Lee Chin Koon

Singapore Infopedia



Lee Chin Koon (b. 1903 Semarang, Indonesia–d. 12 October 1997 Singapore) was a storekeeper and depot manager for the Shell Oil Company, and father of Singapore's first prime ministerLee Kuan Yew.1

Early life and education
Lee was born in the Indonesian town of Semarang to Lee Hoon Leong and Ko Liem Nio. When Lee was a baby, his parents took him to Singapore, where his father, Hoon Leong, hailed from.2 He was educated at St Joseph’s Institution and left school with a Junior Cambridge Certificate.3

Lee’s father worked as a dispenser after leaving school, and later became a purser with the Heap Eng Moh shipping line owned by tycoon Oei Tiong Ham.4 Before long, having gained Oei’s trust and confidence, Lee was accorded power of attorney over the tycoon's assets in Singapore.5

Lee recalled his childhood in a wealthy family, and a time when he was allowed a “limitless account” at Robinsons and John Little, two high-end department stores in Raffles Place.6 However, the Great Depression in the late 1920s, and early ’30s hit the family hard, and their fortunes suffered.7

Marriage and career
Lee took a job as a storekeeper with the Shell Oil Company,  and at the age of 19 married 15-year-old Chua Jim Neo in an arranged union on 20 May 1922.Chua was the daughter of Chua Kim Teng, a Peranakan (Straits Chinese) whose family came from Malacca.9 Their eldest son, Lee Kuan Yew, was born the year after their marriage.10 They would go on to have three other sons – Suan Yew, Dennis and Freddy – and a daughter, Monica.11

Lee Kuan Yew wrote in his autobiography that his father was a disciplinarian who occasionally showed flashes of violent temper. When the younger Lee was four years old, he broke an expensive jar of brilliantine belonging to his father. In a rage, Lee dragged his son outside and held him by his ears over a well.12 Lee's forceful ways had a profound effect on his eldest son and turned him against using physical force. The younger Lee chose not to physically punish his three children when they were disobedient, preferring instead to use stern rebukes.13

On top of his volatile disposition, Lee’s gambling habit strained his relationship with his wife. He would gamble at the Chinese Swimming Club, and at times return home in a foul mood, demanding jewellery from his wife to pawn for more money to continue gambling. But Chua stood her ground and resisted these attempts.14

Despite showing occasional bouts of violent temper, Lee has been described as a friendly, jovial man who loved music and got along well with friends and family.15 An active member of the Chinese Swimming Club, Lee swam regularly well into his 80s. He had joined the club at the age of 17 and served as its first honorary secretary.16

At the onset of World War II, Lee was working as a superintendent at the Shell depot at Batu Pahat in Johor, Malaya. As the Japanese invaded the Malay Peninsula, he was evacuated and returned to Singapore in his Baby Austin car before the Causeway was destroyed.17

Lee Kuan Yew wrote that the difficulties of the Japanese Occupation sobered his father, who then took a job with the military department dealing with oil supplies, and found his eldest son his first job, as a clerk.18 Lee later worked as a salesman at B. P. De Silva Jewellers, selling jewellery and watches.19

Influence on Lee Kuan Yew
It was Lee's lifelong lament that he did not further his education and learn a profession.20 At the urging of both Lee and his wife as well as family friends, his eldest son was persuaded of the benefits of getting a university education, and set his mind on pursuing a career in the legal profession.21 Lee's regret about the consequences of his “misspent youth” instilled a deep reverence for education in Lee Kuan Yew.22 As a father, the younger Lee regarded the education of his three children to be an important responsibility and was satisfied when they received scholarships to further their education.23

After Lee Kuan Yew became Singapore's first prime minister in 1959, the elder Lee declined press interviews, telling a relative that he disliked publicity. He was described by a Filipino reporter in 1971 as “a master at politely withdrawing from journalists, as if from the plague”.24

Lee passed away on 12 October 1997. His wife had died in 1980.25 The donations of more than S$300,000 collected were channelled to five charities.26

Father: Lee Hoon Leong27
Mother: Ko Liem Nio28
Wife: Chua Jim Neo29
Sons: Lee Kuan Yew, Lee Suan Yew, Dennis Lee Kim Yew, Freddy Lee Thiam Yew30
Daughter: Monica Lee Kim Mon31

