As part of a series of stories profiling people of influence from around Beca, we asked Lee Ang Seng, who is Managing Director of Beca in both Singapore and Myanmar, to tell us about his career journey and life outside of work.
I didn't come from a wealthy family. I lost my father when I was only 14. I have two sisters, and my Mum had to bring us up in a very difficult environment, back in the 60s and 70s. We lived in a village, or kampong in Malay.
I graduated with a diploma in electrical engineering but I didn't pursue my degree right away because the family was pretty poor then, so I helped out my cousin in his contracting company for a while.
Later, I had a choice whether to purse an engineering degree or otherwise. I'm a very people-centric person - I like to deal with people. That's why I chose to pursue a management degree rather than engineering. I graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Management with honours.
It was through working with my cousin that I was introduced to the built environment industry and that’s where I had interactions with consultants. I said to myself, that could be the kind of job I want to go into. I applied for a job with a consulting company in Singapore and they offered me a job as a project engineer.
After a few years I was ready for a change and wanted to get some on-site experience. I applied for a job as Resident Engineer on a project - the conversion of a 40,000sqm warehouse to a fully airconditioned merchant mart. That was only a one-year contract, but the consultant on that project was Beca. When that contract ended, Beca invited me to join them in 1993.
When you were a kid, what did you think you wanted to do with your life?
Growing up in the kampong, my exposure to lots of things was fairly limited. At that time, Singapore was in its development stage as a country and lots of factories were being set up. Lots of people in my neighbourhood took up roles in a factory. I was just a young boy, less than 10 years old but I recall that I wanted to join a factory production line to become a production supervisor – either that or a bus driver! As a young boy, I loved big vehicles and the idea of driving a bus was fascinating to me.
What’s your home life like now? Who do you live with?
I have a lovely wife and three kids. My eldest son is working with the Ministry of Defence in Singapore. My second boy is studying medicine in Scotland. My daughter is studying Social Sciences at National University of Singapore, where my eldest son graduated as well. I’m blessed that my children are all very good in their studies. Two of my kids are living at home, and my aged mother also lives with us.
Does the family enjoy having Grandma at home?
There’s always a generation gap between my Mum and my kids, and so sometimes they don’t see eye to eye in certain ways of living. For example, my daughter wakes up late in the morning, but my Mum, being of the Asian mindset, always feels that you have to wake up early and go to bed early. So there’s always tension there - though my Mum is getting used to it now.
There was a time last year when my Mum was suddenly critically ill, and my kids were panicking because my Mum fainted. I was interested to see what my kids would do: my daughter hurriedly attended to my Mum while my son called the ambulance. And I felt that despite all the squabbles they may have sometimes, during an emergency the love really showed up. I felt quite touched by that.
Do you have any pets at home?
No, because my Mum is very sensitive to pets. My daughter has been asking if we can have a dog. I say no, because we have to respect Grandma, she doesn't like pets.
I keep fish in a small man-made tank that looks like a mini “pond” on the balcony of my apartment. My mum loves it, she likes to take care of them. She feeds and talks to them and tells me about them sometimes. She’ll say, “That fish was very naughty this morning, digging the soil”.
Do you have hobbies outside of work?
I like to keep on learning and acquiring knowledge. So these past few years I did an MBA and graduated just when COVID struck. I wanted to learn new management knowledge. It’s also a demonstration to my children that you don’t ever stop learning. Even at my age (I was 57 then), I could still get my MBA.
About 10 years ago, I found that I like golf. It’s actually a great opportunity to network with people. I’m a lousy golfer but it doesn’t matter, so long as you can hit the ball. If you invite a client to lunch, you only spend an hour or two with them, but when you play golf you spend half a day together, and to me that is of great value.
How did sustainability become part of your life?
In 2019, some friends in the industry including a colleague encouraged me to join the Singapore Green Building Council. I felt at that time that dealing with climate change is really key - it's a very urgent issue not just in Singapore but across the world. I was voted into the Council by the industry in 2019. This year I was appointed President of the Council and I like this role because it gives Beca an enhanced profile in the market; it gives me a chance to get to know even more people in the industry including the opportunities to mingle with those in the Government Ministries; and also to champion decarbonisation in our built environment industry.
What has kept you at Beca for 30 years?
The culture, the people and the projects.
When I became Managing Director back in 2013, a client called me one morning to offer his congratulatory greetings. In that conversation, he gave me two pieces of advice. He said, “continue to build the shoulders that you can stand on”. What he meant was, your leaders are important, they’re the ones that will help you. And secondly, he said, “don’t divorce yourself from the industry and the work - you are good with projects”. I thought that was great advice. Even today I’m still a Job Director of very large projects in Singapore. Thanks to our people at Beca, we have created a huge reputation as one of the best consulting engineers in Singapore. These are the reasons that keep me at Beca.
How would your friends describe you?
I think people would say I’m a likeable person, quite approachable, down-to-earth, and friendly, and that I tried to treat everyone with respect.
What would your kids say about you?
My two boys wouldn’t say much but my girl is more expressive, she is always saying to me, “How did you ever make it to where you are today?” She still finds it very amazing, because I didn’t go through the normal route of getting a degree, not even an engineering degree.
Do you think your kids understand how different your childhood was, to theirs?
I don't think they can visualise that, though I do share with them the stories about childhood days and how difficult life was. I guess the story I'm always trying to bring to them is, they will have to find their own success in life, and sometimes, they have to go through setbacks and failure in life to achieve that. It may not be a kampong village life like I had, but you can learn from failure to find success. Sometimes failures bring success later on, provided they take them with the right perspective.
What career advice do you give to graduates?
I would always advise graduates to focus on their goals, rather than worrying about how much they will get paid initially. Where do they really want to go? What are they really good at? Understand yourself first, play on your strengths and then go for it – and don’t stop learning. That’s my advice.
Chinese New Year is coming up soon (February 10-24). What is that time like for you?
All of my cousins will take turns to come and visit us over those 15 days, to see my Mum, who is 83 this year. It was the same for my family when my Mum’s sisters were still around – we would go and visit them. Now my Aunties have passed on, so we stay at home and welcome our guests. We usually have a meal together and it’s fun to catch up with the relatives you haven’t seen in a whole year. I really enjoy that time. And we have the tradition with the red packets – as a married man I have to give red packets to all of the children in the family who are not married yet. It’s up to us how much money is inside. Once you’re married, that’s it – no more receiving red packets. My wife is the financial controller in our family so she makes sure the kids’ money gets banked rather than spent!