Lee Lam Thye: My journey is not over, it has to go on

Every conversation with Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye often ends in optimism – regardless of the issue.

The 75-year-old has spent decades serving the people in various capacities – from being part of a trade union, serving as Bukit Bintang MP (DAP) for four terms (1974-1990) to helming non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Among the many organisations he spearheaded were the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (Niosh), Malaysian Institute of Road Safety Research, National Organ Donation Awareness Action Committee, and Malaysia Crime Prevention Foundation.

Like most Malaysians, he too, has been hit by the uncertainty caused by the Covid-19 pandemic over the past two years.

Lee hopes the Year of the Tiger promises a better future, and urges Malaysians to continue having faith in the country and its people despite the shortcomings.

Lee shares his thoughts with Twentytwo13.

How have you been?

Lee: It hasn’t been an easy two years for me and for many other Malaysians. It’s also not easy when you reach a certain age, people no longer require your services although you still have so much to give.

I helmed several agencies, including being chairman of Niosh for years, but was told that they wanted younger people. I even read messages on social media, telling me that I should not talk anymore, that I’m too old. I just ignore them.

As long as I’m healthy and can share my views, it’s my duty to serve the country. We need a combination of young and old. We need each other.

What keeps you busy these days?

Lee: I’m someone who really can’t sit still and do nothing. Even on weekends, I make it a point to meet people and my colleagues. I just can’t eat and sleep. I feel that I’m still in some form of leadership position.

I still play a role in some NGOs, including the Alliance for a Safe Community, which I set up three years ago. I’m the chairman there.

My journey is not over. It has to go on. That’s the reason why I set up the new NGO … to focus on safety and health issues.

I roped in professionals in their own right and they all came in voluntarily. That gives me motivation, knowing that I’m being backed by professionals. My colleagues also want to help people.

The level of safety awareness, for one, is still low in Malaysia. Accidents keep on happening. We don’t have a safety culture. We also don’t have a maintenance culture.

Just look at the recent floods (that hit several states in Malaysia in December), the number of road accidents, and even drowning cases. They are all disconcerting.

Aren’t you tired of repeating yourself? The authorities don’t seem to listen.

Lee: I fully realise that. Every time a tragedy occurs, I’ll get phone calls from the media. When the media calls me, I never disappoint them.

I feel that if I have something to contribute, there’s nothing wrong with me repeating that message. If I continue to talk about it, I hope it will eventually sink in inside the heads of some of these people who have been very unconcerned about these things.

We see accidents at construction sites, and on the roads. Everyone knows there are many safety campaigns by the government and NGOs, but the problem is, they are all one-off initiatives, done for the sake of publicity.

Enforcement is poor. When an accident is reported, pledges are made, but nothing really happens, and the issue is quickly forgotten.

There’s also this culture of rewarding those who do wrong – like year-end discounts for summonses. What are your thoughts?

The giving out of discounts for summonses shouldn’t happen. It allows people to collect summonses and wait for massive discounts. I haven’t heard of other law enforcement agencies outside Malaysia that offer discounts to those who break the law. These law enforcement agencies must have a rethink (of such a practice). It is also not fair to those who pay their summonses on time, and in full.

This itself, is an injustice.

The discounts may, perhaps, help those from the lower income group, but the act of giving out discounts has become a culture in the country.

Could you tell us more about yourself?

Lee: I came from a poor family in Ipoh, Perak. My dad worked in a foundry, making iron gates and doors. My mum was a homemaker. They took care of me and my elder sister. I studied at St Michael’s Institution (in Ipoh) and upon completing my Form 5, I worked to help my family out. My first job was with United Engineers.

I was the assistant to the general manager. I was there for a short while when I was approached by (the late) C.V. Devan Nair. (Nair was a founding member of DAP, secretary-general of Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP) and served as Singapore’s third President between 1981 and 1985).

Nair got me a job in the National Union of Commercial Workers in 1968, and that opened my eyes. I learnt that the right to a safe working space was a fundamental human right.

I got involved in politics with DAP, served as an assemblyman in Selangor and became Bukit Bintang MP for four terms. I did not resign from politics. I served until my term (as Bukit Bintang MP) ended in 1990 before deciding to retire from politics.

Although I gave up politics, I didn’t give up serving the people. I’ve been doing so until today, and will continue to do so.

I’m in the midst of completing my biography. It will be completed this year …. a tell-all about Lee Lam Thye.

What will Chinese New Year be like this year for the Lees?

Lee: It will be a pretty sober and quiet affair. It’s just me, my wife (Puan Sri Yap Kooi Hong) and my son. My other son is working in the United Kingdom.

Nothing special, really. Just spending good, quality time together.

What is your Chinese New Year wish?

Lee: The future of our nation is in our youth. We must invest in them. But if the elderly can contribute productively and want to serve, they should be given the opportunity to do so.

Chinese New Year is celebrated by all in this multicultural country. I hope to see Malaysians stay united.

The last two years have been hard for many of us, due to Covid-19. The pandemic is not over, and as such, Malaysians must continue to stand united in the face of such adversity.

I admit, we have a lot of shortcomings, but we must not give up. We must continue to fight.

I hope the government will do more to push our economy.