Under the Influence: Datin Dian Lee
Under The Influence asks entrepreneurs quick-fire questions to learn more about the people behind the business news headlines.
Think you’re busy? Try being Datin Dian Lee, a film producer and director, property guru, yoga teacher and mother of three. At 22, Lee became one of the youngest property developers in Malaysia when she founded The Clearwater Group—an award-winning boutique property development company. From there, she went on to build the Be Urban Wellness retreat in Kuala Lumpur, where she aimed to share the peace she had discovered through teaching advanced yoga with her peers.
But it was last year when her career took an entirely new direction. Around the 2018 Malaysian election, Lee started producing and co-directing a documentary about 92-year-old presidential candidate Mahathir Mohamad, whom nobody expected to win. However, his shock defeat against his one-time protégé, the incumbent Najib Razak, made Lee’s documentary extraordinarily prescient—and hotly anticipated. It is due for release later this summer.
Here, Lee talks success, spirituality, Sapiens and why we should all be dancing in the rain.
What books changed your life?
Oh, heaps of them—I love The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle. I think that was an eye opener for me because it was one of very few books that I had read about mindfulness and spirituality when it came out. It was a fascinating story, and really taught me more about being present. I have tried to be religious: I was brought up as a Buddhist, and I was very curious about Christianity in college, but reading this book was the missing bit of the puzzle for me. Another book that really put things into perspective was Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari– you can’t go through life without reading it, and understanding the role we play on this planet.
What’s the most important thing in life?
To be present. There is so much noise out there, and it’s essental to know that our time here is just a moment and one we have to make the most of. Look at the grand scale of things and see how small our lives are. What’s important is putting things into perspective without getting distracted by everyday busyness.
My media guilty pleasure is…
I spend too much time much on social media—Instagram in particular. And I love to eat sweets while I’m scrolling!
How do you relax?
I practice yoga and I love staying active, so I run or go to the gym with my family regularly. I used to have an edible garden and grew a lot of my own food; in fact we have a farm with chickens in our home in Kuala Lumpur. Although it’s very neglected at the moment because I’ve been so immersed in the documentary. We still have chickens and eat our own eggs, but once the film is released, I look forward to growing more of our dinner again.
If I had an extra hour in my day, I would…
Spend time with my kids—you never have the feeling that you’ve spent enough time with your children. Mine are at amazing ages—11, nine and five—and I just want to be with them.
What advice would you give your teenage self?
I would ask her what she would do if she had no fear. I think fear is something that holds you back, particularly when you have an Asian background—the fear of not doing well and all that.
In 10 years I want to be…
I would love to be doing less not more. And enjoying the simple things. In my dreams, I will one day move to somewhere by the beach and run a coffee shop and be a florist.
And who do you idolise?
Oprah [Winfrey] and Ellen [DeGeneres]. They are such inspirational women and broke so many glass ceilings—Ellen’s generosity, courage, humour is unparalleled, and I think she is a brilliant example of a woman using her power for a greater cause. Amal Clooney and Michelle Obama also epitomise the ideal modern woman for me.
There is so much noise out there, and it’s really important to know that our time here is just a moment in time, and one we have to make the most of.
— Datin Dian Lee
Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Amal, Oprah, Ellen and Michelle, of course.
What’s the most important thing your parents ever taught you?
To be true. And to stay grounded.
The best advice I ever got was…
To ensure I made the best use of my time, because time is the most precious, precious gift we are given.
And the worst…
When things have got tough at various points of my career, certain people have told me to just give up. Obviously, I disagree with that.
I love this quote…
“Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass but learning to dance in the rain.”
The secret to success is…
There is no formula. I think the more important question is to ask yourself what success is. I personally don’t believe you’re successful simply if you have money or power; I believe you are a success when you are true to your values and you give back to society. I firmly disagree with how our society sees success—there are so many people who deserve to be lauded but aren’t because what they've achieved isn't financial.
Don’t let anyone ever tell you…
Money is everything. You need money to survive, yes, and it’s great if you can make money doing what you love. But at the end of the day you need to give meaning to your life. Don’t focus only on financial gains, instead try to find a way to live your passion and be true to yourself.
What do you want to be remembered for?
Someone who was kind and who has left a positive impact.
What was the worst job you ever had?
Right after college, I started my own company, so I’ve never really had a traditional employee role. Although being your own boss can be the worst job of all.
What’s your favourite film?
I loved The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, it really made me think about the concept of ageing and how we change over our lifetime.
What’s your phone or laptop wallpaper?
Pictures of my kids—they’re the wallpaper on every device I own. There’s nothing in the world I love more than them.