Lee Kok Kin – Never a wastage on education, time or drive

“If you don’t study hard, you’ll end up collecting garbage on the streets” was a constant refrain Mr Lee Kok Kin would hear from his mother during his student days. Her words never cease to amuse him, and understandably so, for over the years, he has climbed the corporate ladder and was recently appointed as CEO of SembWaste Pte Ltd, a leading waste management company.

Though most would consider him as having arrived, not many knew that his life journey has not been all smooth sailing. He experienced the lowest point in his life when he failed his Secondary Three examinations and had to be retained for one year. He revealed, “It felt terrible to be held back when your peers are progressing to Secondary Four and graduating ahead of you.” “Never let a good crisis go to waste,” so says Winston Churchill. And that was lived out by the young Kok Kin in the days that followed when he transformed his deep despair into a strong resolve to study hard and do well so he would not have to experience that pain again.

Spurred by his interest in Physics and anything hands-on, he decided to study engineering in polytechnic after his GCE “O” Levels. He enrolled in the then Diploma in Electrical Engineering at Singapore Polytechnic (SP) – a no-brainer as SP was a mere three bus stops away from where he lived. He enjoyed the lessons, and that cemented his conviction that engineering was what he should pursue in the future. “I like the idea that you can do something useful with your hands.” It was also at SP that he forged close friendships with eleven of his course mates, with whom he still maintained contact to this day.

Mr Lee Kok Kin

Upon graduation from SP and after serving NS, Kok Kin started his career with SP Group as a technical officer while doing a distance learning degree in Electrical and Electronics Engineering with the University of Southern Queensland. He conceded it was tough juggling work and studies, but what kept him going was his strong desire to stay close to the industry, something that a full-time study would not have allowed. He graduated after five years and was promoted to engineer. Two years into his new designation, he felt he was getting stagnant and requested a transfer to other departments, something quite unheard of in those days. Fortunately, his superior understood his passion for learning new things, and throughout his career with SP Group, he was given opportunities to be exposed to different areas such as project management and risk management. When asked if it was daunting to try out new areas, he shared he would not allow himself to be constrained by negative thoughts, a piece of advice he felt applies to everyone, regardless of their stages in life. “Never say never. If you don’t try, you will never know if you could succeed or fail.” It was this belief, coupled with his passion for learning and a steely focus on the goals ahead, which steered Kok Kin to achieving two pinnacles in his life. He set out to become a Chartered Professional Engineer before the age of 35 and to attain an Executive MBA with The University of Chicago Booth School of Business at the age of 40. On the latter, he confessed it was a steep learning curve, having to juggle work, studies and exams, and dealing with a subject vastly different from engineering – financial management. His antidote was reading voraciously. He believed that if he read beyond what he should, the benefits reaped eventually would be worth his while. Describing his eureka moment, he said, “Ultimately, something will click. You will see the big picture, like why you are studying all these. You will realise that there is indeed a purpose behind everything. And what you are studying becomes so much more meaningful.”

The knowledge in financial management has stood Kok Kin in good stead as he shoulders his new portfolio at SembWaste, and deals with areas that deviated significantly from engineering, such as strategic planning and streamlining process flows. He also ascribed value to the engineering education he received at SP that allowed him to frame problem resolution in a structured manner and thus enabled him to pivot across the different disciplines in his line of work. Integrating insights from both his engineering and financial education, he opined that it was imperative for one to consider the long-term ramifications of an issue, as opposed to thinking merely about the issue at hand and how to resolve it. Forging ahead in his career with SembWaste, a leading sustainable environmental services provider, he is looking forward to exploring the potential of waste management and helping the nation transform to a circular economy.

Kok Kin is grateful for the education that SP had provided him, which nurtured him to be the problem solver that he is today. Hence, giving back to his alma mater came naturally to him. In 2015, he brokered a five-year $1 million sponsorship (by his then company SP Group) to support SP’s participation in the biennial World Solar Challenge in 2015, 2017 and 2019. Given his emphasis on good values, it was not surprising that his topmost criteria for selecting employees were integrity and a positive attitude.

In closing, Kok Kin offered two pieces of advice. One was the importance of self-reflection. “When you make a particular decision, ask yourself if you could have done it better.” That led to the second advice, which was to be able to accept criticism and use the feedback to improve yourself, be it professionally or on the personal front.”

Kok Kin has come a long way since his secondary school days to be the CEO of SembWaste. He may have taken a longer path than others in his educational journey but in retrospect, he reckoned the experience had shaped him to be who he is and what he stands for today.