Lee Toon Hian passed away peacefully on 17 April 2023. His demise at the relatively young age of 65 was sudden and unexpected and came as a great shock to all who knew him. Multi-talented and extraordinarily gifted, he was an artist, entrepreneur, collector of fine antiques and paintings, animal lover, philosopher and scientist. His achievements are unrivalled and few of his contemporaries matched his energy and output.
So singularly unique are his multifarious gifts that they cannot be adequately described. He led an astonishingly colourful varied life; making friends all over the world while nurturing lasting friendships with those whom he knew from school or his youth. By choice, Toon Hian never married. He could not bring himself to any life-long commitment for unselfish reasons. Painting filled up his moments of solitariness and his huge circle of friends and relatives made up for the absence of marital companionship.
Some who perceived him as eccentric did not know that beneath the veneer was a very kind, caring and thoughtful man. He declined all offers of honours and preferred anonymity in his numerous acts of charity.
Coming from a wealthy family, he never lost the common touch. In the words of the poet, Rudyard Kipling, Toon Hian could walk and talk to kings and yet speak easily the language of the common man.
Scion of the Lee Meng Hin family, well-known for their tin mines in Menglembu, Toon Hian had a head-start in life. His father, Lee Wan Seng who knew of the incredibly rich tin deposits in Papan near Ipoh successfully took over “Pegang Mining”, a London based company which owned the reserves. Wan Seng delisted Pegang in the London Stock Exchange and registered the company in Ipoh. “Pegang Mining” is the only Malaysian reported case which continues to be cited by lawyers in the UK, Malaysia and in common law countries as a leading authority on parties in civil procedure.
Like all his brothers and male cousins, Toon Hian had his primary and secondary education in St Michael’s Institution. From Kindergarten to Form Six, he had a happy time there. He loved to play football and spent hours with his friends in the game. His character and thinking were much influenced by the La Salle Brothers who ran the school.
Whilst in St Michael’s the teacher who had the most lasting influence on him was Brother Casimir. From him, Toon Hian was exposed to Shakespeare, began a life-long interest in great literature and many other areas including science. Brother Casimir was also his Catechism teacher. As a result of Brother Casimir’s Catechism classes, Toon Hian practised no other faith save and except the teachings of Jesus.
After St Michael’s, Toon Hian proceeded to the study of Roman Law in the University of Stirling in Scotland in 1978. By this time, his father’s business matters began to take up more of his time. As the anointed successor to his father’s business, he had to juggle between studies and looking after the mines whenever he was back home for holidays. In no time, he would be appointed Alternate Director to his father in Petaling Tin and Austral Amalgamated, two listed companies in the then KLSE (now Bursa).
Being interested in the stock market whilst still studying, he was, not surprisingly, very successful in his investments. Whilst living on campus in Stirling, he obtained special permission to have his own private telephone line to keep track of his investments. He was also given a special allowance by his father to engage a domestic helper to tidy his room and run errands for him.
After graduating from Stirling in 1982, Toon Hian played a major part in running his father’s vast business empire which was then mainly in tin mining. These were years in which the tin mining industry was clouded in uncertainty and rumours were rife about the identity of the mystery buyer. The Malaysian government eventually admitted it was the “mystery buyer”, pushing up prices artificially. Everything ended sadly with great losses to Malaysia. Tin mines all over the country started closing. Mines in the Kinta Valley were not spared. Toon Hian gradually and eventually ceased mining.
When his father passed away in 1984, Toon Hian was the executor of his father’s estate. After winding up his father’s estate, he then turned his hand to running the businesses he had inherited and also ventured into many new areas. This will include making fans, quarrying, housing development, joint venture in a restaurant, and marketing toys – at different times. More recently, he has concentrated on the by-products of calcium carbonate such as toiletries and toothpaste under the brand name “Hian”. He was also involved in hard-rock mining for tin and planting “Nangka”.
Toon Hian was acutely conscious of the burden of his inheritance. He had entered the business world with a silver spoon advantage. Therefore, he was most careful in his investments. But he was also wise enough to accept that sometimes it may be good to suffer losses in some investments. He cautioned that anyone with a reputation for never having lost any money in business ran the risk that people will be afraid of doing business with him!
Until the very end, he was painting vigorously and this satisfied his very active imagination and sensitivity to his surroundings. He was also concerned about the political developments both locally and internationally and this also found expression in his art. To him, the destruction of political institutions was far worse than financial scandals or economic loss although he frowned on both equally.
In art, his last piece of unfinished work is entitled “Jonah and the Whale”. He also had several pieces on the theme of Easter. All said, his style is a most distinctive one. The hidden meaning behind the symbols and allusions reveals a most precocious mind and a heart full of feelings reaching out to understand the human condition. As one art critic put it, Toon Hian’s art is simply “Bewildering!”
He was never awkward or uneasy in the company of his married friends. He was unfailingly considerate when speaking to his friends’ wives and very often would proffer advice upon hearing of their marital challenges or problems. He was a good counsellor and confidante. He was always reminding his friends to return home after a night out with something in hand for the wife.
Similarly, he was very fond of his nephews and nieces. He knew each of them by name and delighted in their company. When he meets them, it is always with warmth and genuine affection. Toon Hian was gregarious and his conversations are filled with anecdotes. His laughter and jokes would bring down the house.
The night before he passed away was spent in the company of those closest to him which included his cousin Soon Hian, his very close companions Wong Khiew, Lean Choong and David Looi. Tina, his devoted maid who had looked after him for almost two decades served him loyally until the very end.
During the wake, his nephews Russell and Matthias shared stories and memories of their late Uncle Toon. His cousin, Tan Sri Lee Oi Hian also spoke of him in praise of his many virtues and abilities. This was followed by a most fitting eulogic finale from his long-time friend Philip Koh Tong Ngee who touched on his caring and generosity.
The funeral service was held in St Michael’s Church on 20 April 2023 and the Mass was celebrated by Father Anthony Liew. In his homily, Father Anthony recalled Toon Hian’s faith which found expression in his paintings about Easter.
At his burial, Matt Monroe’s “On Days Like These” was played. This was a favourite piece of Toon Hian’s. Sad and moving, the melody and words captured Toon Hian’s deepest longings besides echoing the feelings of those who knew him intimately:
On days like these when the skies are blue and fields are green
I look around and think about what might have been
And then I hear sweet music float around my head
As I recall the many things left unsaid.