Lee Shin Cheng dies: here’s how he went from ice cream seller on a bicycle to Malaysia’s 5th richest billionaire

Lee passed away after a period of illness at age 79. He left behind his wife, six children and 12 grandchildren.

The founder and executive chairman of integrated palm oil company IOI group, Lee Shin Cheng, died on Saturday (June 1), just two days before his 80th birthday – and the day he was planning to retire, The Star reported.

According to a statement issued by IOI group on Sunday (June 2), Lee passed away after a period of illness at age 79. He left behind his wife, six children and 12 grandchildren.

In their statement, IOI group said: “It is through Tan Sri Dato’ Dr Lee’s vision, hard work and enterprising spirit that both of our companies have become leading corporations in our respective sectors.”

The business tycoon had ranked fifth on the Forbes list of 50 richest Malaysians with a total net worth of US$4.8 billion (RM17.4 billion) earlier this year.

But the honcho did not always have a promising future. Here are some highlights from his journey to the top, as documented by various media over the years:

Sold ice cream at age 11

Lee grew up in a rubber plantation in Kuala Selangor, where his dad ran a sundry shop, The Star reported. At age 11, he had to drop out of school to help support his family by selling ice cream on a bicycle.

In an interview with China’s CCTV in 2015, Lee recalled moments when he had to ride his bicycle through a muddy track in the rain. His bicycle would get stuck in the mud and the young boy would have to think on his feet to salvage his livelihood.

“When the wheels were stuck (in the mud), the whole bicycle would lose balance. It could pull me down. The bicycle can go down, and I myself can go down, but the ice cream tub can’t. I knew if the tub lost its balance, the whole tub of ice cream would be messed up,” Lee said during the interview.

Lee then added: “When I knew I could no longer control it, I quickly got off the bicycle, and managed to shoulder the ice cream tub.”

Lee said that he had to shoulder the ice cream tub for over 20 minutes to prevent it from toppling over, which hurt his shoulders and caused him to tear up from the pain.

“I remember in one of those days, I said to the heaven: ‘Children of my age are at school, but I have to sell ice cream just to survive. God, why did you have to treat me like this? It’s so unfair’,” Lee said.

Lee returned to school four years later.

Rejected for his poor English

After attaining a senior middle three education level, Lee applied for a job in Dunlop Estates, an English-based plantation company. However, he was rejected due to his poor English even though he could answer almost all the interview questions on plantation, he told The Star.

Lee later found a job at a smaller plantation company, where he became a field supervisor in 1961.

Bought over the company that rejected him

Lee rose through the ranks and eventually bought over Dunlop Estates in 1989, The Star said. His actions were questioned by analysts, who wondered why he wanted to acquire a plantation company, which was then considered a declining industry.

Lee said he saw a potential in the palm oil industry in Malaysia, and eventually turned it into a profitable venture, The Star reported.

According to CCTV, his decision gave him advances in R&D, and enabled him to go into the downstream palm oil business. As a result, he built a reputation as Malaysia’s oil palm baron.

Today, IOI Corporation Berhad has operations in eight countries across Asia, Africa, Europe and North America, and 90 oil palm estates in Malaysia and Indonesia.


Lee is also known for his contributions to the redevelopment of Kuen Cheng Secondary School, where he was the Chairman of its Board of Directors for the last 20 years.

The charity which Lee founded – Yayasan Tan Sri Lee Shin Cheng – was established in 1994 and also contributed to the development of Shin Cheng (Harcroft) Primary School. 

Currently, the charity contributes to the pillars of education, community welfare, medical assistance, social enterprise and the promotion of after school science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programmes.

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