TLDR: Wee Cho Yaw, the billionaire and former chairman of United Overseas Bank Ltd, has died at the age of 95. He played a pivotal role in shaping Singapore’s financial industry and was one of the last banking giants from the 20th century. Wee spearheaded the acquisition of banks across Southeast Asia, forming UOB, one of the largest lenders in the region. He had a net worth of $10.4 billion as of February 2024. Wee also had significant involvement in the property industry, serving as chairman of UOL Group Ltd, one of Singapore’s largest property developers. Wee’s funeral will be held on February 7.
Wee Cho Yaw, the billionaire who shaped Singapore’s financial landscape by amalgamating several old family-controlled banks, has died. He was 95. The former chairman of United Overseas Bank Ltd. died on Saturday, according to a spokesperson for the lender. His funeral will be held on Feb. 7.
Wee was one of the last of a generation of bankers born before World War II who came to dominate Singapore’s financial system after the country gained independence from Britain in the 1960s. He spearheaded the acquisition of banks across Southeast Asia to form UOB, one of the region’s largest lenders, after his father co-founded its predecessor in 1935. He amassed a net worth of $10.4 billion as of February 2024, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
“My father has left an indelible mark in Singapore and the region,” Wee Ee Cheong, chief executive officer of UOB since 2007, said in a statement. “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.”
Wee was chairman for over 50 years since 1973. Under his helm, UOL grew from a local firm with assets of S$70 million ($52.1 million) to one with a presence in 15 countries and total assets of more than S$20 billion, the company said.
Wee was born in Kinmen, an island off the coast of China’s Fujian province, to Wee Kheng Chiang, a businessman, and Koh Geok Siew, a villager from the fishing port of Jincheng. They married when Geok Siew was 18 and she became Kheng Chiang’s second wife, with the blessing of his first wife. Such was a common practice at the time.
Wee Cho Yaw stayed with his mother until age seven, then moved to Malaysia and later to Singapore in 1939. His early education was disrupted by World War II as the Japanese started bombing Singapore two years later. He resumed his studies in 1949 at St. Andrew’s, an Anglican secondary school, but didn’t take to it because he was older than most of his classmates — and less proficient in English. Instead, he joined his father’s commodity and spice trading firm Kheng Leong in Singapore.
Wee left that career in 1958 to focus on building the family’s bank. Incorporated as the United Chinese Bank, it catered mainly to the Fujian community in its early years, according to the bank’s website. The name was changed in 1965. After listing it in 1970, Wee embarked on a series of takeovers, steering UOB through the consolidation of Singapore’s financial sector, in which dozens of banks were sucked up by the early 2000s into the three major ones now.
Wee stepped down as chairman of UOB in 2013 but stayed on as chairman emeritus and honorary adviser. The bank’s acquisitive zeal waned, although it remained one of Singapore’s biggest along with DBS and Oversea-Chinese Banking Corp. At the company’s annual meeting in 2016, Wee explained that acquisitions came with risks, and UOB needed to be careful.
In 2022, Wee’s oldest son, Ee Cheong, led the bank in its first major takeover in 16 years, agreeing to purchase the consumer assets of Citigroup Inc. in several Southeast Asian countries.
Wee Cho Yaw was a prominent figure not only in the banking industry but also in the property sector. He served as chairman of UOL Group Ltd., one of Singapore’s largest property developers. Under his leadership, UOL expanded its presence to 15 countries and its total assets surpassed S$20 billion.
Wee Cho Yaw’s legacy as a visionary business leader, pioneering entrepreneur, and philanthropist will endure in Singapore and beyond. He was praised for his long-term thinking, the importance of deep relationships, and his commitment to doing the right thing.
As the last of Singapore’s 20th-century banking giants, Wee’s passing marks the end of an era in the country’s financial industry. His contributions to the sector and his influence will be remembered and respected by future generations.