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Sunday May 10, 2009

From Kampar to Putrajaya

Kampar MP Datuk Lee Chee Leong is experiencing a wind of change in his lifestyle with his new portfolio as deputy foreign minister.

DATUK Lee Chee Leong comes across as a man of few words. The Kampar MP hardly, if ever, made headlines, not even when he miraculously survived the political tsunami last year.

Some critics say Lee lacks communication skills but many of his supporters beg to differ, saying that he is just being humble.

Hectic adjustment: Lee's new portfolio has elevated him to the world stage overnight.

But publicity is secondary to this politician who stresses that serving the people well and sincerely is the way to stay afloat in the fast-changing game of politics.

At 52, Lee, a first-time MP and Deputy Foreign Minister, is no newcomer to politics, however.

The MCA elected central committee member is a four-term assemblyman (1990 to March 2008) and one-term state executive councillor.

He became involved in politics in 1987 when some MCA leaders approached him for financial assistance to save the party, recalls Lee, son of the owner of a timber and sawmill business in Perak.

The MCA, embroiled in an internal crisis since 1983, was at the brink of bankruptcy then, he says.

Lee agreed to help, and the rest is history.

While Lee may not call himself a reluctant politician, he certainly had no plans to make politics his career.

“My elder brother (Chee Meng) and I were home for summer holidays in 1981. We just submitted our membership application forms to MCA and forgot about it,” says Lee, who graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) in accounting and finance from Bristol Polytechnic, England, the following year and returned home to help in the family business.

Lee’s father, Lee Chai Sean, was then a branch chairman in the Batu Gajah division but he did not encourage or influence his three sons and four daughters to join politics.

In fact, Lee’s political awakening was provoked by his stay abroad.

“When we are overseas, we tend to be more interested in what is happening back home,” recalls Lee, whose first trip overseas, in 1976, was to do A-levels in Hitchin College in Britain.

He spent five years in Britain during which he learnt about race and human relations.

Leaving a comfortable life back home, Lee suddenly found himself in a sea of strangers, many of whom behaved beyond his comprehension, the moment he landed at Heathrow Airport.

The only familiar face he saw was that of his elder brother, Chee Meng, who was there to receive him.

“I stayed with a Scottish family for the first year,” recalls the Chinese-educated Lee who initially found it hard to “digest” the language laced with a heavy Scottish accent and, of course, the Western food.

But the one-year stint turned out to be one that Lee not only cherishes but also serves to remind him that adjustments, mutual acceptance and respect are core values in society.

“I moved out to stay on my own from the second year onwards and got to cook and enjoy Malaysian food,” he quips.

But he continued to experience the many facets of race and human relations – good, bad and ugly.

Lee shares incidents he experienced, such as when his friend was suddenly punched on the face by a white man for no apparent reason. But another white man saw the attack and came to his friend’s help, he says.

1990 was an important turning point in Lee’s life – he married Dr Lee Sieng Shuen that year and also contested and won in the general election for the first time.

“I won the Tanjung Tualang state seat on Oct 21, 1990. The next day was my birthday,” recalls a visibly happy Lee, who turned 33 that year.

He retained the seat (under its new name of Malim Nawar) for the next three terms, and was a state executive councillor (exco) during his second term.

Despite being passed over for the exco portfolio in the next round, Lee continued to serve his constituents well.

“I like to have breakfast in my constituency as this is one way to keep in touch with the people there. We (politicians) must know their problems and needs before we can help them,” says Lee, who is a household name in Kampar.

Apart from his service centre, Lee also runs a mobile service centre for the convenience of his constituents.

His services and dedication to the people paid off when he won the Kampar parliamentary seat with a majority of about 2,700 last year, in the toughest general election since independence.

(The Malim Nawar state seat, where Lee is a four-term assemblyman, comes under the Kampar parliamentary seat.)

With 65% of the 60,000 plus voters in Kampar being Chinese, it is common knowledge that the fight there is an uphill battle.

Local politics makes a difference in non-urban areas and more so in Kampar when the wind of change is very strong.

“I was quite relaxed earlier but started to panic after I lost in the first four boxes of votes. It was totally unexpected,” says Lee, recalling last year’s general election.

MCA won three, including Kampar, out of the seven parliamentary seats and only one out of the 16 state seats it contested in Perak last year.

With politics taking so much of his time and attention, many may wonder how Lee copes with an equally busy wife who is a medical doctor.

In fact, Lee’s focus on politics has been made possible by his wife who, he says, takes good care of their four daughters, aged between 10 and 18.

The Dublin-trained doctor who has a private practice in Ipoh features prominently in her husband’s life, to the point that some party members have mistaken Lee for a doctor.

To this, he says: “My wife’s surname is Lee. Her partner in the clinic is also a Lee. The name of the clinic is Lee and Lee.”

Lee currently has a hectic adjustment to make as his new portfolio has elevated him to the world stage overnight.

His breakfast and walkabout in his constituency and conversing in Chinese, Chinese dialects and Bahasa Malaysia are more of a weekend affair now that his new office in Putrajaya is a three-hour drive away.

For someone so used to the rustic life in Kampar where almost everybody seems to know one another, Lee now has to contend with a posh and quiet office, English as the medium of communication most of the time and, last but not least, lots of protocol to observe.

Lee, who likes reading books on Chinese history, says he also needs to include more topics in his reading list, especially those that are relevant to his new job.


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