Alvin Chua

1. “SM Lee's Father Dies at 94,” Straits Times, 13 October 1997, 2 (From NewspaperSG); Justin Corfield and Robin Corfield, “Lee Chin Koon (1903–1997),” in Encyclopedia of Singapore (Singapore: Talisman Publishing, 2006), 126. (Call no. RSING 959.57003 COR-[HIS])
2. Corfield and Corfield, “Lee Chin Koon,” 126.
3. Corfield and Corfield, “Lee Chin Koon” 126; Han Fook Kwang, Warren Fernandez and Sumiko Tan, Lee Kuan Yew: The Man and His Ideas (Singapore: Times Editions, 1997), 236. (Call no. RSING 959.57092 HAN-[HIS])
4. Corfield and Corfield, “Lee Chin Koon” 126; Han, Fernandez and Tan, Lee Kuan Yew, 23; Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore: Times Editions, 1998), 27. (Call no. RSING 959.57 LEE-[HIS])
5. Han, Fernandez and Tan, Lee Kuan Yew, 23; Lee, Singapore Story, 27.
6. Lee, Singapore Story, 25.
7. Han, Fernandez and Tan, Lee Kuan Yew, 23; Lee, Singapore Story, 26–27.
8. Corfield and Corfield, “Lee Chin Koon,” 126; Lianhe Zaobao, Lee Kuan Yew: A Pictorial Biography (Singapore: Singapore Press Holdings and Federal Publications, 1994), 13 (Call no. RSING 959.5705 LEE-[HIS]); Han, Fernandez and Tan, Lee Kuan Yew, 23; Lee, Singapore Story, 25; Nancy Byramji, “Proud and Happy Day for the Lees,” Straits Times, 21 May 1978, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
9. Linda Chee, “Lee Kuan Yew, Singaporean (1923–2015),” The Peranakan no. 1 (2015): 8–15, http://peranakan.org.sg/magazine/2015/Issue%201/Issue_1_1.pdf.
10. Han, Fernandez and Tan, Lee Kuan Yew, 23.
11. Lianhe Zaobao, Pictorial Biography, 13.
12. Lee, Singapore Story, 25, 27.
13. Lee Kuan Yew, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story, 1965–2000: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore: Times Editions, 2000), 748. (Call no. RSING 959.57092 LEE-[HIS]) 
14. Lee, Singapore Story, 34.
15. Joanne Lee, “Suharto Emissary Pays His Respects,” Straits Times, 15 October 1997, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Singapore Chinese Swimming Club, Singapore Chinese Swimming Club: 88 Years and Beyond (Singapore: Singapore Chinese Swimming Club, 1998), 34, 54. (Call no. RSING 797.21095957)
17. Lee, Singapore Story, 46.
18. Lee, Singapore Story, 62.
19. Singapore Chinese Swimming Club, Singapore Chinese Swimming Club, 34; Lianhe Zaobao, Pictorial Biography, 13.
20. Lee, Singapore Story, 26.
21. Lee, Singapore Story, 38.
22. Han, Fernandez and Tan, Lee Kuan Yew, 236; Lee, Singapore Story, 38.
23. Han, Fernandez and Tan, Lee Kuan Yew, 236.
24. Corfield and Corfield, “Lee Chin Koon” 126; “Manila Paper Marvels at Shy Lee Family,” Straits Times, 10 January 1971, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
25. “SM Lee's Father Dies at 94,” Straits Times, 13 October 1997, 2 (From NewspaperSG); Corfield and Corfield, “Lee Chin Koon” 126.
26. Pang Gek Choo, “$300,000 Collected in Donations Goes to Charity,” Straits Times, 30 October 1997, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
27. Corfield and Corfield, “Lee Chin Koon” 126.
28. Han, Fernandez and Tan, Lee Kuan Yew, 23.
29. “SM Lee's Father Dies at 94.”
30. Pang, “$300,000 Collected in Donations Goes to Charity”; Lianhe Zaobao, Pictorial Biography,13.
31. Lianhe Zaobao, Pictorial Biography,13.

The information in this article is valid as at September 2023 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.


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