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'Simply unique': Wee Cho Yaw (1929–2024)

The Edge Singapore
The Edge Singapore • 9 min read
'Simply unique': Wee Cho Yaw (1929–2024)
Wee’s towering presence can be seen across Singapore through the many industries, businesses, individuals and communities that UOB has supported over the years / Photo: Albert Chua
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Wee Cho Yaw, chairman emeritus of United Overseas Bank U11 -

(UOB), passed away on Feb 3. He was 95, having spent six decades building one of the largest family business empires of this region.

For decades, Wee was synonymous with the bank his father Kheng Chiang founded in 1935 in Sarawak, which is now a leading Singapore-based international banking group with a market value of around $50 billion as of Feb 2. He grew the bank via a combination of shrewd growth and bold acquisitions, beating off DBS Group Holdings in one particular memorable consolidation chapter.

However, Wee is equally known for controlling a string of other notable Singapore-listed companies with a combined market value of another $11.5 billion: UOL Group (market $5.24 billion); Haw Par Corp ($2.11 billion); Singapore Land Group U06 -

($2.66 billion); UOB Kay Hian ($1.2 billion); and United Overseas Insurance U13 - ($367 million).

For years after he stepped down from his official posts in the bank, Wee was known to still go into the bank’s office at Raffles Place regularly. While he has stepped down from his chairman roles at Singapore Land Group and United Overseas Insurance, Wee was still chairman of UOL Group and Haw Par Corp at the time of his death.

“My father has left an indelible mark in Singapore and the region. He has been a source of inspiration for me in all aspects of my life,” says UOB deputy chairman and CEO Wee Ee Cheong, whose office was next to his father’s.

“Much will be said about his business acumen and deal-making, but it will be the values of honour, enterprise, unity and commitment that will be the legacy he leaves us at UOB.

See also: Billionaire Zong Qinghou, who bested Danone, has died, aged 79

“Whether it is through thinking for the long term, the importance of deep relationships, doing the right thing or giving a helping hand to those in need, the influence of my father and his values will endure at UOB,” adds Ee Cheong.

Wee was born in 1929 in Kinmen, an island off southern China that is today controlled by Taiwan. The family fled to Sarawak when war between Japan and China broke out. He joined Kheng Leong, the company founded by Kheng Chiang in 1949 and assumed management of what was then called United Chinese Bank in 1960.

Wee introduced new services like foreign-exchange dealing and expanded it regionally. He also moved big into property, buying up choice plots, including the spot by the Singapore River where the bank’s headquarters was built — and rebuilt into today’s 280m-tall skyscraper.

See also: Singapore's top leadership calls Wee Cho Yaw 'simply unique' and a 'titan'

Riding on the region’s rapid economic growth in the 1970s and 1980s, Wee grew UOB fast and brought several other banks into its fold, establishing a reputation for being both a business builder and an adroit dealmaker. Notably, he bought Chung Khiaw Bank in 1971, which doubled UOB’s size. Subsequently, he snapped up Lee Wah Bank in 1973, Far Eastern Bank in 1984, and Industrial and Commercial Bank in 1987.

UOB organised a memorial service for Wee on Feb 7 at the bank's headquarters at Raffles Place / Photo: UOB

Beating off DBS?

Wee was seemingly contented to grow organically but his biggest deal, which was to take place more than a decade later, was in a sense thrust on him. In the wake of the Asian Financial Crisis, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) began pushing the banks to shed their non-core assets. This directive hit UOB and its rival across the road, Oversea-Chinese Banking Corp (OCBC), especially hard — given the web of stakes they held in other listed companies.

“Regulators cannot leave it entirely to the market to sort out such matters, especially where the banks involved are not peripheral players but perform key roles in deposit-taking and the payments system,” said then-Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong back in 2000, speaking in his capacity as chairman of MAS.

Around the same time, the banks were being pushed to merge, ahead of looser rules for foreign banks in their operations here, so that Singapore as a whole could become a stronger international financial centre.

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Back in 1998, Temasek Holdings-linked DBS Group Holding had already acquired POSB, gaining a huge pool of retail deposits. In 2001, OCBC acquired Keppel TatLee for a relatively digestible $5.21 billion. Within months, DBS triggered play for the bigger prize with its hostile $9.4 billion bid for fourth-largest Overseas Union Bank (OUB), to the dismay of its founder and controlling shareholder, Lien Ying Chow.

That was when Wee swooped in. He personally visited then-95-year-old Lien, and two long-time rivals shook hands on a better offer of $10 billion.

Until the $11 billion merger of CapitaLand and Ascendas-Singbridge in 2019, which was essentially an arranged marriage by common shareholder Temasek Holdings, UOB’s takeover of OUB was not just the biggest M&A transaction between two Singapore companies then — it was also remembered for the drama not usually played out openly in corporate Singapore.

