Ir. Dr. Nehemiah Lee Chee Hai is the founder and managing chairman of Nehemiah Reinforced Soil Sdn Bhd. The company specialises in the design, supply and construction of their own patented proprietary reinforced soil retaining wall system called the Nehemiah Wall. This innovative design can be seen on every highway in Malaysia, quietly holding back tonnes of soil. Since its inception in 1993, Nehemiah has grown by leaps and bounce and has exported the technology overseas to Singapore, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and India.
One point that differentiates Dr. Lee’s company from most others is their strict commitment to integrity. Wholehearted rejection of bribery is the essence of Dr. Lee’s philosophy as he was disenchanted by the state of the local construction industry being steeped in it. With International Anti-Corruption Day falling on the 9th of December, YME Insider’s Malaysia Correspondent, Goh Lian Ming, has recently interviewed Dr. Lee on the subject of integrity in the workplace for the consideration of engineering students everywhere. Below is a recount of the interview.
Dr. Nehemiah Lee started the interview with the statement of the motto of his company ‘We Build Integrity’. With that robust base of his commitment, Dr. Lee went on to talk about how he is perceived. The stoic, soft-spoken man acknowledges that he is considered to be successful, but defines the term for himself as having found fulfilment in life. When questioned further on his convictions on integrity, Dr. Lee states that the base for this is his belief in God. A staunch Christian, obvious after the realisation that the man named himself and his company after the Bible figure whom he admires, Dr. Lee views honesty as an asset that will invariably result in long-term gain. He is pragmatic though, conceding the fact that, in the short-term, it would be difficult to compete with other companies that employ the more ‘traditional’ approach of bribery. However, as time goes by, sticking to an honest approach will gain one of the most valuable asset in the whole world – trust.
It was here that Dr. Lee found the need to define ‘gain’. He sees the term as not just being constrained to fiscal profits made from business, but also the impact given to others within the circle of one’s influence and the creation of a tangible, positive change to society. True fulfilment, according to Dr. Lee, lies in the observation of positive changes happening around our circle of influence.
The conversation moved on to the basis of corruption. Dr. Lee frankly views the inception of corruption as greed. People often only see the easy way-out, too enamoured by luxury. As an example, the mentality of ‘I’ve been struggling for so long but my friends are prospering so quickly. Why don’t I join them?’ is steeped within society, with material acquisition such as big houses and luxurious cars being the gold-standard of prosperity. Due to this, people often get distracted and stray from the main path due to temptations.
But what is the main path? Dr. Lee waxes philosophical, restating his conviction to his philosophy with strong Christian links. He talks about what success really means, bringing up a desire to leave a legacy behind, something that lives on beyond himself as a justification of his own life. Much like the philosopher Immanuel Kant, Dr. Lee views the means of attaining success as something that is just as important as the results. In fact, Dr. Lee views it as more important than the latter! “When you work clean to achieve success, you can proudly say it out loud, walking with no fear, with your head held high. You get the satisfaction,” he says with a hint of pride in his inflections.
It was clear by now just how much pride Dr. Lee has in the execution of his philosophy. To cement this (no pun intended), he gives another example. In construction, say a project is worth RM 100 million, it will usually be high-balled to the government as RM 110 million. That extra ten million ringgit has no justification but for personal gain. This selfish act takes extra money from the coffers of our elected officials and, indirectly through taxation revenue, the Malaysian people. Horrifically, a serious crime of robbery as taken place, that from the whole of a nation. How can there be any satisfaction derived from success gained from such a heinous act? Dr. Lee states that he would much rather live as a poor man than engage in this sort of practice. To him, this mentality is not an external option that people can choose to do, rather is an inherent responsibility that exists for all human beings. With this logic, it’s no surprise that Dr. Lee is so passionate about his convictions.
With the interview coming to a close, Dr. Lee was asked to give a few pearls of wisdom to the future generation. Summarizing his thoughts, he puts forward the message of keeping in focus one’s long term gain. By sticking to integrity, Dr. Lee believes, though the first step would be a tremendously difficult one (with it traditionally being the hardest one), over time, one’s impression starts to build and trust is formed within people who see one as reliable, leading to recommendations in the future that would eventually benefit oneself. Then one day, looking back, one would get immense satisfaction in life, thanking oneself to have made the right choices to persevere against the tide. In that time, one would have a large group of supporters talking positively of one, encouraging one further to be even more positive and withhold the value of integrity more strongly.
Reflecting on his own experiences, Dr. Lee encourages us to share more stories and examples of successful people that have gone through similar things that he has so that more young people are inspired and motivated to go onto the right path. He asks that we present it in a way so that it can be easily visualised and the realisation of the achievement that comes with this practice can be more impactful. Though this message was presented to YME Insider, we feel it is more appropriate to be shared to every one of our readers such that they can also play a part in the outreach of the message, as, at the end of the day, all of us are in this together and it falls on all of our shoulders to ameliorate engineering and society in general.
Lastly, before leaving, we asked Dr. Lee about his proudest moment in life. It was after only a split second’s thought that he shares the time when he received the Outstanding International Award for Meeting The Criteria of Withholding Integrity in Doing Business from the Institution of Civil Engineers UK back in 2013. Not a stranger to awards, Dr. Lee feels this one, over the many previous ones based on technical capabilities, is a far greater success as it is a test of personality and moral principle, making it much harder to achieve. With this, Dr. Lee’s interview comes to an end.
It was truly a wonder to interview a man who lives what he preaches. The intertwining of integrity within Dr. Lee’s life and business is palpable and indicative of a deep-thinking philosopher who views human responsibility as being a huge part of an engineer’s field of thought. We here at YME Insider have the same hope as Dr. Nehemiah Lee that, one day, engineers will be able to broaden their scope from a utilitarian, one-track minded approach, where only engineering and material gains are given any importance, to viewing themselves as part of a much larger collective that should move society forward in any ways possible. For now, though, we would like to wish all of you a happy International Anti-Corruption Day!