A metallurgist has nothing to do with hard metal music, although some of them might be musically inclined, of course, but not Lee Kok Loong.
The Petaling Jaya-born engineer, who has a doctorate in metallurgy, studied engineering and then worked in Britain for 20 years.
He recently returned to Malaysia under TalentCorp’s Returning Expert Programme. His return is two-fold though – to share his expertise and success story, and to be back with his ageing parents.
While a medical doctorate initially seemed on the cards, his aversion to blood put paid to that ambition quite quickly.
“I knew I couldn’t handle that kind of situation every day, especially after I had witnessed a blood donation drive,” the 40-year-old voiced his fears.
While dealing with blood might have been daunting, he was always game to open up his toys and study their mechanisms. “I could put some back together, but not others,” he said with a wide grin.
His school years were spent at SRK Kelana Jaya and later, SM Seaport. “I was not passionate about science while in school, but physics interested me.”
Higher education saw him pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering at Sunway College, a course twinned with Leicester University, where he spent 1996 through to 1998 earning his paper qualification.
There was a watershed moment during the final year of his degree, when he realised that material science was where his heart was.
“I was conducting a fatigue test for the wheel of an F1 car, and I realised that this fascinated me,” he shared. Curiosity on the density and tensile strength of metal may not have been a childhood preoccupation, but a seed of interest was planted and it began to grow.
A sterling set of results earned him a full scholarship from the British government to do his PhD in the deformation behaviour of copper, chromium composites, and while that required adeptness at juggling his priorities, given he was working eight-hour days as a material technologist, he even found time to write a textbook.
But how many parents are accepting of their child’s career pursuit if it doesn’t include the road map that leads to becoming a lawyer, doctor or accountant?
“My parents were very supportive. Of course, what I was studying was quite niche, but I was quite confident I could get a job.”
Fortune favours the brave, they say, and being around like-minded people in his later years of education and the early period of his work life ramped up his conviction in what he was doing.
“It was nice to learn from experts in the field. I only knew things in theory initially, but it was a great opportunity to learn from pros who had 20 to 30 years’ experience. I truly appreciate their advice.”
Lee was eventually head-hunted by Britain’s largest steel manufacturer, Corus (now Tata Steel). In his second year (2005), he submitted a paper which examined the benefits of boron treatment in medium carbon steel, an endeavour that amounted to saving the company £100,000.
The paper won him the steel institute prize in the young members’ category of a competition organised by the Lincolnshire Iron and Steel Institute. As his prize, Lee got the chance to visit POSCO in South Korea, which in 2004, was ranked the fifth largest steel producer in the world.
POSCO’s rise to the top reads of the proverbial tale of the over-achieving underdog, and Lee was drawn to that.
“Initially, they were far behind in their technology, but came up through hard work. Their mills are very clean, unlike others. Trees are planted all around, which provides fresh air,” he said, reminiscing on his time there.
Proud of his achievements
Lee has earned the distinction of being a materials testing specialist, a highly-regarded one at that, conducting materials testing for the aerospace, oil and gas, marine, power generation and automotive industries. Some of his past high-profile clients included Airbus, Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Shell, British Petroleum and Mercedes.
He is brimming with pride in being listed in the 2006-2011 editions of Who’s Who In Engineering (world’s leading scientists) and Who’s Who In The World (world’s most distinguished persons).
“I’m very proud of the achievement because the likes of Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking are also in there,” he enthused.
He has also co-written the text book Structure-Property Relations In Nonferrous Metals with American author, Professor Alan Russell, a challenge he took on when he was only 27. His most recent success comes in the form of his appointment to the British Standards Institution Committee, an expert committee that has developed some of the most widely adopted national and international standards in the world.
This metallurgist really loves animals
But Lee’s life isn’t all about atoms and accomplishments – he is also an animal lover who has dedicated time from his busy schedule to participate in fund-raising events with the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) in England.
“I wish I could have kept a dog myself but I was travelling so much then ... any pet would’ve been neglected. So, instead, I gave my time to these causes,” he said. He is specifically a dog lover, and likes any and all kinds of dogs.
Now that he’s back, Lee has moved away from his expertise in metallurgy and is focusing his energy on oil palm cultivation. He is presently the business development director with KMT Group, which has its own plantation and mill. As an aside, he is also actively promoting the benefits of jackfruit, his latest endeavour which finds him commuting to and from a Pahang-based orchard.
Lee takes pride in everything, from his humble beginnings, to his devout interest in playing badminton, accomplishments in metallurgy, time contributed to animal welfare and his decision to return to Malaysia to be with his folks.
But one that nobody would guess is linked to football.
“I’m very proud that I studied in Leicester, a place where the club won the English Premier League,” he said, intimating that the club’s 5,000-1 odds of winning the title last year makes for a great story.
Could it be the same kind of fairy tale that saw a simple PJ boy achieve critical acclaim in a highly-specialised field that he has identified with? One is compelled to think so.