It Changed My Life

It Changed My Life: Rebel finds his life's sole purpose

Stunned by his father's brush with death in 2004 tsunami, he starts social enterprise to help the needy

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Justine Lee provides school shoes to needy children through his social enterprise Soule.

When Mr Justine Lee was in Primary 5, his Chinese-language teacher threw his exercise book out of the classroom window after he failed his dictation test for the umpteenth time.

As if that was not humiliation enough, the teacher bellowed in Mandarin: "Li Fu De, ni mei you xi wang."

Although Mr Lee, now 26, seethed at being written off as a "no-hoper" in front of his classmates, he did appear bound for a rocky future.

Reckless and rebellious, his attendance and grades were abysmal, and he often took part in fights and raised the ire of teachers.

A close shave with tragedy changed all that. His father, then working as a resort manager in Phuket, nearly lost his life in the 2004 tsunami, which killed more than 200,000 people in 14 countries.

The episode made Mr Lee realise just how fragile life was.

Mr Lee putting on shoes for a schoolboy in Lincang, Yunnan, in 2010. Soule's first batch of flip-flops sold out, and the proceeds were enough to buy 317 pairs of shoes for one entire school in Lincang. Mr Justine Lee was a rebellious child who did ba
Mr Lee putting on shoes for a schoolboy in Lincang, Yunnan, in 2010. Soule's first batch of flip-flops sold out, and the proceeds were enough to buy 317 pairs of shoes for one entire school in Lincang. PHOTO: COURTESY OF JUSTINE LEE

"I asked myself, 'If life is so precious, why am I wasting it?'"

He locked up the rebelliousness and threw away the key, buckling down to weave purpose into his life.

He obtained a diploma in social enterprise, a degree in business and then a master's in community leadership and social development.

In addition to maturity, he developed a social conscience.

While still pursuing his diploma, he co-started a successful social enterprise, Soule, which peddles flip-flops and other products.

A portion of every Soule sale goes into funding initiatives to help children living under the poverty line or survivors of natural disasters.

Earlier this year, he embarked on a new journey. Mr Lee, who was NSF of the Year in 2013, became a career officer with the Republic of Singapore Navy.

"It's like I chose the most disciplined route to make up for the lack of discipline of my early years," he says with a laugh.

Lithe, tanned and athletic, the naval officer has a toothy grin and an easy confidence.

He is a middle child, the second of three sons of the former resort manager father and a beautician.

"I was very, very, very playful," he says. "I was crazy about sports, especially soccer, and I grew up thinking I was going to be a professional soccer player.

"Even in primary school, I would stay out very late playing soccer."

At River Valley Primary School, he played hooky so often he was known as the "ponteng king". His notoriety for skipping classes, turning up late and not doing his homework got him suspended from school for two weeks on one occasion.

One reason he stayed away from school was the fear of his Chinese-language teacher, who was also the discipline master and often rapped his knuckles with the duster whenever he failed tests.

"He really humiliated me a lot in class. I was his nemesis, just like Batman and the Joker," he says, referring to the comic book superhero and his archenemy. Fortunately, another teacher came along and helped him pass his PSLE.

"Ms Ng Wei Ee was my form teacher in Primary 5 and was like an angel. Every day after school, she would sit me outside the canteen and watch me do my homework, and whatever I did not know, she would teach me," he says. "Because of her, I passed my PSLE. My Chinese teacher was shocked because I got a B for Chinese."

Mr Lee putting on shoes for a schoolboy in Lincang, Yunnan, in 2010. Soule's first batch of flip-flops sold out, and the proceeds were enough to buy 317 pairs of shoes for one entire school in Lincang. Mr Justine Lee was a rebellious child who did ba
Mr Justine Lee was a rebellious child who did badly in school until the 2004 tsunami nearly killed his father, who was working in Phuket. Realising that life was fragile, he buckled down, started Soule which peddles flip-flops and other products, got his master's and became a career officer with the Republic of Singapore Navy. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Alas, he fell back into his old ways when he went to Tanglin Secondary School. He joined the school football team, and the game took precedence over everything else.

"We got into fights in almost every match we played," he recalls.

With each fight, he became more emboldened.

His grades started slipping again; he was last in his class. He was almost kicked out of the Express stream into the Normal stream.

But he was given a second chance. His teacher believed he could make it if he just applied himself. And then the 2004 tsunami happened.

Each year during the December holidays, his family would stay at the Phuket resort where his father worked. It was the only time during the year they got to see their father.

The plan that year was for Mr Lee and his siblings to stay until a couple of days before school reopened.

"But my dad was insistent that we returned home on Dec 20. He said we needed time to prepare for school and do our holiday homework," he says, adding that he does not know what would have happened if they had stayed.

On Boxing Day, when the tsunami struck, Mr Lee was at his friend's house, having stayed the night to play computer games.

His father, Mr Charlie Lee, called him a few times early that morning to find out how he was, but his son ignored the calls.

