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Malaya Before Merdeka: Mirrored in the Life of H.S. Lee

[Author’s speech at the online Book Launch: Ooi Kee Beng: As Empires Fell. The Life and Times of Lee Hau-Shik, Malaya’s First Finance Minister (ISEAS Publishing 2020): 27 August 2020]

OOI KEE BENG (Executive Director, Penang Institute; Senior Fellow, Jeffrey Cheah Institute for Southeast Asia, Sunway University, and; Visiting Senior Fellow, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute

Lee Hau-Shik was born in 1901—just a decade or two earlier than for those I mentioned above, but the world was quite a different place then. No world war was on the horizon. The Qing Dynasty was still trying to save itself after suffering defeat in the first Sino-Japanese War of 1895, losing control over Korea and Taiwan in the process, and having Beijing invaded in 1900 by a consortium of international armies. The idea of nation-states replacing colonial territories was not really thinkable yet. In fact, the United States had just fully joined the colonial world by occupying the Philippines in 1898, and it was among the eight armies that sacked Beijing in the aftermath of the Boxer Revolution. Even Japan, the first modern Asian nation-state, was already acquiring colonies of its own.

As part of its attempts to survive those tough times, the Qing Court lifted the official ban on emigration in 1893. This is highly significant to our story. “The desperate, the hopeful and the adventurous” in the decaying Qing Empire could now look beyond their shores and beyond Hong Kong to seek a future for themselves.

Hau-Shik came from an illustrious family. His father, Lee Kwai Lim, had been a viceroy in the decaying imperial service, but after the family’s silk trading company, Kam Lun Tai, expanded southward in 1898 into the vibrant British colony at the mouth of the Pearl River, the family decided to follow suit and they moved to Hong Kong in 1900. There, Hau-Shik was born, and there he grew to manhood under rather privileged conditions.

Already in 1903, the family business, Kam Lun Tai, had branched into Malaya. It quickly developed a network supplying labour from Guangzhou to Malaya, providing expectant migrants with loans, logistical support on both ends and sorely needed employment. It also functioned as a huge remittance channel for labourers in various parts of Malaya

A fervent supporter of Dr Sun Yat-sen, Kwai-Lim was elected a member of the Guangdong Provincial Government after the Xinhai Revolution of 1911, and, being already well-connected in Malaya, he was sent by the new Republican government to report on the conditions of the Chinese living on the Malay Peninsula.

Kwai-Lim went into tin mining there, in effect paving the way for the future career of his eldest son, Hau-Shik. Being a mining magnate, Kwai-Lim was asked by the Kuomintang Government to explore tin mining possibilities in Guangxi province. On a trip there, his car sadly ran off the road, and he suffered a broken spine. He was brought back to Hong Kong for treatment, but that did not help, and he passed away in July 1936. —–

Despite the international business connections, Hau-Shik’s family was a strict traditional one. His varied schooling, however, allowed for exposure to the post-Qing world that was developing around him. His leaving certificate from Queen’s College in Hong Kong states that he was top of his class in Chinese, and fourth in English. Judging from this, he appeared to be someone particular about his language skills. At the age of 15, he left to study at St John’s College in Cambridge.

He graduated in Law and Economics, and was one of the first Chinese to be accepted into the Royal Economics Society.

On his return to Hong Kong in 1924, he had with him not only his degree, but also an English wife and a son, Douglas. His wife, Dawn, was a woman with modern tastes, including cigarettes and sports cars. They soon had a second son, Vivian Leslie.

Hau-Shik, whose uncle was now the Governor of Guangdong Province, got him a job as Commissioner of Customs on Hainan Island. Disliking the working conditions and the corrupt system there, he decided to move back to Hong Kong, to work at the Peninsular & Oriental Bank. There, he seemed to be in his element, and soon progressed to become personal assistant to the head of the Foreign Exchange Department. He would return to the banking trade in the 1960s, after leaving Malayan politics, to found the Development & Commercial Bank in Malaysia in 1965.

