Wee Kim Wee

Singapore Infopedia

by Teng, Sharon


Wee Kim Wee (Dr) (b. 4 November 1915, Singapore–d. 2 May 2005, Singapore)1 was the fourth president of Singapore, serving eight years in office from August 1985 to August 1993.The Straits-born Chinese had established himself as a diplomat and a journalist before his presidency and is often remembered as a “people’s president”.3

Early life
Wee had a humble beginning as his family was relatively poor.4 He lost his parents at a young age – his father when he was only eight5 and his mother when he was 19.6 Wee lived with his family in a rented house on Holland Road and they subsisted on rearing poultry and the fruit trees that were grown in the home’s compound. Wee attended Pearl’s Hill SchoolOutram School and Raffles Institution, but halted his education in 1929 at the age of 15 to supplement his family income through work.7

Wee’s uncle, Tan Kok Tiong, recommended Wee for a position at The Straits Times newspaper. Thus began Wee’s career with the daily broadsheet in 1930.8 He first worked there as a clerk in the circulation department and was later transferred to the advertising department. His break into journalism came when he was called upon to report on sports outside office hours. In 1941, he resigned from The Straits Times and joined the United Press Association (UPA), an American news agency. When the Japanese invaded Malaya (1941–42), Wee served in the Air Raid Precautions unit.During the Japanese Occupation (1942–1945), he sold miscellaneous goods in front of the Singapore Harbour Board quarters in Kampong Bahru.10

After the war ended, Wee rose through the ranks in UPA. He became the chief correspondent and office manager for Singapore, Malaya, Borneo and Brunei in the 1950s. He rejoined The Straits Times in 1959 as its deputy editor and was promoted to the position of editorial manager in 1970.11 In 1966, he was credited with bringing the first word that Indonesia was keen on ending Confrontation with Singapore when his interviews with Indonesia’s new leaders Suharto and Adam Malik, the first by a local journalist, were published.12 In 1973, he retired from The Straits Times.13

In 1973, then Minister for Foreign Affairs S. Rajaratnam asked Wee to serve as a diplomat. Wee subsequently served as the high commissioner to Kuala Lumpur from 1973 to 1980, and ambassador to Japan and the Republic of Korea between 1980 and 1984.14

Wee was sworn in as the fourth president of Singapore on 30 August 1985.15 In 1989, he had a major operation for cancer but recovered sufficiently to resume his appointment as Singapore’s president.16 He also briefly enjoyed the new powers of an elected president that came into effect on 30 November 1991,17 before he retired at the age of 78 in August 1993 after two successful four-year terms.18

Other accomplishments
An all-rounded sportsman, Wee excelled particularly in badminton. He founded the Useful Badminton Party in 1934 and was also the president of the Singapore Badminton Association and of the Badminton Association of Malaya.19 In 1937, he was the junior singles badminton champion.20

During his illustrious career, Wee served on six statutory boards: Rent Control Board, Films Appeal Committee, Land Acquisition Board, Board of Visiting Justices, National Theatre Trust and Singapore Broadcasting Corporation.21 He was also on the boards of several charitable organisations including the Singapore Anti-Tuberculosis Association.22

Wee was Singapore’s chief scout during his presidential years from 1985 to 1993.23 He was also the fifth Singaporean to be made an honorary member of the Singapore Recreation Club in 1994.24 The Wee Kim Wee Professorship in Communication Studies at the Nanyang Technological University was established on 4 November 1995 on his 80th birthday.25

On 2 May 2005, Wee passed away at home at the age of 89 from complications due to prostate cancer.26

1930–1941: Clerk in The Straits Times circulation department; later promoted to reporter
1941: Office manager, UPA
1945: Sub-editor, UPA
1947–1959: Chief correspondent and office manager, United Press International
1958: President of Singapore Badminton Association (1958-1962)28
1959: Deputy editor, The Straits Times29
1966: Appointed as a justice of the peace
1970–1973: Editorial manager, The Straits Times
1973: President, Singapore Press Club30
1973–1980: High Commissioner, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia31
1980–1984: Ambassador to Japan and Republic of Korea
1984–1985: Chairman, Singapore Broadcasting Corporation32
1985–1993: Chancellor, National University of Singapore33
1985–1993: President of Singapore
1993: Appointed as deputy registrar of marriages34
1999: Director, Cathay Organisation Holdings