"I didn't want him to know I was at my friend's house," he explains.

He went home in the afternoon to find his mother frantic with worry.

"She asked, 'Did your father call you?' I said yes.

"'Did you reply?' I said no. 'Do you know what happened?'

"Then she showed me the news."

The next three days were the worst of his life. His mother flew to Phuket as the family could not get hold of his father, as all telecommunications services had been disrupted in Phuket.

"I felt so lousy. It could have been my father's last call to me and I didn't take it," he says, adding that he now picks up every call from his parents, no matter where he is.

Miraculously, his mother found his father, who was injured.

"He was already 60 and didn't know how to swim. Most of his staff and guests perished," he says.

Trapped in his room and injured when the tidal waves came in, Mr Charlie Lee managed to cling onto a floating log when he was swept out to sea. He survived by climbing up a giant elephant statue at the resort's pool bar.

In the process, he also saved two children. They stayed on the statue until the water subsided.

The incident changed his second son's life. "I told myself I couldn't let my parents down any more. My dad went all the way to Phuket to work, and could see us only one month a year. What was I thinking?"

Life for the next few years were hard. His father, the sole breadwinner, was so traumatised by his experience that he could not work.

His mother, who stopped working when she got married, had to find a job. The family also had to rely on financial assistance from their church.

Mr Lee also took on part-time jobs - as a waiter at a prawn noodle shop and an assistant at a clothing store - to help make ends meet.

After completing his O levels, he signed up for a business and social enterprise diploma course at Ngee Ann Polytechnic. The decision was prompted by a subsidised humanitarian trip to Henan and Yunnan in China, organised by his church.

Then 16, he taught English and helped to build wells in impoverished rural villages in Lincang, Yunnan. "What I saw was a slap in my face. I thought I had such a hard life in Singapore, but it was nothing compared with the lives of these people... Yet they were happy," he says.

In particular, he was sobered by the sight of children walking barefoot between 5km and 10km through mountainous terrain to get to school. He was so perturbed that he decided he had to do something to help those children.

By the time he entered Ngee Ann Polytechnic, he had a clear idea what Soule, initially called Selfless Shoe, should be.

"Our vision was 'a sole for every soul'. We wanted to give needy children in China easier access to education, which is the way out of poverty. If every journey that they take to school is so painful, then they would associate education with pain," says Mr Lee, who roped in friends John Tay and Lim Jingying as partners for the project.

Their entrepreneurial journey was not always smooth sailing. But things started falling into place when the trio won competitions, such as the Mayor's Imagine Social Entrepreneurship Challenge organised by Central Singapore Community Development Council in 2007, and the Singapore International Foundation's Young Social Entrepreneurs Competition in 2010.

They also represented Singapore in the Students in Free Enterprise World Cup in Los Angeles in 2010.

The seed funding and prize money won at all these competitions went into the business.

With great animation, Mr Lee reels off anecdotes about their hunt for shoe manufacturers in Ipoh and of how they had to plead with an elderly manufacturer to take their paltry initial order for 300 pairs when the minimum order was 5,000.

Their first batch of flip-flops came at the end of 2008, and promptly sold out. The proceeds were enough to buy 317 pairs of shoes for one entire school in Lincang. Mr Lee ran Soule from 2008 until early this year. There was a two-year hiatus during which he did his national service.

He describes his two years in the army as another game changer.

The former rebel acquitted himself extremely well, getting into Officer Cadet School and appearing in Every Singaporean Son. Shown on the National Geographic Channel, the 2010 documentary chronicled the lives of 14 young Singaporean men in the army.

"The military was something I excelled in. I loved the brotherhood, the ruggedness and the discipline."

After national service, he buckled down to growing Soule. Besides flip-flops, he and his partners expanded their range of products to include corporate gifts. Over the years, the company donated proceeds to help thousands of children and survivors of natural disasters.

During this period, Mr Lee also obtained a business degree from RMIT University and a master's in community leadership and social development from the Singapore University of Social Sciences.

Things took another turn last year. The young entrepreneur was picked to attend the United States government's Young South-east Asian Leaders Initiative programme. The five-week programme sets out to develop the leadership capabilities of youth in the region and strengthen US-Asean ties.

Posted to Omaha in Nebraska, Mr Lee had a lot of time to think about his future and what he wanted to do with his life. Soule, he knows, is in good hands. After thinking long and hard, he decided he had to heed the call of the navy.

"I will always love Soule, it's like my baby. But I also love the military. I love leading men. And I feel it's another way of serving," says the combat officer.

Helping others, however, will always be important to Mr Lee, who is also toying with the idea of doing his doctorate in corporate social responsibility. He is positive he can continue doing this in the military.

"When the tsunami struck, the only organisation big enough to save my dad and bring him home was the SAF."

He ends the interview with a grin and a poser: "Think about it. Who can make the biggest difference in times of great crisis and disaster?"

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 19, 2017, with the headline It Changed My Life: Rebel finds his life's sole purpose. Subscribe