Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Surviving In Jungle of Steel

A journey of faith through the jungle of steel and concrete
by Nehemiah Lee

Twelve years ago, I founded Nehemiah Reinforced Soil Sdn Bhd. It is a construction company. The mission is to make a decent living without having to get involved in corrupt practice. The mission seemed naive.

It seemed like an impossible task because the construction industry is rife with corruption. It is a jungle out there made of steel and concrete inhabited by unscrupulous players we called 'the cowboys'. The rule of the game is to do everything and anything possible -- whether corrupt or otherwise -- in order to win, i.e. in order to so-called 'survive'.

As a new low capital start-up with peanut financing from mum and pop, cash flow was extremely tight. All suppliers wanted cash terms from us and all our customers wanted credit terms. Bankers would only lend us umbrellas when our cash position was proven to be sunny.

One of the earliest challenges came from a quantity surveyor whose job was to certify our progress claims. He hinted that if we greased his palm, our claims would be certified much quicker without any hassle.

We would get our money much earlier so that we could pay our suppliers and workers. After all, all the other sub-contractors were doing likewise. We pretended to be stupid, ie., did not take the hint. Sure enough, our claims remained uncertified. Each time we called up, we
were told that there was something wrong with our claims. We had to re-submit time and again. Considering the tight cash flow situation we were in, the pressure to give in was tremendous. I am glad to report that we did not buckle under the pressure; we did get our claims
certified eventually. Somehow, money came in from other sources to help ease our cash flow. We also had understanding suppliers who were sympathetic and supportive.

Another incident demonstrated the challenge we faced as the promoter of a new proprietary retaining wall system. We were bidding for a fairly big project. All technical submissions and clarification had been presented and accepted in principle. But the official refused to
release a letter of approval. We were privately told, "Why should your company be helped?" It was understood that some inducement would resolve the problem. We politely declined to oblige although we needed the project badly. Our faith that divine help would intervene was
severely tested. After some agonizing weeks of silent impasse, miraculously the official relented.

The approval letter was released unconditionally.

Not all cases however ended up well whereby we collected money due to us or we got the projects we needed. For example, we had to take a hair cut because we did not oblige our paymaster by providing the necessary fictitious invoice for him to avoid tax. He was a Dato', by
the way, and a very young one. We lost projects because we refused to pay the 'commission'. We lost a certain competition because the project manager was bribed by our competitor.

The question is how we managed to survive despite our disadvantaged position due to our commitment to the mission. In fact, not only did we survive, we have been doing fairly well by industry standards. Many apparently valid reasons could be forwarded to explain why we are
still around today. For example, we worked very hard. We have good, clean and honorable friends in the right places who helped us without asking for favors in return. We were lucky.

Somehow, we are at the right place at the right time. The market somehow turned in our
favour. And many more valid reasons. But we believe the bottom line is divine intervention. We have received undeserved favour called grace from the Holy One above. Our faith and trust in the Almighty One has been vindicated. We are saved by grace through faith.

The next question is, "Does it get easier now compared to earlier days?"
The answer is, "Yes and no".

Yes, because we are more established now, we have stronger financial footing and we enjoy a good reputation or brand recognition.

No, because the corrupt practices are still quite rampant in the construction industry.
Click here to continue


greyhoundbus said...

Hey there... been a while since I spoke up. Been busy here in the USA =). This post was very encouraging. I had a discussion once with a couple of Christian friends in Malaysia in which they said in business you "got to have your feet planted on the ground" and not "have your head in the clouds". In other words, be corrupt when you have to be.

It's hard for me to answer that sort of assertion because I've only ever worked in the US or for companies in the US, and have no experience in the Malaysian work culture. I don't think my friends were saying that we ought to do "whatever it takes", but they were very strongly insisting that God "understands" if we just cut corners with integrity a little.

The way I see it, God "understands" us and our sin so much that he sent his son to die on the cross for us. That's how serious he understood the problem of sin, including corruption, to be. Every person who is in Christ should be done with lackadaisically and knowingly grieving our lord.

Sure we mess up, and of course it is much harder to have integrity, and I'm not so blind to my own condition as to say I've got it all together. That's *exactly* what the cross is for, and that's why we ask for mercy by virtue of what Christ has done, not what we do for ourselves. But we also pray right after for strength to stand up to temptation the next time around, and I believe God really honors that. But some Christians say "We're just going to mess up anyway, so lets just make the most of it by playing the same game the world plays". It's disheartening to hear Christians treating Christ's sacrifice with such contempt.

We need to hear more stories like this, and spread them around so that Christians quit using cheap excuses. We need to pray that a change in our culture happens, and that it starts with the people of God, as a witness unto him and his redeeming work in us.

The Hedonese said...

Hey bro! It's Good Friday... ur reminder of Christ's sacrifice for us is timely :)

Good to hear from you after a while... I'm doing the graveyard shift now in support of USA, sigh..

