From receipts to official documents, Tun H.S. Lee left a priceless hoard that will serve as a window to a historic era.
DURING his lifetime, Tun H.S. Lee methodically filed away every little scrap of paper. As eldest son Douglas says, “Our father was a hoarder. He never threw away anything and saw value in everything, even a 20-cent car park receipt.”
Tun Lee, one of the founders of the MCA and the Alliance Party, lived in momentous times. Surprising then that he did not write his autobiography.
Another son, Thomas, adds: “We offered to engage a writer for him and to tape record his conversations and memories. He never gave a reason but simply would not do it.”
All is not lost though. Now, 22 years after his death, 180,000 private papers of Tun Lee are finally available for public viewing. His sons, Datuk Douglas Lee, 87, and Datuk Thomas Lee, 72, handed over the papers to the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas) in Singapore on May 5. A third son, George, could not attend the ceremony.
With the donation, Douglas says, a burden has been lifted from the family’s shoulders as they did not know what to do with their father’s vast collection, kept in over 140 boxes in a storeroom at his home in Kuala Lumpur.
A meeting in 2003 set in motion a series of events which culminated in the papers being put in Iseas for safe-keeping.
Historian Dr Lee Kam Hing recounts how he advised Douglas against throwing away any of his father’s less important documents such as bills and receipts. “I told the family that every shred of information was important as things like club receipts and bills tell us what the cost of living and social life were like then.”
Dr Lee put Douglas in touch with Iseas librarian Ch’ng Kim See, who flew to Malaysia to advise the family on indexing the documents.
Iseas Board of Trustees chairman Prof Wang Gungwu says the Lee family’s generosity will help fill a lot of gaps in our understanding of a critical period of the country’s history, from 1945 to 1960. “Tun H.S. Lee’s life story has not been fully told.”
An international conference on Lee is planned for next year at Iseas.
From tin to politics
Henry Lee Hau Sik was born in Hong Kong in 1901 and studied in Cambridge, Britain, where he came to know the future King George VI.
Lee came to then Malaya in 1924 to pursue business opportunities, in particular mining.
His years in Malaya were very eventful. He was involved in Kuomintang politics and anti-Japanese activities. During WWII Lee escaped to India with his family as the Japanese had put a price on his head. He had the distinction of being appointed a colonel in the Chinese army, then based in Burma. He was also made a colonel of the British army in India during the war years, when he liaised btween the two Allies.
Lee played a key part in forging an electoral alliance with Umno in 1952 that later became the Alliance Party (now Barisan Nasional). He was part of the Alliance team led by Tunku Abdul Rahman that held independence talks in 1956 in London and was the only Chinese signatory to the Malayan independence agreement.
He was Transport Minister from 1953 to 1956 and was appointed the first Finance Minister of an independent Federation of Malaya in 1957. Two years later, he resigned his post due to ill health.
Lee’s other major role was helping to set up the Malayan (later Malaysian) Chinese Association in 1949, with the support of Chinese business groups and educationists.
Lee was also the recognised leader of the Guangdong and Gaozhou community, says Thomas.
“I was amazed when someone came up to me and identified himself as being from Guangdong. He said his family came from Raub, which was full of Gaozhou people. He told me that even today, the people there know of Lee Hau Shik.”
Lee founded or was actively involved in many institutions and organisations, including Bank Negara Malaysia, the Lady Templer Hospital, China Press, the Olympic Council of Malaysia, and the Malaysian Golf Association, just to name a few.
After retiring in 1959, Lee started the Development and Commercial Bank, now known as RHB Bank.
He died in 1988 in Kuala Lumpur. Jalan Bandar – originally known as High Street – was renamed Jalan Tun H.S. Lee in his honour.
A son’s memories
Thomas reveals that his father played golf until ill health stopped him. He would end his game at the 19th hole, for drinks.
“Even in old age, he enjoyed his drink. The secret, he told me, is to alternate your drinks. Whisky one day, brandy the next.”
Thomas says he and his late brother Alex hardly saw their father before they left for further studies in England in 1952.
“My father never had time to visit us in England but we did see him on two occasions in London, when he went for government talks. He wrote us a letter about once a month but it was always quite formal,” Thomas recalls.
Lee was also a workaholic and a stickler for punctuality. As the oldest child in his family, he had a strict upbringing in China.
Thomas recounts an incident that illustrates Lee’s character. He had reported for work in his first job as a government servant, only to find his boss playing mahjong and not wanting to be disturbed. “After this continued for three days, my father quit government service and found a job with a bank in Hong Kong.”
He adds that one of Lee’s bitterest moments was his defeat in the Selangor MCA presidential election, a loss he attributed to friends turning against him.
“My father was not one of those politicians who would bend or adapt as the wind blew. He was unable to deal with people who schemed against him. He was of the heroic mould and would rather be knocked down than change. He never spoke again to those friends who betrayed him.’’
Thomas saw more of his father after the latter quit politics. In fact, he served on the boards of China Press and D&C Bank when his father was the chairman.
Thomas shares his father’s passion for golf, and recalls that “some of the happiest times we had with him were during family reunions in Cameron Highlands.
“He was a very organised person. We were all told, breakfast at 7, golf at 8, lunch at 1, tea at 4, cocktails at 7 and dinner at 8.”
A painstaking effort