Former IMF economist returns home to serve
Lee Chee Sung: VI 1962-1966
If you’ve had an illustrious career with a globally-recognised organisation abroad and were looking forward to a well-deserved retirement, would you return to your homeland to continue working for your government? Well, that was exactly what Dr. Lee Chee Sung, Advisor at the Institute of Labour Market Information and Analysis (ILMIA), did. He returned to Malaysia after 32 years of service with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington D.C., USA under the Returning Expert Programme (REP) in 2009.
“This is my way of giving back to the country,” Dr. Lee said during an interview at ILMIA recently.
Although he wanted to enjoy a slower pace of life after retiring, fate seemed to have different ideas for him.
“When I came back, I got a call from the Prime Minister’s office. The call sounded something like: You’re coming to work for us,” he said, laughing.
Returning to familiar shores
Upon returning to Malaysia, Dr. Lee was entrusted to work on the national economic development strategy for Malaysia in his new role as Executive Director at the National Economic Advisory Council.
Subsequently, he was assigned to the Institute for Labour Market Information and Analysis (ILMIA) where he helped to draw up labour market indicators for analysis, develop workforce profile of industry sector and critical occupations, work on upskilling and reskilling programmes in the context of Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) and tertiary institutions of higher learning, and analysing issues surrounding the implementation of unemployment insurance and minimum wages.
The REP made the transition home a positive experience, especially since it enabled his Salvadorian spouse to obtain resident status.
He also said that it was not too difficult assimilating back into Malaysian society because he returned to Malaysia every two years throughout his tenure at the IMF.
“Every month, I get together with the people that I grew up with. When I was studying in the VI, I was a member of the Boy Scouts. We – this group – get together every month and talk about the old days,” he grinned. “And, of course, I have my family. My brothers and sisters and cousins. We get together regularly.”
“Were there any challenges? Obviously when you’ve been away for a long time, there will be challenges,” he continued.
“You need to adapt to what you thought was there but is not there any more. Things have changed. The first thing that struck me the most when I came back was the lack of diversity in government offices and government-linked companies (GLCs). And looking at the population statistics, Malaysia is now an ageing population.”
Dr. Lee also spoke about the urbanisation of Malaysia and the country’s issues with town planning.
“This is the whole point of looking at other countries – to learn from their conditions and not making the same mistakes in our country. We already have this advantage of learning from people in other countries. Digital-wise, we have also learned from others.”
“We have a lot of good labour market information. What we do not have is enough people to analyse and disseminate the information. We also have to move towards having better ways to collect data,” he said, commenting on Malaysia’s present labour market.
One of the main projects that he’s currently working very hard on is to create real-time data.
“For example, if a person is unemployed today, I will know about it the next day. And I will know where, which job, how much this person was paid and what qualifications he or she had. This will give an accurate picture of the current employment situation and help employees and employers with their future planning.
“Nevertheless, to ensure the success of this project, employers need to update their complete information into the system instead of just focusing on updating payment information i.e. income tax and Employees’ Provident Fund contributions.
“I am also working on another programme called the ‘Warga Emas Programme’ where senior citizens can contribute to the country in various ways, either through the sharing of their knowledge or aiding through other means. I would like to accomplish these projects and call it my last hurrah’,” he said, smiling.
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Dr Lee Chee Sung passed away on May 23, 2019
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An Eulogy for Lee Chee Sung
I have been asked by Nansi to say a few words about Chee Sung but there are not enough words in the world for this.
Chee Sung, or Sung Ko, as I called him was just a year older than the four Rabbit cousins born after him, including me. Both of us were the eldest boys in our families. I had a more privileged upbringing - nicer clothes, birthday parties, trips to Port Dickson etc ....... but I grew up envying him ! That’s a strong word - “envy”. Envy is the desire to have a quality belonging to someone else.
When we were young there was a cartoon character called “Dennis the Menace”. Let’s be very clear ...... that is not how I remember my cousin. Chee Sung was not a terror, noisy or naughty kid but he would somehow end up in all sorts of situations. Small and wiry in stature, he was as I would describe him - quietly mischievous. I envied that.
He would miss dinners because he spent hours on top of the roof of grandma’s apartment watching kite fights and waiting to pounce on the losing kite even if it meant running across rooftops. I was not allowed to do that.
He would come home with marbles and spinning tops in his pockets, winnings from other boys. I was not allowed to do that.
He would find tadpoles in ponds and keep them in jars. I was not allowed to do that but I did rebel once and joined him but, unfortunately - wanting to pick more tadpoles than him - was careless and fell into the pond. I was not allowed to do that again ever ....... but he got away with it.
