Leadership Recall Interview with Ir. Chen Thiam Leong
A leadership recall interview with Ir. Chen Thiam Leong was conducted on January 2011
  1. How did you become an engineer? Was it your childhood ambition?
When growing up I had the habit of taking apart toys and reassembling them although most of the time with extra screws left behind. At age 8, I avoided serious injury when sixth sense told me to wrap the modified bulb with cloth before I turned on the light switch and the whole bulb did explode. I suppose it was a natural progression that I did not only aspire to be an engineer but specifically a mechanical engineer.
  1. You were in the BOG of MASHRAE in 1998.  What were some of the events that you have contributed to?
I was approached by 2 past presidents to join the BOG in the early 90’s which I politely declined as I opined there were enough potential candidates available to serve then. However, in 1998 when MASHRAE embarked on the ODS project, I volunteered my services and agreed to join the BOG in the process merely for the convenience of reporting and monitoring of the project. I left the BOG in 2000 when the project was deemed concluded. During this short stint, I suggested the formation of MACRA (perhaps more of a revival since there was a similar set-up albeit more than a decade earlier). For the record, the reward for being a busybody is that till this day, I am still retained as MACRA Advisor. Perhaps my other significant contribution then was to promote the culture of “pay to serve” in an NGO.
  1. You made a comeback to the BOG of MASHRAE in 2005 and went on to become the President in the 2007-08 session. What have been your major contributions? Which event or development that you have contributed was the most satisfying? What positive changes have you noticed in the progress of MASHRAE to-date?
When I left the BOG in 2000, I had the excuse that I need to serve other NGOs. By 2005, I had run out of excuse, having completed my term as President of ACEM (The Association of Consulting Engineers, Malaysia), IFEM (The Institution of Fire Engineers (UK) Malaysia Branch) and KDSF (Kiwanis Down Syndrome Foundation). So, I eased myself back into the BOG and before I could blink, I had to take the mantle as president in 2007. During my term, I saw the next stage of maturity of MASHRAE where the practice of recycling of the excom posts of President and Honorary Treasurer was discontinued. Networking and comradeship continued but in a more altruistic form. On the international front, I committed the Chapter to hosting the IAQ 2010 International Conference which to my delight was successfully concluded recently (10-12 November 2010).
In terms of progress in the Chapter, I see a steady flow of new faces joining the BOG after some mentoring. This augurs well for the future although I must admit that with a single year term, we will be hard pressed to have a new president year in year out, given our limited total membership base. Nonetheless, we must continue this important approach of training up leaders and giving them a chance to lead, after all that’s how gems are uncovered and what ASHRAE is about.
  1. In your opinion, how can ASHRAE contribute to the society especially with issues of sustainable development and global warming?
There is no question about ASHRAE’s contribution to the global society as ASHRAE is the de facto global authority on HVAC and is even listed in our Uniform Building By-laws 1984. Hitherto, ASHRAE has successfully lived up to its reputation in its continuing and excellent delivery system. In the area of sustainable development, history has shown that ASHRAE has either been at the forefront of this topic or responded very quickly to new related concerns. Amongst the excellent leaderships demonstrated by ASHRAE are the advancement of Exergy awareness and development, driving towards net zero energy buildings and the ever dynamic classification of refrigerants to address ODS and GWS.
ASHRAE’s relentless pursue of excellence in the HVAC agenda is certainly without parallel. I particularly subscribe to ASHRAE’s catch phrase of the “Science & Arts of HVAC”, and never fail to highlight to my audience that Science can be learned from the books but it is the Arts of HVAC that separates the men from the boys in this industry.
  1. Tell us briefly about your career as an engineer. Has it been fulfilling and challenging?
I really cannot ask for more having been blessed with a career that I aspire for from the word go. Engineering is of course a very wide field in all aspects from its disciplines to its scope. There is really no ideal engineering field one can identify with. In my case, while in varsity, I excelled in computer programming and industrial designs but ended up practising thermodynamics which was my worst performing subject. However, engineering is engineering as you just need to hunker down and work on it and excel in it.
Not unlike many others, my first job offer led me towards the field I had pursued till this day. (I had actually checked the postmark to accept the first one to offer me when faced with multiple offers after waiting for months!).
I had also been fortunate to be able to chart a complete career path in the building services industry by working with a manufacturer, vendor, contractor, consultant, owner, resident site engineer, before settling down for good as a consultant.
The fulfilling part of my career would undoubtedly be the opportunity to give back to the society in terms of imparting and sharing one’s knowledge while the most challenging part would be to continue to do so and at the same time earn your keeps. To this end, I must thank my most understanding business partners over the years.
Regrets? Could have been one – a fatal one at that – if my pioneering design of a fully uninsulated and ductless UFAD system exceeding 600 sq.m. zone had failed. I had responded to a query (just before commissioning) then that if my design fails then it is the end of my career! I guess I was spared on that embarrassment so that I can continue to test my design limit.
  1. Can you tell us about your unique roles as a professional person and as a community person since you have been a past president of ACEM, IFEM, MASHRAE and KIWANIS KL Club and Kiwanis Down Syndrome Foundation? Can you share with us your most satisfying experiences?
The trick to finding a volunteer is to get someone who is absolutely busy as the busier that person is, the more committed and productive he will be with the little spare time he has. I suppose that’s how I have managed to juggle my involvement in national service and community service all these years. Of course, there is a price to pay and hopefully a small price. In my case, my eldest son grew up calling my father in-law papa instead of me initially. I got that corrected with my second son and fortunately, they both know who daddy is when they grew up.