1963: Public Service Star36
1973: Public Service Star
1979: Meritorious Service Medal37
1989: Honorary Knight Grand Cross, Order of Bath
1990: Laila Utama (Most Esteemed Family Order), Brunei38
1993: Order of Temasek (First Class)
1994: Honorary Doctor of Letters degree, National University of Singapore39
1996: Special award for distinguished service to journalism, Singapore Press Club40
1998: Distinguished Service Award, Asia-Pacific Region Scout Committee41

Father: Wee Choong Lay, a cargo clerk who became blind at the age of 4542
Mother: Chua Hay Luan alias Tak Poh
Wife: Koh Sok Hiong (m. 1936)43
Children: One son and six daughters44


Sharon Teng and Jenny Tien

1. “Wee Kim Wee,” President’s Office, accessed 24 March 2016. 

2. Singapore Chronicles: A Special Commemorative History of Singapore (Hong Kong: Illustrated Magazine, 1995), 52–54. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SIN-[HIS])
3. Chua Mui Hoong, “Nation Mourns Death of People’s President,” Straits Times, 3 May 2005, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
4. “A Man Without Pretensions,” Straits Times, 31 August 1985, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
5. Joyce Koh, “Former President Wee Kim Wee Dies 89,” Business Times, 3 May 2005, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
6. Tuminah Sapawi, “Ex-President on 2 Mums Who Shaped His Life,” Straits Times, 2 September 1996, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
7. “A Man Without Pretensions.”
8. “A Man Without Pretensions.”
9. President’s Office, “Wee Kim Wee.”  
10. “A Man Without Pretensions.”
11. Paul Jacob, “A Father Figure for the S’pore Family,” Straits Times, 3 May 2005, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Peh Shing Huei, “Journalist Who Got World Scoop,” Straits Times, 3 May 2005, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
13. “A Man Without Pretensions.”
14. President’s Office, “Wee Kim Wee.” 
15. Who’s Who in Singapore (Singapore: Who’s Who Publishing, 2000), 280. (Call no. RSING 920.05957 WHO)
16. “‘Never Shun the Common People’,” Straits Times, 22 August 1993, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Anna Teo and Chuang Peck Ming, “House Pays Tribute to Outgoing President,” Straits Times, 1 September 1993, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Lee Hsien Loong, “He Was a True S’porean, Says PM,” Straits Times, 3 May 2005, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
19. J. Rajendran, “Badminton Champ in His Youth,” Straits Times, 28 August 1985, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Singapore Chronicles, 52–54.
21. President’s Office, “Wee Kim Wee.” 
22. Portrait of Mr. Wee Kim Wee, 1940, photograph; Our First 25 Years Against TB: A Special Publication To Mark the Silver Jubilee of the Singapore Anti-Tuberculosis Association (Singapore: Singapore Anti-Tuberculosis Association (SATA), 1972), 19. (From BookSG)
23. Portrait of Mr. Wee Kim Wee, High commissioner of Singapore to Malaysia, 1980, photography; Youth Educational Tour to West Malaysia & North Sumatra (Singapore: People's Association, 1980), 6. (From BookSG)
24. “Former President Wee Made Honorary Member of SRC,” Straits Times, 16 January 1994, 25. (From NewspaperSG)
25. Annabelle Lim, “Birthday Wishes and Professorship for Kim Wee,” Straits Times, 5 November 1995, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
26. Koh, “Former President Wee Kim Wee Dies 89.”
27. Who’s Who in Singapore, 280.
28. “Dr Wee Kim Wee,” Straits Times, 4 May 2005, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
29. Peh, “Journalist Who Got World Scoop.” 
30. “Kim Wee Is New Press Club President,” Straits Times, 2 April 1973, 9. (From NewspaperSG)
31. Lynn Lee, “Gentleman Who Was a Natural Diplomat,” Straits Times, 3 May 2005, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
32. “Wee Kim Wee To Be SBC’s New Chairman,” Straits Times, 8 February 1984, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
33. “Our Chancellors: Speeches and Biographical Sketch,” National University of Singapore, accessed 12 April 2016.
34. “Wee Kim Wee Made A Deputy Registrar Of Marriages,” Straits Times, 1 January 1994, 25. (From NewspaperSG)
35. Portrait of Mr. Wee Kim Wee, 1940, photograph; 150 Years of Newspapers: The Straits Times July 15, 1995 (Singapore: Singapore Press Holdings, 1995), 153. (From BookSG) 
36. “S’pore National Day Honours for 424 Residents,” Straits Times, 3 June 1963, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
37. Lee Kuan Yew, “Moving the Motion on the Election of Mr Wee Kim Wee As President of the Republic of Singapore,” speech, 30 August 1985, transcript, Singapore. Ministry of Communications and Information (1985-1990). (From National Archives of Singapore document no. lky19850830)
38. Who’s Who in Singapore, 280.
39. National University of Singapore, “Our Chancellors.”
40. “Former President Wee Receives Prestigious Journalism Award,” Straits Times, 28 January 1996, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
41. “Wee Kim Wee Conferred Scout Award,” Straits Times, 20 June 1998, 49. (From NewspaperSG)
42. “‘Never Shun the Common People’.” 
43. Lee, “Moving the Motion on the Election of Mr Wee Kim Wee As President of the Republic of Singapore.”
44. Who’s Who in Singapore, 280.

