How I Work: Capt Lee Chee Seong

Achance decision to escape the grinding, institutional bias in Malaysia’s affirmative action policies in his native Malaysia where one’s ethnicity determines one’s fate; landed Lee Chee Seong in a place he never expected would ultimately change the course of his life and therein make it home by default.

As if it was serendipity calling him out in its own unique way, Lee described his move to Singapore in nuances, reflective of the legions of his countrymen ‘fleeing’ Malaysia’s race-based governance of according privileges and preferences in employment, to just a single race.

“Malaysia’s bumiputra (meaning son of the soil) policy forced me to come to Singapore”, he told SMI in his sprawling office perched at the 13th level of the city-state’s ultra-modern Metropolis Tower far removed from the high-octane central business district of Shenton Way and where many ship management concerns typically host their offices.

Yet for a stripling forcibly cut off from his family and his community from Ulu Selangor in the thereabouts of the idyllic and picturesque Fraser’s Hill, life and that monumental decision to ‘flee’ could not have been a better choice than it otherwise, was.

“There was no running water and no electricity in the late 1960s” narrating the hardscrabble life he, his family and contemporaries endured in the formative years of his life in Malaysia.

“It was pure hardship”, Capt Lee said, making it plain that those hard-bitten days were not just memorable but proved a ‘weather vane’ of sorts if and when an opportunity comes a calling, or importantly to exude a hard-driving work ethic.

But going to sea, he adds, was one of the most momentous things in life.

It truly was something of a heaven-sent compared to how life in Malaysia was panning out because survival in those tenuous days was not something to be chanced with.

Feeling like something of a bird of passage without any anchor in life, despite excelling academically in school; approvals to head to Malaysia’s southern neighbour came thick and fast from his parents who unsurprising gave their unquestionable consent. “My parents were very happy”, as for them, the chance of a job in Singapore is something of a very ‘big thing’ and of a dream come true, exclaimed Capt Lee.

Dismissing the often touted idea that a sea-going life is always dangerous Capt Lee, was undeterred. He was, ‘hungry’, he said, or rather pointedly hungry for a job that was denied him because of his ethnicity and the policies his native country of Malaysia practised.  That hunger, in no time, soon satiated in the many journeys he took across the shipping universe.

“I had not much of an option because I was a Malaysian”, he said wistfully, though there was every bit of a sensation from his sometimes interspersing guffaws, that Lee had already made his pact with destiny in his new-found home in Singapore and cared little or nothing about what was one of life’s most painful moments?

Still the sprightly 58-year old and avid golfer, who sports no lack of energy is not one to place all of his eggs in a single basket. With strategic mindset and a discernible savviness, Capt Lee exclaimed: “My kids are in Australia”, hinting on the benefit of hindsight to the vital need to spread one’s wings as far afield as possible, if and when necessity calls.

Even so, despite having had to work and study for the best part of his life – Capt Lee holds a Master’s Degree – there is hardly any second-guessing, of the ship management veteran slowing down anytime soon.

It may have escaped him. But Capt Lee somewhat is now at the awkward age: too young to retire and too old to start a new career.

That perhaps has rightly or wrongly given him a new zest for life in the sharing of his life-long experiences, and the ‘tonic’ he prescribes for all of the diagnoses he terms as, of the ills in the shipping industry.

And, just what that ‘tonic’ is comes squarely, he says, over the pervasive tendency of not wanting to disabuse the blame culture which he avers stands in the way of promoting safety and therein all-round happiness.

“It is one of the most underrated quality and least talked about, in the shipping industry”, reproved Capt Lee, making no bones that the menace of scapegoating others lies at the heart of everything that is wrong in shipping.

Scapegoating and the culture of looking for patsies so riles Capt Lee that he has never stopped wondering what had happened to the age-old values of honesty and integrity.

“Dishonesty so very upsets me”, he said. And because he is always disgusted by that, he never hesitates to inflict crippling punishments on anybody who departs from the straight and narrow.

“Admitting to mistakes is an act of courage because dishonesty upsets me”, thundered Capt Lee, his face adopting a straight-faced look with furrows knitting and lines creasing his face, and contorting his debonair persona into something dour.

If ever there is something that ails Capt Lee is what he terms to be his complete dislike or even antipathy, he has for bullies; telling this interviewer that he admires those who speak up for the underdog.

That crusader in him has led him to adopt a hard-nosed approach in how he manages his office – a style he credits with as being personal and collegial and never top-down. The latter, he explained, is gravely at odds in today’s world especially when minding over millennials, in other words, the generation of people born after 1990.

But life for Capt Lee has how it has panned out, has not been without the thrills, spills, and spoils.

With more than a generation of experience in shipping moving from Malaysia to Singapore to Dubai and back to Singapore, to become the Chief Operating Officer in APL, has what he would call as the whirlwind slipstream, just in ways and means like how when he found his wife in secondary school in Malaysia.

With a generation of sea-going experience and in a Come the Old Soldier stance Capt Lee was not at loss over what is ailing shipping. It is not just that qualified seafarers that are lacking. Many companies do not have qualified recruiters and compounding an already difficult situation is of Technical Directors than Safety Directors getting paid better!

Crewing needs a better strategy, he declared. And one way is not to outsource work and ships ought to only recruit cadets.

“A happy ship is a safe ship”, Capt Lee concluded because just how one manages all kinds of nationalities onboard a ship determines not just its safety culture but also its general atmosphere of happiness.