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Emotions run at UOB shareholders' meet, first time in 60 years without Wee Cho Yaw

UNITED Overseas Bank's annual shareholders meeting began on an emotional note on Friday as chief executive Wee Ee Cheong teared up in his brief message of appreciation to his father who has stepped down from the board.

Wee Cho Yaw, 89, who remains as chairman emeritus and honorary adviser to UOB, a bank founded by his father, did not attend the annual general meeting (AGM), the first time he was absent in the 60 years since he joined the board in 1958.

The Wee family owns some 18 per cent of UOB, which is the third-largest bank in South-east Asia by total assets. 

The senior Wee did not attend the meeting, disappointing some shareholders who had expected to see him as "he felt very emotional", said Ee Cheong to reporters later. Some 650-700 shareholders attended the meeting.

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Instead, a letter from the chairman emeritus was read out to shareholders thanking them for their support and assuring them he still has time for the bank.

"I am leaving the board with firm conviction that UOB is in good hands. A strong foundation has been laid, and the founding chairman's grandson and his team are well-equipped to lead the bank well into the future," the letter said.

"But UOB runs deep in my DNA, and shareholders have my assurance that, as chairman emeritus and honorary adviser, I will continue to use my accumulated knowledge and experience for the benefit of the bank."

Mr Wee Cho Yaw maintains an office at the bank and "from time to time, he'll knock on my door", said Ee Cheong.

A video of the senior Wee was shown to shareholders, including his 1993 meeting with Xi Jinping, then party secretary of Fuzhou, now China's president.

The AGM then got down to business, helmed by new chairman Wong Kan Seng, whose baptism of fire began with two unhappy shareholders. Mr Wong took over as UOB chairman following the retirement of Hsieh Fu Hua earlier this year.

One complained that his money has been misappropriated by a UOB relationship manager (RM) and the bank has stonewalled his attempts to find out more.

BT understands the RM no longer works for the bank.

A UOB spokeswoman later told BT that "the monies in question were never deposited with the bank and the matter is before the police as it only concerns the two individuals involved".

The other angry shareholder's grievances were over the proxy process and scrip dividend form-filling, and wondered if UOB was trying to make money from shareholders.

Other shareholders wanted assurance from the bank that it would continue paying dividends and one asked if UOB could pay its final dividend as an "interim" or in the third-quarter which does not require shareholders' approval. Only final dividends require shareholders' approval.

Another shareholder complained that UOB's share price has fallen behind that of DBS which had announced higher dividends for 2017 and 2018. He also noted that DBS does not have share buybacks unlike that of UOB.

"A bigger dividend seems the way to go," the shareholder said. UOB chief financial officer Lee Wai Fai clarified that the bank's share buybacks were for its staff incentive scheme and not a capital management strategy.

In February during their respective 2017 results, DBS guided S$1.20 per share for FY18 while UOB is expecting FY18 core dividend to be at S$0.80 per share.

DBS's share price surged following its guidance and touched a high of S$29.91 on Thursday. It closed on Friday down 32 cents to S$29.59. UOB closed Friday at S$29.69, down nine cents from Thursday's S$29.78 which was also its 52-week high.