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Pioneer of Standards and Industrial Research - Dr Lee Kum Tatt

By Jason Lim, Senior Oral History Specialist

Dr Lee Kum Tatt, former Chairman of the Singapore Institute of Standards and Industrial Research, died on 1 June 2008 at the age of 81.

He was born in Penang on 23 March 1927. The son of a clerk in a British firm, he attended Penang Free School until his family moved to Medan in 1940 because of the impending war. After the war, the British Army came to Indonesia to disarm the Japanese. As a volunteer with the International Red Cross, the young Dr Lee and his family was forced to leave Medan after his uncle was kidnapped by the Indonesians.

Dr Lee returned to Penang and finished his studies in 1947. The war years had a profound impact on him as he learnt the value of humility as he recalled in his oral history interview:

"I used to top the class. That is something most people are very proud of. When you go to a big school, you top the class and the girls look [up] to you, you feel very grand. It is very difficult for you during the war years to go to these little girls who used to admire you as a hero and say, “Do you want to buy charcoal or not?” Dirty job, very dirty job. I was selling charcoal during Japanese time, among other things [like] black marketing, farming and so on. That really changed me." (A000821/10/01)

Dr Lee arrived in Singapore on a scholarship to read science in Raffles College in 1948. On 1 October 1954, he joined the Government Department of Chemistry as a chemist, toxicologist and biochemist. In 1956, Dr Lee went to Canada and the United States on a United Nations (UN) fellowship to study the international opium trade and represented Canada in the UN Narcotic Commission. When he returned to Singapore in 1958, he was appointed head of the forensic lab at the Department of Chemistry. In 1959, he was appointed to the Board of Governors of the Singapore Polytechnic. Dr Lee remained active in academia as he taught in the Singapore Polytechnic and in the School of Pharmacy in the University of Malaya in Singapore.

In 1960, Dr Lee joined the Department of Pathology in the Ministry of Health as a biochemist. While working as a biochemist, Dr Lee introduced fees to be charged for medical tests. In 1965, Dr Lee wrote the Science Council Act. As the first Chairman of the Science Council, Dr Lee promoted scientific research and development through the creation of the Singapore Institute of Standards and Industrial Research (SISIR). In 1969, SISIR was placed under the Economic Development Board (EDB) and Dr Lee was appointed its Chairman. He was also given the task of restructuring the Technical Division of the EDB.

In the 1970s, as part of the government’s plan to promote tourism, a souvenir that is uniquely about Singapore had to be created. On 16 April 1976, RISIS - SISIR spelt in reverse - was formed to produce and market gold orchids. He recalled:

"RISIS was a fluke. It was a fluke. It was never planned. Everyone comes and asks me: “Dr Lee, how did you think of the orchid?” It was never planned. So we said, “Okay, we just try and do the orchids and preserve it.” Can we do it? Well, we’ll try. We’ll get the technology. Orchid is something native to us. The technology is ours. How do we overcome time? So we put some gold on it because gold is time honoured. After that, it caught. That’s it, finished. We fluked it. We used the words ‘we fluked it’. And it went."(A000821/10/07)

Dr Lee was instrumental in the setting up of the Singapore Science Centre in 1977. As Chairman of the Science Council, he had to start some activities to publicly promote science. In addition, he went to London and California to seek advise on the concept of a Science Centre. Eventually, it took seven years and $14 million to build it. Looking back at his long civil service career, Dr Lee reflected in his oral history interview:

"I always seem to be on the fringe of grey areas that nobody wants to touch. And I enjoyed doing that. You see, you trace my life, it’s like that. Science, I never do Science. Bio-chemistry, I never do bio-chemistry. Quality control, I know nothing about quality control. Business, I never trained to do business. Standards Council, I never know anything about standards. There must be something basic that we can use in some of us…So creativity means you see things like other people are staring at you and other people cannot see or dare not see. And I seem to enjoy doing that kind of thing."(A000821/10/03)

In conclusion, Dr Lee commented on his management style. He said:

"I’ve mentioned many times my guiding principle is my conscience. I did not do this for myself. I did it for the good of the community and the people I served. If that conscience is clear, then I proceed. Sometimes I will do it with honour. Always with honour. Nobody must hurt that honour. If it fails, my honour is affected."(A000821/10/05)

Dr Lee retired as Chairman of SISIR in 1985. By then, SISIR had a staff of 360 housed in a new building that cost about $80 million.

Information extracted from the Oral History Interview of Dr Lee Kum Tatt, Accession No: 000821

Presentation of Singapore Institute of Standards & Industrial Research certificates by Minister of State for Finance, Mr Tang See Chim (left), at the Tropicana on 15 Jan 1971, with Dr Lee Kum Tatt standing in the centre.
Source: NAS, PCD No. 19980006959 - 0065

Minister for National Development Mr Lee Yock Suan, was greeted by Dr Lee Kum Tatt (left) when he arrived to open the “Energy Conservation in Building Services” seminar jointed organized by SISIR & the Public Works Department at the Shangri-La Hotel, on 8 July 1983.
Source: NAS, PCD No. 19980001420 - 0085

Risis Orchid Jewellery
Source: Singapore Tourist Promotion Board, PCD No. 19980006611 - 0085

Risis Orchid Jewellery
Source: Singapore Tourist Promotion Board, PCD No. 19980006611 - 0087