To go through my journey as presidents of the various NGOs would be too laborious as the memories are overflowing and the experience is simply humbling. Serving technical NGOs is certainly different from serving community service clubs – the latter enriches one’s life and makes you realise how lucky you are. The fact speaks for itself as I have been serving the Kiwanis club and the Kiwanis Down Syndrome Foundation for the last 25 years and enjoying every minute of it and will continue to do so.
Serving technical societies on the other hand tends to include additional challenges in terms of peer pressure, facing those with conflict of interests, swallowing your pride, test your patience, recharging your batteries to avoid giving up – a need to build and solidify your character and then to regularly test it to the limit.
At the end of the day, it is your peers who will judge whether you have served well with sincerity, dedication and above all altruism. In this respect, I have been more than amply rewarded not only through recognition in terms of awards but more satisfyingly by the general public – the caring and sharing society you have contributed to through the Kiwanis movement.
  1. Have there been any changes in the air conditioning practices in Malaysia since you commenced your career? If there are, what are the major changes that you have noticed?
There have certainly been many changes some for the better and others for the worst. As I tend to be a perfectionist, I am inclined to single out the deteriorating practices with the fervent hope that bad publicity will generate guilt to improve.
Over the past 30 years, the level of HVAC advancement in terms of new technologies and products are evident. Some off-the-cuff advancements I can name, would be energy wheels, heat pipes, VAV, desuperheater systems, UFAD, thermal storage, chilled beams/pipes/ceilings, embedded chw slab, low level displacement, VRF, solar thermal cooling, ODP & GWP issues, and so on. The deteriorating practices would include HVAC contractors gradually becoming merely management contractors resulting in degrading commissioning and maintenance standards, advent of cut and paste designers due to less teaching of HVAC fundamentals; more and more unscrupulous practices since HVAC installations represent the highest value in M&E installations.
I am also an optimist and applaud the advent and growing applications of energy efficient designs and operations, and of course sustainable designs.
  1. You have been instrumental in the development of GBI tools. In your opinion, how would you like to see the development and progress of GBI in the country?
Before I touch on GBI, I would like to reminiscence on other societal issues with some tinge of similarity that I was involved in.
Whenever something new is introduced, there will always be criticism and in Malaysia, we tend to have a very vocal minority as compared with a silent majority. If my skin has been anything less than the thickness of an elephant’s, I would probably have given up long ago.
I recalled my first major stand was on the issue of ODS and CFC where I was accused by certain quarters of being bias. It took 2 long years for my stand to be proven right. Next came the Fire Certificate issue followed by the Certificate of Completion and Compliance – once again time has fortunately proven these agendas to be beneficial to the industry. Of course there had been many more issues relating especially to the practising engineers that I chose to take up despite the brick brats as I believed in these causes.
The GBI issue has its fair share of this vocal minority except that the global pace for the green agenda is moving so fast those issues have evolved into ‘jealousy’ rather than opposition to the idea.
Rather than causing the pioneers and prime-movers of the green agenda to slow down, all interested parties should learn to cooperate and not duplicate each other’s effort. There is just so much to be done that no one person or group can do it alone and be up to speed with the global progress.
Dedication and sacrifice is immense and perhaps I can relate my personal experience to drive home the point.
I took a 2-week working vacation in 2008-9 to finalise the GBI Non-Residential New Construction rating tool. For the GBI Industrial rating tool, I took a 3-week holiday recently to do likewise. As much as I continue to be one of the drivers of GBI, it is my personal opinion that there is no necessity for GBI to be made compulsory. Peer pressure is a more sustainable approach as it compels both sides (the users and the promoters) not to sit on their laurels.
  1. Are you proud of being an engineer? What is your advice for young engineers?
This question is rather unfair as my answer must surely be an affirmative. In recent years, when speaking to undergraduates on the topic of Engineers in Society, I impart that “Engineering is the most productive profession as anything we do contributes to the betterment of mankind”.
When faced with the ridiculous encroachment by a certain profession lobbying the government to pass an Act permitting only them to be licensed to manage and maintain properties, I had this to say …… You hear of engineers becoming lawyers, remisiers, etc – but never the other way round? Hence, if we engineers do not lay claim to any services, no one else should even think of it.
To the young engineers, be proud that you are the cream of the society because our education system is such that if you are smart, you are automatically put into the science stream where engineering takes its root. When you join the work force, it is the passion in engineering that will drive you to success and achieve satisfaction.
Another favourite quote of mine to all engineers young and old, “Do not be afraid to teach all the 10 skills that you know. In the unlikely event that your best student masters all 10, you would have acquired your 11th”.
  1. You have obviously won many awards in your illustrious career but which is your most treasured award of them all?
I must reiterate that when one serves the society one must not look or even hope for recognition as this is a guaranteed route to disappointment. Passion and altruistic service is the key to your ultimate satisfaction.
To answer your question, indeed there have been many awards and the treasured ones are those given by your peers.
Top of my list would be from my Kiwanis peers who have recognised my contribution by giving me a record 3 Kiwanian of the year awards and the Kiwanis International Hixon award. But the most treasured one in my community service is not an award but the unofficial community nickname of “Mr Crackapot” for my role earned in the charity fund raising Kiwanis Treasure Hunt series.
The ASEAN Energy award is a treasured one more for escaping from the “end of my career” statement if my design had not performed.
The most treasured of them all has to be the ACEM Gold Medal award from my engineering peers – this one infers that I still have a lot of friends despite stepping on so many toes all these years.