his spirit of hard work, enterprise and giving.

Seng Gee, may you rest in peace.