The information in this article is valid as at 2016 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.




Rights Statement

The information on this page and any images that appear here may be used for private research and study purposes only. They may not be copied, altered or amended in any way without first gaining the permission of the copyright holder.

More to Explore

Goh Eng Wah


Goh Eng Wah (b. 1923, Muar, Johor, Malaysia–d. 5 September 2015, Singapore) was one of the pioneers of Singapore's film industry. He founded Eng Wah Organisation (now known as Eng Wah Global) in 1946, a major film distributor and cinema operator in Singapore specialising in the screening of Chinese movies...

S. Rajaratnam


Sinnathamby Rajaratnam (b. 25 February 1915, Jaffna, Sri Lanka–d. 22 February 2006, Singapore), better known as S. Rajaratnam, was a former journalist, co-founder of the People's Action Party (PAP), first minister for foreign affairs in post-independence Singapore, a member of parliament for the Kampong Glam constituency and former minister for...

Goh Chok Tong


Goh Chok Tong (b. 20 May 1941, Singapore–) was Singapore’s second prime minister (PM), serving in the office from 28 November 1990 to 11 August 2004. Goh first entered politics as a People’s Action Party (PAP) candidate in the 1976 general election. He was elected as Member of Parliament (MP)...

Sim Kee Boon


Sim Kee Boon (b. 5 September 1929, Singapore–d. 9 November 2007, Singapore) had an illustrious career in the civil service and the corporate world. Among his many achievements and contributions, he is best remembered for his role in building up the Singapore Changi Airport to become one of the best...

Tan Keong Choon


Tan Keong Choon (b. 29 October 1918, Amoy, Fukien, China–d. 27 October 2015, Singapore ), nephew of the late Tan Kah Kee, was a prominent Chinese businessman who made his wealth from rubber trading between the 1950s and 70s. Among his many contributions to the local rubber industry, he was...

China-Singapore Suzhou Industrial Park


The China-Singapore Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP) project was launched in 1994 to develop a model industrial township within the city of Suzhou in China’s Jiangsu province. The first flagship joint project between the two governments, a key feature of the SIP involves the transfer of Singapore’s “software” – industrial development...

Lee Kuan Yew


Lee Kuan Yew (b. 16 September 1923, Singapore–d. 23 March 2015, Singapore) was the first prime minister of Singapore and held this post from 1959 to 1990. He oversaw its transformation from a developing ex-colony into one of Asia’s most stable and prosperous countries and was an influential figure domestically...

Singapore Anti-Tuberculosis Association


The Singapore Anti-Tuberculosis Association (SATA) was a charity organisation established to detect, treat and eradicate tuberculosis in Singapore. It was officially registered on 23 August 1947. Following the decline in tuberculosis cases over the years, SATA shifted its focus to providing community healthcare. In 2009, SATA was rebranded as SATA...

Lim Pin


Lim Pin (Dr) (b. 12 January 1936, Penang, Malaysia–) is an academic and a medical doctor. He was vice-chancellor of the National University of Singapore (NUS) for 19 years from 1981–2000, the longest term for that office. Lim chaired the Bioethics Advisory Committee from 2001 to 2011, and the National...

E. W. Barker


Edmund William Barker (b. 1 December 1920, Singapore–d. 12 April 2001, Singapore), commonly known as E. W. Barker, was the minister for law from 1964 to 1988. He played a significant role in Singapore’s secession from Malaysia in 1965 by drawing up the separation documents and participating in talks with...