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Lee Thiam Wah: Disabled and Capable

The enigma that is the one and only Lee Thiam Wah, who has shown the world that being confined to a wheelchair for most of his life was no constraint, proving that one’s limit is only determined by oneself. And who would have thought that selling snacks and a few words from a cherished grandma would be the first step towards a successful legacy? The narrative of Lee Thiam Wah, a young man with big goals who successfully navigated Malaysia’s market business, will be laid out in this article.

From Polio Victim to Empire Builder

One can’t help but notice 99 Speedmart’s omnipresence in every corner of any location, which is an ode to the entrepreneurial capability behind the company’s wide reach. Lee Thiam Wah, the mastermind of this empire, was afflicted by Poliomyelitis, a once formidable scourge before the advent of vaccination. This disease left him with permanent paralysis of his lower limbs, confining him to a wheelchair for the remainder of his days. Yet, in the face of this adversity, Lee refused to allow his physical condition to define his limitations or thwart his ambitions.

Born into a large family of ten siblings, Lee’s parents struggled tirelessly to provide for their household’s needs. Faced with the daunting challenge of caring for a child with a disability, Lee’s parents made the difficult decision to entrust him to the care of his grandmother. It was under her loving guidance that Lee found shelter and a nurturing environment in which his dreams could take root and flourish.

“He said simply, ‘I’ve only ever had one job since I was 14, and that’s selling goods,’ in response to Intifm’s question on the secret to his unfailing tenacity and consistency. Being a hawker comes with its own set of challenges and difficult days. However, this successful businessman never used hardship as an excuse. Despite the challenges that come with being a wheelchair-bound hawker, Lee Thiam Wah wasn’t going to give up. He is an example of the idea that a resilient attitude can overcome any obstacle, ultimately driven by his grandmother’s wise words that never fade, reminding him that his impairment is merely physical and not mental.

Although Lee had few opportunities for formal schooling, he had a natural will to excel. He learned from his grandma to be strong and to consider his physical limitations as a challenge to be conquered rather than an impassable obstacle. Equipped with this resolute faith in his abilities, Lee embarked on a mission to make his mark in the business world.

At the age of 14, Lee launched his first venture, marking the start of a path that would transform the town where he grew up into a haven for retail. Through persistence, resolve, and an unshakable work ethic, he transformed 99 Speedmart from a little company into a reputable brand, easily identified across cities by its distinctive orange and blue signage. 

The life of Lee Thiam Wah is a tribute to the strength of endurance, commitment, and compassion that humans possess. He overcame great difficulties and refused to let his circumstances define him. As a result, he was able to create a legacy that would live on for many years.

99 Speedmart-Mini Market-Store-GreenOrange
Image by 99 Speedmart

The Epitome of Success

The initial goal of Lee Thiam Wah was not to start 99 Speedmart. With Pasar Raya Hiap Hoe, a small market, he originally dabbled in the retail industry by trying his hand at selling goods at affordable rates. After observing the positive reaction from consumers and closely examining market fundamentals, Lee identified a promising potential.

Lee bravely and strategically decided to sell his first business, which he divested for RM88,000. With this money in hand and a strong sense of entrepreneurial spirit, he set out on a new quest to open the first 99 Speedmart stores, pushing himself into unexplored terrain. He could not foresee the success that awaited him. 

Lee Thiam Wah’s entrepreneurial journey is marked by his commitment to excellence and continuous improvement, evident in the very name of his store – 99 Speedmart. The choice of “99” symbolizes perfection while also reminding that there is always room for advancement and refinement.

Alliance Bank-Building
Image by The Sun

Despite his success with 99 Speedmart, Lee’s ambition and vision extended beyond the realm of retail. In a bold move, he ventured into the financial sector, acquiring a significant stake in Alliance Bank Malaysia Bhd (ABMB) and becoming one of its major shareholders. This strategic decision showcased Lee’s willingness to diversify his investment portfolio and explore new growth opportunities.

Nonetheless, strategic planning and measured risk-taking typified Lee’s investing style. After giving it some thought, he decided to sell his ABMB shares in 2023 for RM1.5 million. Despite its importance in securing financial investment, this action was made to keep him relevant in a changing market and to maximise the profits on his investment portfolio.

Burger King-Penang
Image by Bernama

Yet, Lee’s business endeavours were only developing. Unexpectedly, he teamed up with Datuk Chua Tia Guan to buy Rancak Selera Sdn Bhd, a business that owned Burger King franchisees in Singapore and Malaysia. With this calculated partnership, Lee’s commercial aspirations entered a new phase as he broadened his company interests and established a larger presence in the food and beverage sector.

In lieu of his ambitions, Lee continues to be driven by an insatiable pursuit of perfection and a dedication to delivering value to clients. 99 Bulksales, one of Lee Thiam Wah’s new strategic initiatives is, to improve market penetration by providing customers with more economical options for bulk purchasing of items. This strategy strengthens the company’s reputation and dependability in the industry while catering to Malaysian consumers’ demands for ease. Malaysian consumers responded favourably to his innovative approach. 99 Speedmart’s quality, affordability, and ease of use struck a chord with customers, accelerating its quick national spread.

Today, with over 2,000 branches dotting Malaysia’s market landscape, 99 Speedmart stands as a towering testament to Lee Thiam Wah’s unwavering determination, astute business acumen, and willingness to take calculated risks. What began as a humble experiment in affordability has blossomed into a retail empire, enriching the lives of countless individuals and leaving an indelible mark on Malaysia’s economic landscape.

Succeed at Your Own Pace

People often overlook the humble beginnings of entrepreneurial ventures. While idolising or taking inspiration from successful people might give a boost to your motivation, it is important to remember that other people’s success is not yours. Lee Thiam Wah’s remarkable journey serves as a poignant reminder that each individual’s trajectory is unique, and the sky is no limit—it is merely the beginning.

To be successful in the field of business, one must be consistent, knowledgeable, and persistent. Lee is an exemplary model of how persistence is essential to bringing aspirations to life because of his everlasting passion and unrelenting commitment to his mission. Be your own pacemaker, where the core to  success lies within the beating heart of your compassion 

Lee Thiam Wah’s story serves as more evidence that greatness may come from unassuming beginnings. Starting modestly sets the groundwork for something genuinely amazing to bloom over time, rather than diminishing the possibility for massive accomplishment. Aspiring entrepreneurs may traverse the challenges of the business world with confidence and perseverance by adhering to the philosophy of steady progress and unwavering resolve, ultimately aiming for the stars and beyond.