His marriage was however not working out, and the couple soon broke up, supposedly under pressure from Hau-Shik’s conservative mother. They separated in 1926, and Dawn left for England, taking Vivian with her.

The two brothers, Douglas and Vivian, would not meet again until 1998, in London.


The heart-broken Hau-Shik needed to get away from Hong Kong as well, he went off to Malaya for a much-needed vacation.

His father also asked that he help manage his tin mining business—in Ipoh, Seremban and Kepong. And so, from that point on, his life intertwined with late-colonial events in Malaya.

He married again, and his second wife, Kwan Choi Lin, bore him seven children. Given his family’s illustrious and well-connected background, and his exposure to traditional Chinese society and British high society, Hau-Shik quickly became a major presence in Selangor affairs, becoming vice-president of the Selangor Chinese Chamber of Commerce in 1934, and then its president in 1939.

When war between Japan and China broke out following the Luguoqiao Incident in July 1937, the flow of migrants out of China slowed, and spelled the end of Kam Lun Tai’s remittances business. At the same time, the company’s sulphur mines in China were nationalized for the war effort.

Taking over from his father after the latter’s demise, Hau-Shik bought himself more mines. Douglas, his eldest son, oversaw these for him, while the next two sons, George and Robert, were sent off to Camborne School to study to be mine engineers. The two youngers, Thomas and Alex, were marked to become lawyers.

Hau-Shik was heavily involved in raising funds for the war effort in China, and he was the founding chairman of the Selangor China Relief Fund. Disunity among the Chinese in Malaya and Singapore over how to help the motherland became irrelevant when the Japanese began their invasion of Southeast Asia in December 1941. Hau-Shik was made Chief Air Warden in Kuala Lumpur, which carried the title of “Colonel”.

The Japanese had a huge price on his head, and as they advanced, Hau-Shik left with his family for Singapore where plans for a boat to get them and several other families to Rangoon were being made by the Chinese Consul General there.

The family did get out of Singapore before it fell on 15 February 1942, but they never got to Rangoon. News came to the ship when they were out in the Indian Ocean that Burma had fallen to the Japanese.

And so the ship turned towards Calcutta. The Lee family was to be among the many Malayan refugees who had to sit out the war in India.  —–

With that narrative told, you can perhaps see why I decided to construct the biography the way I did. I felt that it would diminish the historical tapestry too much if I merely wrote a straight-forward biography about HS Lee the man and nothing more.

I wanted to open the historical window as wide as I could, and so, the book is written in three parts, each with two chapters. While one chapter discusses the larger historical context, the following one places Hau-Shik into that time and place. So, we have the 1901-42 period as Part One, in which the socio-economic conditions in colonial Malaya are first described, followed by Hau-Shik’s early life until the day he and his family fled to India.

Part Two tries to capture the chaotic conditions in East and Southeast Asia before and during the War, where the major players did not include nationalist forces. Instead, the main combatants were the British, the Americans, the Chinese (both the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party, and the Japanese. Nationalist or anti-colonial groupings at this time were few, and their loyalties tended to be divided or unclear.

Hau-Shik’s travails as a war refugee in India forms the backbone of the accompanying chapter in this section. Through his experiences, I try to shine the spotlight on other matters, such as the fragility of the supply line to Chongqing from India, the creation of Force 136 and its connections to the guerilla and other anti-Japanese fighters on the Malayan peninsula, and the attempts made by many different individuals, egged on by the frustration of being refugees, especially Malayan Chinese, to prepare for the chaos of the post-war period

Part Three covers the post-war period, with the first chapter analyzing the political and ideological aftermath of the short-lived Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Hau-Shik’s life had so far spanned the fall of the Manchu Empire and the coming and withdrawal of the Japanese imperial army in East Asia. British India, his refuge for three-and-a-half years, was about to fall, heralding the setting of the sun on the British Empire throughout Asia.

The Age of Nation-States had arrived, and Hau-Shik was to play a major role in creating one of the new countries to arise out of this falling of empires.

