Few people command the same measure of respect from their peers as that reserved by the Asian diving community for Clement Lee. A staunch conservationist with unrelenting views on the importance of protecting and conserving the region’s unique marine attractions, he has had a profound influence on the growth and development of recreational diving and dive tourism to this part of the world.
Born in Labuan, an island strategically positioned at the mouth of Brunei Bay and one whose rich and varied maritime past has made it a favoured destination for avid wreck divers, Clement Lee’s entire working life has revolved around ships and the sea.
Now residing in Kota Kinabalu, in the Eastern Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo, where he has lived for more than forty years, he was a former founding partner in Borneo Divers and the first of Malaysia’s PADI Course Directors prior to his retirement in May 2012.
A recipient of a ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’, presented to him at ADEX2014 – the region’s largest annual dive show – by John Thet, the publisher of ‘Asian Diver’ and ‘Scuba Diver AustralAsia’ magazines, the following interview first appeared in 2002.
Q. How did your career in diving begin?
In 1983, at a time when I was dealing with boats and outboard engines, Randy Davis and Ron Holland – my soon-to-be partners in Borneo Divers – came to my office to ask me if I was keen to start a diving company. I said Yes! It was as simple as that.
It was Randy who first certified me as an open water diver; and because of my keen and growing interest in diving, I always sat in on his classes, particularly when he was teaching Malaysians. Since Randy hails from Tennessee, students sometimes experienced difficulties understanding his expressions. Often loathe to admit that they perhaps hadn’t fully understood what he was saying, I found myself translating and, after each classroom session, explaining the concepts of diving to them. I mentioned this to Randy. “You may be the Instructor, but I am the one who is doing the translation and the teaching.”
By that stage my interest in teaching diving had risen to the point where I found myself travelling to Sydney to attend the first PADI IDC.
Q.Your name has become synonymous with that of Borneo Divers. To what do you attribute the company’s success?
It’s certainly not a single-handed effort. It has come about through all of us – the partners, (Ron, Randy, Samson and myself) and the staff – working together as a team. But most important of all is the support that we enjoy from our friends and customers all around the world who believe in what we do and who have confidence in us.
It’s fair to say that, in that regard, the business has evolved around two simple principles. First and foremost it’s our belief that success in the diving industry depends upon employing professionally qualified people prepared to maintain the highest of standards in the way that divers are trained. Secondly, we introduced the concept of Resort Management. We are not going to develop an area for diving if such development damages the environment.
Today we are very proud of the fact that the dive industry in Sabah, either directly or indirectly, employs over 500 people who, between them, are responsible for some ten per-cent of Sabah’s state tourism revenue.
(Edit.: Today – some fifteen years after the above interview – the dive industry in Sabah employs, either directly or indirectly, more than 2,500 people, with dive tourism now commanding about 7% of Sabah’s total tourism with an estimated value of over RM250 million.)
Q.The environment is something that’s close to your heart. How do you view the changes wrought by the increased numbers of dive resorts throughout the region?
The key word here is, ‘sustainability’. Any dive resort will be sustainable if it has a proper management plan in place together with a firm commitment by its operators towards achieving those goals.
No two resort islands will have, for example, the same carrying capacity. There are many ecological equations to consider, but ultimately it depends on the attitude of those who manage the island. This has become the real issue. But with detailed study and data collection on each physical environment then a “limit to acceptable changes” indicator can be determined and properly monitored. The carrying capacity figure for each resort cannot simply be plucked out of thin air.
Q. How do you view the future of diving in Asia?
It’s my sincere belief that any significant growth in diving will centre on Asia. The region possesses all of the natural attractions and resources and there are, already, some very strong diving destinations such as the Maldives.
Malaysia is certainly an upcoming market, but it’s full potential is still to be realised. Just how big that potential will prove to be is an unknown quantity at present. But if the diving industry tackles the issues that confront it properly then the Asian region will prove to be the diving destination for many years to come.
Q. Given Asia’s growing appeal as a dive tourism destination, what are the greatest hurdles confronting Asian dive operators?
Dive tourism is still in its infancy compared with other sectors of the market and although it’s certainly maturing it is still, at times, vulnerable. (The recent publicity surrounding Fiji, Sipadan; the Philippines; and the Solomons, are clear examples of external forces that cause setbacks to the industry.)
At present we lack any sort of structure that would allow the region’s diving industry to sit down together to discuss those issues that are of common concern and seek solutions to the challenges that we all face.
Establishing a regional body that represents the entire industry is an obvious first step. One that would not only give us a cohesive voice in matters that impact on diving but that would also provide an integrated approach to marketing the region’s diving attractions: The rationale being to promote Asia as a single destination before spilling over to each separate country.
But before this can happen everybody involved in Asia’s diving industry must be willing and committed to resolving the matters that affect us all.
In an information technology driven world, this should be something that’s as simple to achieve as pressing the letters on a key-board.
Q. Workplace Health & Safety issues are coming to the fore. What, in your view, should the regional operators be doing to lessen the impact on their businesses?
The diving industry needs to openly show that it is capable of managing its own affairs properly. Which is why I maintain that it must be handled by professionally trained and qualified people.
Working with government is an obvious way to go. As an example of this, the Malaysian Government recently established a “National Occupational Skill Standard” (NOSS) for diving. Rather than allowing the government to draft these job competency standards, the Malaysian Sport Diving Association (MSDA) gathered all of its members together, including all of the Training Agencies, and sat down with the government representatives to discuss the issues. As a consequence, we have established a Malaysian Diving NOSS based on input from the entire industry: An outcome that proves the worth of establishing good working partnerships.
(Edit.: Clement Lee was, at the time of interview, Vice President of the Malaysian Sport Diving Association.)
Q. It’s an obvious question, but what is your favourite or most memorable dive site?
The dive site that remains closest to my heart is Sipadan. I may sound biased but where else can you find the same simplicity in terms of diving logistics? One minute you and your buddy can make the decision to dive while sipping coffee in the dining hall, and in the next you can be hovering on the walls dancing to the tune of the schools of jackfish and barracuda. Organising a night dive on the wall is as simple as that. And the prolific concentration of marine life in Sipadan is simply magic to behold. Divers are never disappointed.
(Edit.: In 2004, Borneo Divers was the first of Sipadan’s five dive operators to recognise the importance of protecting the island’s fragile eco-system by agreeing to the government’s request to vacate the island. Willingly making an enormous financial sacrifice in order to conserve Sipadan’s unique environment, Clement Lee takes justifiable pride in their support of the decision. )
Q. Finally. What does diving mean to you?
Diving has changed my life. It’s changed the way in which I view things. Through diving, I’ve become more aware of my surroundings. (That’s what divers do underwater. They don’t talk. They simply observe, enjoy the moment, and have fun). Because of diving, I’ve certainly become more conscious of the fragility of the environment, its importance to humanity and our dependency upon it.
With just thirty per-cent of the earth’s surface covered by land, we still manage to find so much that is new. Surely, in that seventy per-cent that is covered by water, there are even greater discoveries to be made?
The oceans have much to teach us. Mankind can learn a great deal from the thousands of marine species that live in a perfect harmony of ecolological balance. They don’t kill for pleasure as humans do.