In the heat of the battle, Goldman Sachs, the financial adviser to DBS, distributed documents describing UOB’s rival offer as being “designed to keep family control intact without regard for shareholder value”. This textbook argument would appeal to proponents of Western norms of corporate governance and business behaviour — but not to the traditional Chinese banks. Then DBS chairman S Dhanabalan, along with then-Goldman Sachs CEO Henry Paulson, both apologised, but Wee’s overture to Lien, who was a generation older at 23 years Wee’s senior, was clearly more palatable.

At a briefing on June 29, 2001, to announce UOB’s offer, a young analyst asked then-72-year-old Wee if it was wise to go up against a government-linked company like DBS. Wee shot back, without missing a beat: “You trying to scare me, is it?”

At a tearful shareholders’ meeting, OUB members overwhelmingly gave their go-ahead for the UOB offer and a new chapter in Singapore banking history began. However, the absence of a counter-offer by DBS led some to wonder if its bid was meant to push Wee into action.

Nonetheless, having emerged as a clear winner following decades of industry consolidation, UOB would not make another big acquisition until last year under Ee Cheong, who acquired the consumer business of Citibank in four regional markets for almost $5 billion.

From left: Wee Ee Cheong, UOB CEO; and his brothers Ee Chao chairman of UOB Kay Hian and Ee Lim CEO of Haw Par Corp / Photo: Albert Chua

Dealing with shareholders

While Wee and his family owned a controlling stake of more than 18% in the bank, he remained in tune with what other shareholders wanted and felt. At one memorable AGM held at the bank’s penthouse at UOB Plaza 1, voting for the reappointment of directors was done via a show of hands.

One of the directors up for reappointment was the late founder of Creative Technology C76 -

, Sim Wong Hoo. While a famous local entrepreneur in his own right, Sim was by then knee-deep in a bruising fight against Apple in the battle of digital music players.

When Sim’s reappointment as an independent director was put up for voting, a fund manager put up his hand to say “no”. Wee raised his eyebrows and said: “You are voting against?!?” But he accepted it. A banker and a gentleman.

Towards other shareholders, Wee had other means. In another memorable episode, Isle of Man hedge fund Laxey Partners from 2003 onwards accumulated a 12% stake in United International Securities (UIS), Wee’s then-listed investment holding arm.

As with most investment holding companies, UIS traded at a discount to its net tangible asset value. Andrew Pegge, co-founder of the fund, grumbled to The Edge Singapore a couple of times about UIS’s valuation.

Laxey Partners requisitioned EGMs at least five times, tabling resolutions on various occasions such as removing Wee and other directors or privatising UIS, but to no avail. Pegge gave up and sold off its UIS stake. About a year later, UIS was privatised by Wee at its NTA in 2014.

Community, country

In a statement, UOB calls Wee a “visionary banker, celebrated businessman and community pillar, [who] was pivotal to UOB’s development as a leading bank in Asia”.

The bank adds how in the five decades under Wee, it grew from just one branch to a regional bank in 19 countries and territories, with assets surging from $2.8 billion to more than $253 billion at the time of his retirement as chairman in 2013.

Shareholders have done well staying with him. According to Bloomberg data dating back to 1986, if one had kept and reinvested dividends paid by UOB, the total returns to date would have been more than 6,100%, or 11.54% a year.

Wee is a leading community leader too. He was the founding president of the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations from 1985 to 2010; he headed the Hokkien Huay Kuan from 1972 to 2010. Among the many accolades he received, there was the Distinguished Service Order (Singapore’s highest National Day Award), Asean Business Advisory Council Legacy Award for Singapore, and Honorary Degrees of Doctors of Letters from the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University.

UOB chairman Wong Kan Seng calls Wee one of Singapore’s most successful entrepreneurs. “Through hard work, determination, decisiveness and strong Asian values, he built UOB into one of the world’s most admired banks,” says the former deputy prime minister.

“His towering presence can be seen across Singapore through the many industries, businesses, individuals and communities that UOB has supported over the years. He has also made many important contributions to the development of Singapore as a global financial centre,” adds Wong.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at Wee's wake, accompanied by Wee's widow Madam Chuang Yong Eng / Photo: UOB

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong calls Wee a “titan” of the local banking industry. “His business acumen and visionary leadership were instrumental in growing UOB into one of the most successful banks in Singapore and the region,” says Lee, who has known Wee personally for four decades.

“I worked closely with him, and greatly valued his perspectives and advice,” adds Lee, alluding to the time when MAS was nudging the local banks to divest their non-core assets.

President Tharman Shanmugaratnam says Wee was “simply unique”, “will never be forgotten” and was a business leader with “an insatiable appetite” for work and “a shrewd eye for opportunities”. Tharman worked with Wee in his then-capacity as first the managing director of the MAS and later the central bank’s chairman.

“I enjoyed my meetings with Cho Yaw during my many years at the Monetary Authority of Singapore. He had insights that I always found useful. And a tenacious, but very warm, personality,” says Tharman.

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