Sunday, August 12th 2001
Life section

How Lien courted Lee to helm OUB

AFTER Singapore was separated from Malaysia in 1965, the Singapore Government appointed OUB founder Lien Ying Chow as the new nation's High Commissioner to Malaysia the following year.

Mr Lien, a personal friend of then Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, and a born diplomat, served as High Commissioner for 3 years, without salary or expenses, and played a critical role as a bridge between the two governments, whose relationship at that time was less than favourable.

It was when he was High Commissioner in Kuala Lumpur that Mr Lien got to know Mr Lee Hee Seng. Mr Lee, then the director and general manager of Malaysia Building Society Berhad, the seventh-largest company in the country, was made a board member of the Housing Board in 1966. Because he was based in Kuala Lumpur, the HDB had to send him files regularly through the High Commission.

And that was how Mr Lien got to know the younger man, who would return to Singapore as HDB's chairman in 1971.

Mr Lien sized up Mr Lee and knew the latter was the man he wanted to run OUB in the new climate of Singapore, in which foreign banks and finance houses were wooed to its shores. The game had changed, and one could no longer run a small bank the way one did as a family business.

Mr Lee was not keen to join OUB. But what Mr Lien wanted, he made sure he would get - that was how he succeeded as one of Singapore's best known pioneer entrepreneurs.

So he courted Mr Lee at weekly lunches over three years, until the latter was won over.

Mr Yos Kupasrimonkol, the general manager (Establishment & Branches) of OUB at the time, and 85 years old when he recounted his story for the bank's anniversary book in 1998, said the courtship reminded him of the saying san gu mau lu (three visits to the straw hut) from the Chinese historical epic, The Three Kingdoms.

Liu Bei, ruler of the Shu kingdom (where the province Sichuan is now), knew the best strategist for his army was a man named Kong Ming, judging from the essays that the latter had written. But Kong Ming lived outside the mainstream of Shu society, in a straw hut. Liu Bei visited the hut personally three times, before he finally persuaded Kong Ming to serve as his strategist. Hence the saying, san gu mau lu.

Mr Lee's track record as HDB chairman and as someone who had held leadership ositions in both Kuala Lumpur and Singapore added to the market's confidence in the bank when he was made its general manager in 1974.

On the staff of the bank when Mr Lee joined were family members, relatives and friends of its shareholders and associates, who were used to working under an informal and paternalistic management. For the first time in the bank's 25 years, the staff formed a union.

But as Mr Lee recalls in the book: ""I had to carry out the necessary changes decisively, yet be sensitive to the needs and concerns of those who had served the bank loyally and contributed much in the past.''

When Mr Lien, at 89, passed over the chairmanship of the OUB Group to Mr Lee, he described at his farewell dinner that the latter was ""a close confidant of mine for over 20 years'' and ""a pillar of strength for me''.

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