So you can see why I looked up to Chee Sung. We all got caned when we were young but Chee Sung was a slippery customer and would many times run up to the roof before granny could get to him. I was not allowed to do that.
Chee Sung was always full of surprises. With his track record of running around, playing marbles, flying and chasing kites etc., I never saw him read books or study. Although we both went to Pasar Road primary school I never walked to school with him. Come to think of it I never saw him in school!
The final year in Primary school, we all sat for a final examination which would decide which secondary school we went to. All of us wanted to go to the V.I. or the Victoria Institution, the best school in Kuala Lumpur, and only the top students from primary schools would be admitted.
In his Primary 6 year Chee Sung was announced in the school assembly as the top Primary 6 student in PRES 2. Lee Chee Sung ! His friends were shocked, the teachers were shocked, we were shocked ....... that was Chee Sung!
So he got into the V.I. In the first year Form 1 they put him in the A class. By year 2 Chee Sung was in the D class. But he was a most active student and found his calling in the 1st KL scout troop. Camping, hiking, rafting down the Klang River, climbing mountains, he would find many soul mates with his spirit of adventure and many of them today would attest to this. He epitomizes the bonds of scouting and many of his brother scouts who said their farewells in the last few days will miss him dearly.
I don’t know how Chee Sung got through secondary school but he did and, lo and behold, he went overseas, completed his graduate studies and was the first and only Ph. D. in the family. Wonders never ceased and Chee Sung continued to shock and awe us in working his way up in the IMF and managing through various financial crises.
When he retired from the IMF he came home to KL and in the last few years was advising the government. What a guy!
I am not ashamed to admit I envied my cousin. Who wouldn’t? Against the odds he achieved amazing results academically and professionally. That envy turned into unabashed admiration. I have worked in banking for nearly 40 years and - bless him - Chee Sung never held me personally responsible for all the financial crises he managed.
Chee Sung had a big heart. Despite his successes he continued to be humble, unassuming, and forever kind and loving to those around him.
Working in Washington DC, he would regularly visit my aging parents in Toronto or other relatives around the world. My daughters thought he was a cool Uncle as he danced with them in our Toronto gatherings and when he was based in Tokyo he would host and take them around. This he would do for all his family, brother scouts, friends and those who knew him.
All of us who knew him well, will have experienced his generosity, his love and friendship and his no nonsense sense of humor. He never fussed about himself but would always fuss and take care of others. That was my cousin Chee Sung.
This October I was to join him and Nansi on their Camino walk in Spain. Lay Tin and her friend had joined them before and had a great time as Chee Sung had arranged all the logistics for them. I was too busy working to join in the past and I was really looking forward to this walk in October. In fact last October he had wished me a happy retirement from Spain and was already arranging for us to join him this year. I was finally, after 68 years, going on an adventure with my legendary cousin.
When Chee Sung told us he had to cancel the walk early this year I was very disappointed. When he called me to tell me why I was shocked and devastated. I asked him if I could help and as usual he brushed me off. I asked Lip Kee in Singapore for his opinion and shared it with him. He said he had consulted Twee Juat and his other doctor friends and steps were being taken. He told me he first had to have a valve replacement operation in March, a simple one, followed by another for his bladder and chemo. After all that there was nothing to worry about.
When I found out he had arranged the heart operation in March, I insisted Lay Tin and I would come up to KL. He, of course, said it was not necessary. For the first time in my life, I ignored him and flew up. I was hoping to be able to help him with preparations etc., but when we arrived he was busy servicing the car so we could not catch him until dinner. Then, the next day, on the day he had to check himself in he went to work in the morning. That was Chee Sung always dedicated to his work. We picked him up after lunch and checked him into the hospital. He was still insisting he could manage himself.
After the operation we left, as Nathaniel was around and at that time it appeared everything was going as planned. Chee Sung had convinced me that if all went according to plan he would be fine in time for Nathaniel’s reception in London. I desperately wanted to believe that as well and on returning to Spore I booked my flight to London for August to be with him. After all this was my legendary cousin Sung Ko who was as tough as nails and strong as an ox. To me he was invincible. As per the 1st KL scout song, “he was tough, mighty tough in the troop ....”
Chee Sung fought a good fight but, alas, he has now left us.
We gather here today to remember and commemorate his life. As we say our farewells - Nansi to a loving husband, Jonathan and Nathaniel to a fantastic father, Ah Yin, Chee Tuck, Wah Looi, Chee Meng and Lai Looi to a great brother, for us in the family, a beloved cousin and uncle, and, for everyone else, goodbye to a dear friend and brother scout.
We celebrate his life - that of a lively and dignified soul. A soul that brought joy and fulfilment to many. He may be gone but his memory will live on forever in our hearts.
God Bless You and Rest In Peace, Sung Ko. Amen.