Clement Lee was born on a small island called Labuan, a thirty minute flight from Kota Kinabalu on January 16, 1952. Clement's introduction to the sea came about quite accidently and abruptly when a couple of friends pushed him into the ocean. He quickly, and quite gratefully, discovered that he could float by using his hands and feet.
It was uncommon for those of Chinese descent to have much to do with the water, but this did not hold Clement back. It was during a field trip for his science class that his interest was piqued in diving at the age of 18. He was snorkeling as they gathered specimens for the class, while his teachers were scuba diving with tanks. Clement was fascinated that the tanks enabled the divers to stay below the surface while he could not. That was Lee's first exposure to the underwater world of diving, which would later come to shape his life.
Lee came from a poor family and had to help care for his siblings so his education was limited to the sixth form or Higher School Certification.
Clement Lee (R- sitting) with wife Ivy in Sabah Tourism Award in 2001
From 1972-1976 Clement was employed by an Inchape Group, "Borneo Company", marketing fiberglass boats and outboard engines. This enabled him to spend much of his time out on the water with local fishermen and boating enthusiasts. It was in 1977 that he set up his own company of marketing various brands of outboards.
In 1983 Clement met Randy Davis, an American dive instructor, as well as Ron Holland, a British assistant dive instructor (who has since left Borneo Divers as partner and director) who came to Sabah for leisure and decided to conduct PADI courses. This meeting would change Clement's life. Lee enrolled in the first
Clement Lee in his office
PADI open water course conducted by Randy Davis and became certified. He recalls the huge impact his first underwater dive had on him and his entire life course. "When I first dipped my head in the water and took my first underwater breath in the blue ocean, I thought to myself that I was so 'minute'--so physically small in the vast underwater medium." Clement was moved by the harmony of the sea life he observed in awe and felt "free"...free from the noise and pollution, traffic and machinery of life topside. Lee appreciated the peace that prevailed amongst the sea creatures that had eluded mankind. The seeds were sown in his heart at that time that would later grow and move him to
Clement Lee (L- sitting) with the Sabah Governor
take an active role in protecting this pristine underwater environment.
Randy, Ron Holland and Clement went on to become friends and partners and set up one of the first dive operations called Borneo Divers and Sea Sport. They were the pioneers who led the PADI trademark throughout Sabah. Sabah is one of the states of Malaysia and is situated on the northern end of Borneo, which is the third largest island in the world.
Clement & Borneo Divers went on to build Sipadan Island Dive Lodge on the island of Sipadan and to develop it into one of the top dive spots in the world. He went on to become one of the first two PADI Course Directors in Malaysia in 1991. Borneo Divers was the first to bring international divers to Sipadan in 1984.
Clement Lee (R) receiving the PADI Award from Henrik Nimb in CDTC 2001
The operation had humble beginnings and their basic facilities consisted of tents. As the operation grew, Clement began to view the intense magnitude of the local marine life as treasures that needed to be protected.
It was in 1987 that the crew of the Cousteau research ship, the Calypso, came to the waters of Sipadan and met Ron Holland who was then on island of Sipadan. The crew of the Calypso immediately notified Captain Cousteau of this hidden treasure. Clement was able to meet the man who early on had inspired his interest in diving when Cousteau himself came to Sabah and then to Sipadan island. This visit resulted in a much publicized documentary on Sipadan, causing the dive business in that area to explode. Cousteau commented, "I have seen Sipadan 45 years ago and now no more, but now I have found an untouched piece of art." Moved by the rich marine life
Clement with Wylan in Sipadan (2004)
he observed, Cousteau encouraged the local operators to treat the island as a precious jewel.
As time went on, more and more operators set up dive resorts and thus began the huge influx of divers. Concerned with the fragile environment, Clement and Borneo Divers spoke many times to the Malaysian government about imposing limits on the number of dive operators and divers, but in vain, due to the economic politics at the time.
In 2003, the Malaysian government, having won the disputed overlapping claim in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over Indonesia, asked all the dive resorts(there were 6 operators at that time) to vacate the island of Sipadan. Despite the financial loss he was facing, Clement and Borneo Divers immediately complied, moved by the sole desire to do what was right for the environment. It was always Clement's goal to have the island and the
Clement Lee (6th from right) with a group of Tourism Malaysia officials at Borneo Divers Mabul Resort
surrounding underwater environment protected and so he and Borneo Divers willingly moved his operation to Mabul Island and set up the Borneo Divers Mabul Resort. He admits that this was indeed the biggest decision of his entire life and it was a decision motivated by unselfish concern for the environment he so loved.
Clement makes the observation that when he and Borneo Divers first arrived in Sipadan in 1984, he would have ranked the health of the underwater environment as a "10" on a scale of 1-10. However, over the years the marine life and corals were declining and by the time they vacated the island, the scale was somewhere between 3-4, at the very most.
After vacating Sipadan, the government imposed restrictions on how many divers and dive operations could visit Sipadan a day. To protect the underwater life, the government imposed a limit of 120 divers a day and allowed only 12 registered operators to have access to these permits. Even though Borneo Divers was the pioneer dive operation, they did not receive any advantage over the other operators in terms of a daily permit quota. Together with 3 other bigger dive resorts, Borneo Divers receive only 14 permits daily.
Despite the financial loss, Clement insists the sacrifice is worth it. Seven years after the exodus of Sipadan, scientific expedition and research discovered the tremendous improvement in water quality and improved marine life. Clement himself has personally witnessed more turtles, sharks, and the return of
Clement Lee with family
pelagic fish such as tuna to those waters, as well as numerous other marine life.