So, such is the format and the rationale behind the strange structure of this book


As you would expect, the chapter called “Moving towards Merdeka” is by far the longest in the book. Personally, I would advise the impatient reader to not jump to this part of the book without having first slowly digested the earlier chapters.

The chapters on the war years are full of details, and have much to tell us, not only about the man, but also about the contingencies of the times. For the young historian, I hope that there is inspiration to be gathered for further exploration into the sentiments and the thoughts that coloured actions and events which we in our present haste are sure to miss. Those gems are what make history—and biographies—exciting and arousing.

For example, I had not thought until I was working on this book, that the Axis Powers probably had a grand plan for world conquest which depended for its success on the Japanese being able to invade India on one side, and for German forces being able to reach India after subduing British forces in the Middle East, or at least to isolate India from the western hemisphere, on the other.

In both cases, however, taking India remained a pipedream and an overstretch in strategic ambition. Where the British were concerned, did they not do the right strategic thing by withdrawing quickly from Singapore and digging in to resist the Japanese in western Burma? I wonder.

One thing I should not forget to mention is how he also became a Colonel in the Kuomintang. He had found it difficult to move around India and to meet up with various dignitaries and important people in his attempt to organize Overseas Chinese refugees; and so he asked that he be given an official position to ease his work. Thus, he was given the rank of “Colonel” by the Kuomintang, for this purpose.


It is also an interesting curiosum, now when I revisit the subject, to note that Tunku Abdul Rahman, born two years after Hau-Shik, was actually also in Cambridge in the early 1920s at the same time as Hau-Shik.

I doubt that they met then, one being a tycoon’s son from Hong Kong, and the other a prince from Kedah. The Tunku was at St Catharine’s College, Hau-Shik was at St John’s.

But 30 years later, the two emerged as key players forming a coalition of race-based parties which the British found acceptable enough to hand over power to, forming Malaya in the process. One became Prime Minister, and the other his Finance Minister.

Both were able to maintain good ties with British officials, which was a vital factor in the negotiations for Independence. He was awarded the Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) by King George VI on 1 January 1948. King George VI was of course Prince Albert, a school pal of Hau-Shik when he was in Cambridge, and who became king in 1937 on the abdication of his elder brother Edward VIII.

Hau-Shik found himself sidelined politically in the late 1950s despite his vital role in laying the foundations for the Malayan Chinese Association, especially the Selangor branch, and in negotiating the path towards Merdeka. For a man not born or raised in Malaya, he played an infinitely vital role in the attaining of independence for that country.

The Tunku, in turn, found himself pushed aside in 1969, undermined by much younger members in UMNO, the party that he saved from irrelevance when its founding father deserted it in 1951. 

In 1957, Hau-Shik also received the Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) from Queen Elizabeth, entitling him to use the honorific of “Sir” before his name.

He was highly influential as a leader of the Malayan Chinese community, being one of the founders of the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA), and for various other contributions, including founding the newspaper “China Press” on his return to Malaya from India in 1946. He was its chairman until his death.

In 1959, as he retired from politics, he was made a Grand Commander of the Order of the Defender of the Realm (Seri Maharaja Mangku Negara, SMN), earning the title of “Tun” in the process.


And so, when he ended his career as politician and began his career as a banker, he was publicly known cumbersomely as “Tun Sir Colonel (twice) Lee Hau-Shik”.

H.S Lee has the honour of being the founder of Bank Negara, and when he retired from politics in 1959, Malaya’s finances, despite having fought the Emergency throughout the 1950s, were sound.

In fact, the new country was classed in July that year by the respected New York publication, “Pick’s Currency Year”, as “moderately wealthy”, and as the richest country in Asia. It ranked 24th behind 23 western countries, just ahead of Hong Kong—and far ahead of Japan, Siam and Ceylon.

He ran the D&C bank for 30 years, stepping down in 1984. He passed away in 1988; and Kuala Lumpur’s centrally placed 1.8 km-long commercial thoroughfare “High Street”, was renamed Jalan Tun H.S. Lee in his honour.

 I think I better end here, and allow for some discussion. Thank you.



About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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