Many were surprised in 1923 when a group of Chinese businessmen in Singapore, headed by Lee Leung Ki, decided to move out of their traditional trading areas into insurance.
Asia Insurance opened its doors on 1st July at 66/72 Chulia Street. Here was a locally-owned company competing with British and other European established brands. One has to remember this, it was not an easy time to sell the alien concept of insurance to local businessmen. Why Lee, who only came to Singapore from China’s Guangdong Province eleven years earlier, had so much confidence is unknown. However, he was a prominent figure in insurance circles and was already active in the community being a founder member of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Chairman of the Kwong Wai Siu Free Hospital.
The first Chairman of the Asia Insurance group was Teo Chong Siong while Lee became General Manager. Also on board was Li Sing Kui, Lee Phee Soo, Chua Han Leong and others. From 1929 to 1932, the Great Depression hit the world economy and the new company struggled to survive. But it emerged stronger, helped by forming an alliance with three rival insurance companies, swopping portfolios for participation in Asia Insurance’s equity. In 1933, Li Siang Kui assumed the Chairmanship and Lee Leung Ki became Managing Director. Another major change came just a few years later in 1939, when the three companies sold their equities to Tan Boon Khak, who then took over the Chairmanship of Asia Insurance.
Tan was a well-known philanthropist who had made his fortune in the rubber trade. He had a great deal of influence in the Chinese community. Once again, world problems hit the company with the outbreak of war – first the Sino-Japanese War and then World War 2. The Japanese invaded and occupied Malaya and Singapore in 1942, suspending the insurance business.
In late 1945 came liberation and Asia Insurance Company resumed business, one of the first to do so, and expanded into Malaya through agency offices. Due to the unrest after the War, with strikes being common, foreign insurance companies were unwilling to provide services giving the local firm an opportunity. By the 1950’s the company had recovered and was renamed The Asia Life Assurance Society Limited in 1952.
A symbol of its success and putting the local brand on the map was the completion in 1955 of the Asia Insurance Building. It was for many years the tallest building in South East Asia reaching an unheard of 18-stories high. It was not a smooth operation. Built where once stood fisherman’s cottages and on low-lying land, it took six years to complete and the budget rose from S$3 million (a big sum in those days) to around S$8 million before it was finally ready for the ambitious company. Lack of technical expertise led to problems with the foundations and a specialist had to be brought in from London to advise. The outbreak of the Korean war also escalated building material costs. The Commercial-General for Southeast Asia, Malcom McDonald, laid the foundation stone and it was finally opened by the Governor of Singapore, Sir Robert Brown Black on 10th December 1955. The building was designed by Dr Ng Keng Siang in a lovely art-deco style. It was also claimed to be an ‘earthquake proof’ building. The stainless steel crown on the top was created to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.
Allein Moore, who worked on several advertising campaigns and graphics for Asia Insurance Company, remembers seeing a Royal Mail collection point within the ground floor lobby in the 1990s. The brass chute which collected mail from all levels was designed by James Cutler. Moore has no recollection of seeing or enjoying the bar, dance floor and Sky Palace Restaurant which were apparently popular when the building first opened.
This iconic building on Finlayson Green, near Shenton Way was followed by another in Kuala Lumpur and branches were opened in all the Malay States.
The founder, Lee Leung Ki, passed away in 1958 after 38 years in office and his son became joint Managing Director.
Asia Insurance has expanded into new areas and into new markets around the region, helped by alliances. By the 1990’s the company is very strong with an A+ rating from Standard & Poors.
The Asia Insurance Building in Singapore has been taken over by Ascott and turned into service apartments. A great deal of restoration was done which included painstaking work on 20,000 pieces of Travetine marble which covered the exterior. By the time it reopened, S$60 million had been spent on restoration. The building subsequently won a number of heritage awards.
The Asia Insurance brand continues but only the building in Finlayson Green reminds the public of the glorious history of this local company.