Ya! Wouldn't it be great if we have a whole movement of Christians in the marketplace putting their money where their faith is? Stories like these oughta be shared around... We may hurt for being obedient, but we won't die la... Nehemiah did lose some deals but he stays at Valencia still. God is faithful le!

Another good war story from the frontlines... :D Pls feel free to forward around ya?

[April 7th 2006 Edition]

eCOMMENTARY: No Instant Rewards

He had been a Christian for less than a year.
But the conversion was real.
He was a new person.
And it showed in the way he did business.

First of all he began to see his employees differently.
He began to treat his employees and their families as de
facto stockholders in his company.
He began to make all strategic decisions bearing in mind
their impact on the welfare of his employees and their
families, not just with eyes on the bottom line and the
welfare of his investors.
And he refused to pay bribes.
He is a businessman in Malaysia.

As a result of his no bribes policy, many key deals stalled.
His would be the best tender, and awarded the contract in
principle. But there was always one more detail that needed
to be settled before the award could be finalized.
And that detail always needed some kind of "creative
This is a tough time for this new Christian.

You may call him naïve.
And we all know that the whole issue of bribery and
corruption is a complex one.
I am among those who acknowledge a difference between people
in power abusing their power to demand bribes. And people
who are the victims of such people abusers.
Still my new Christian friend is learning early.
Obeying God does not guarantee instant rewards.

Joseph learned this the hard way (Genesis 39:1 - 20).
He refused to play footsie with a desperate housewife.
Apart from sleeping with the bosses wife, who knows what
other rewards was there for the taking if he played along.
But Joseph refused to give in to sin.

It was wrong and a betrayal of the highest order against a
master who had given him so much.
And he was rewarded for his purity and integrity by being
framed by the spurned seducer, and thrown into jail.
No, no instant rewards for obeying God.

The book of Hebrews makes this clear.
Hebrews Chapter 11, verses 17 - 35a list various heroes of
the faith who received tangible rewards for their acts of
faithful obedience.
But verses 35b -39 gives another list, a list of believers
who received no tangible rewards for their faith.
The book of Hebrews also makes it clear that these were no
In fact they were people "of whom the world was not worthy"
(v. 38) and that their rewards awaited them in a promised
land yet to come, which we now know is the new heavens and
the new earth.

Although this is not often preached on, Jesus had already
warned His disciples that:

"Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or
brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or
fields for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who
will not receive a hundredfold now in this age --- houses,
brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with
persecutions --- and in the age to come eternal life. But
many who are first will be last, and the last first."
(Mark 10:29 - 31 NRSV)

Here is clear teaching for followers and would be followers
of Jesus. To follow Christ may entail the sacrifice of what
is most important to us, our closest relationships, and
economic prosperity. (In the agricultural era of Jesus'
time, fields represent wealth and financial security.)

But Jesus also promised (can He be trusted?) that there
would be compensations in this life, the access to the agape
love of His family and access to the resources of that
family. (This begs the question --- as God's people are we
standing by and helping those who have suffered for the
privilege of following Christ?) But Jesus is also clear that
we can expect continuing persecution for following Him in
this age.

Then there is the other promise. In the age to come we will
have eternal life. And if we find this promise somewhat
vague it probably shows that we have been given much in this
age, so much so that the age to come seems unreal.
The reality however, is that this world is passing away and
our sojourn here is short.
But there awaits us an eternity with the Lord, and eternity
described in some degree in Revelation 21 and 22.
Now that's real.

"Many who are first will be last, and the last first."
A time will come when it will utterly clear who are the real
winners and who are the real losers.
But that time is not now.
Now is a time of testing (James 1:2 - 8) and spiritual
warfare (1Peter 5:6 - 11).
This world is boot camp and battlefield. And no one expects
instant rewards in either.

What is going to happen to this new brother, struggling to
be a Christian businessman in Malaysia?
God knows.
Many claim that the term "Christian businessman" is an
oxymoron. Especially in places like Malaysia.
I disagree.
I happen to know a number of Christian businessmen in
Malaysia who have been able to make it and remain "clean".
But they had it tough.

That's the point.
We have been told that following Christ in this world will
be tough.
If we have held back this truth to believers or to would be
believers, then we have not been preaching the full gospel.
Following Jesus will be tough but He promises us His own
presence to see us through.
And in the life to come, He promises life eternal and

Lent is a good time to remember this.
The Christian life is a life of victory and blessings.
But first the Cross.

Your brother,
Soo-Inn Tan

Write me!

GT said...

Wow, i must forward tis to my 'christian' boss in the construction line!!

Jonah said...

Brother, I understand exactly what you meant. I'm in the industry for the last 20yrs. It is impossible to stand clean in this industry. I've to pray to God for many years to deliver me out from this industry because it really did affect me spiritually. Sometimes we have to make the choice which I finally did after much suffering. At the end of the day, I saw how foolished I was. To be in Egpyt you have to be a slave and we need to be delivered from her into the promise land. My advice for you is to pray for direction from God. To be remained in this industry will only jeapodize your relationship with God. Seek His will. I believe He has a better one for you. Amen.