Clement is adamant that given the time and care needed, Sipadan will return to a scale of "10." This recovery of the Sipadan environment remains one of Clement's proudest accomplishments. Clement tours the world with his Sipadan presentation, holding the island up as a "role model" for rehabilitating environments on the verge of destruction at mankind's hands. Clement and his associates' willingness to vacate Sipadan Island without a cent of compensation proved the sincerity of their words.
Borneo Divers' cries about the welfare of the reefs were echoed by many of the top divers of that time; Jacques Cousteau, Ralph Erickson and John Cronin (PADI Co-Founders), Stan Waterman (cinematographer), along with Drew Richardson (PADI's President). Those sharing Clement's passion for the underwater environment found a voice in the Project Aware Foundation, whose mission statement is: "protecting our ocean planet, one dive at a time."
Clement continues to be very busy with his dive operation, Borneo Divers, in Madul Island. Working closely with Project Aware over the years, Lee has helped organize 200-300 divers and
Clement with PADI President Drew Richardson and YM Tengku in Sipadan (2004)
non-divers in underwater clean up in Mabul and Kota Kinabalu Mamutik Islands. One of Clement's pet projects is Coral Transplanting. Borneo Divers Training Institute was developed to train and certify professionally qualified people to take care of this delicate dive industry. Clement's pioneer dive resort, founded in 1984, has helped to create a force of more than 2000 locals working in the various dive centers and resorts currently.
Lee also devotes much of his time to Sabah Tourism Board, which is run by the government. He encouraged and helped developed their film library and much needed promotional materials. Lee serves as Chairman of the Sabah Tourism Dive Committee. When Clement started in 1984, there were no divers in Sabah; today there are about 46,000 divers who visit each year.
One of Clement's personal achievements was to have his family certified as divers. His wife, Ivy Soo, and his two daughters are certified Rescue Divers
and his son is an Advanced Open Water Diver. Lee's environmental activism is not restricted to coral transplanting and artificial reef projects; he is working on Shark Conservation and the "No Shark Fin" Campaign, as well. Despite the tremendous amount of time he devotes to these causes, he still finds time to play golf, a sport he loves. In fact, he is already working on a Drive and Dive package through Borneo Divers for divers who love to golf.
When asked about any humorous or dangerous diving adventures, Clement recalls a close call near the island of Bohey Dulang while diving with a group of divers. Clement was ahead of the group and while he was descending to a depth of some 15 meters, near a sandy bottom, a sea snake came right up to him and actually tried to "squeeze" into his loose BCD. Clement could see the startled eyes of the other divers looking on and he instantly grabbed its neck and pulled it out of the BCD. The next thing he saw was the other divers
Clement Lee presenting a book on Sipadan to Tun Mahathir - former Prime Minister of Malaysia
clapping their hands underwater. He notes with a wry smile, "strange...none came to my aid."
Clement continues to fight for the underwater environment he so cherishes. He feels that the environment, particularly the ocean environment is our "Silent Partner", "one that doesn't speak, but one that will fight back." He cites the classic example of humanly induced "global warming" which results in corals bleaching out and affecting the rest of the food chain, ultimately affecting humans. "If the oceans become sick, so do we." It is his passion to protect the environment as well as his pioneering efforts to establish and maintain a dive operation that honors and harmonizes with that underwater world that places Clement Lee among the Legends of Diving.
Awards that Clement has received:
- PADI Certificate of Recognition for Excellence Award USA-1993
- Excellence in Diver Resort Operation Award by PIRA (PADI International Resort Association)—1994
- PADI Certificate of Recognition for Excellence Award for Outstanding Customer Service & Professionalism in PADI Scuba Instruction—1994
- PADI Outstanding Achievement Award in Recognition of 12 Years of Excellence in Dive Retailing & Dive Travel—1996
- Malaysia Tourism Award 2000—Outstanding Contribution to Tourism Industry (Private Sector)
- PADI Award—Outstanding Contribution to the Dive Industry 2002
- PADI Award—In recognition for outstanding effort in making the March 2002 Kota Kinabalu Course Director Training Course a success
- UNEP & Project AWARE Foundation—In recognition of outstanding effort in making 2004 Coral Reef Conservation Workshop a success and commitment to conserving underwater environments
- PADI Instructor Development—In recognition for outstanding effort in making the March 2005 Kota Kinabalu Malaysia Course Director Training Course a success, (March 2006 & 2007 as well)
- PADI Asia Pacific Member Awards 2008—Tourism Award
- DEMA Reaching Out Award 2008, USA
- MIDE Achievement Award 2009 (MIDE: Malaysia International Dive Expo)
- PADI Asia Pacific—Outstanding Contribution to the Diving Industry (June 2010)
- Dema's Reaching Out Award 2008
- International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame (ISDHF), Cayman Island (2011)
(ILD would like to thank Clement Lee for contributing the pictures and information included in this biography.)
Clement (R) with PADI staff in Project Aware (2000)
Clement (2nd from L) with daughter Stacy (his left) and others at MIDE show
Clement Lee (L) with Tourism Malaysia in Hong Kong
Clement Lee with Daughter Stacy
Clement with divers in Sipadan (2006)
Clement with the Ministers Intergrity Award
Clement with the Sabah State ADK Award from Governor (2006)
Clement during a presentation