GAME CHANGER: Portrait of a Dabawenyo as SEC Commissioner

At his office.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (commonly known as SEC) is the government agency in-charge with the registration and supervision of corporations and securities, as well as capital market institutions and participants in the Philippines.

To us, lesser mortals, SEC is totally a different world. It’s difficult to decipher this world unless you are involved in corporations and capital market institutions.

It so happened we know of someone who is connected with SEC. In fact, he is a SEC commissioner in the person of Atty. Kelvin Lester K. Lee.

His position may be intimidating but in person, if you meet him personally, he is kind and generous with his time. He is straightforward when he talks about his opinion; he always thinks first before opening his mouth.

Atty. Lee has a sense of humor, too, but oftentimes, he talks with sense. He looks straight at your eyes when he wants to emphasize something. He smiles if he thinks the situation is somewhat intense.

He was appointed as SEC Commissioner in 2019 by no less than then President Rodrigo R. Duterte. “I was honored that the president chose me for this position,” Atty. Lee said.

As Commissioner, he is given the task to supervise the markets and securities regulation department, the information and communications technology department, the PhiliFintech (Philippine financial technology) innovation office and the international affairs and protocol division. He is also in-charge of the capital markets, sustainable finance, Fintech and information technology, and international affairs.

Those herculean tasks could make someone to experience vertigo. But not to Atty. Lee. “It is perhaps the best job I have ever had,” he admitted. “I enjoy being able to make a positive change in the sector I am handling. I enjoy pushing innovations and encouraging improvements in the financial sector and capital markets.”

SEC Commissioner Atty. Kelvin Lester K. Lee with his family.
SEC Commissioner Atty. Kelvin Lester K. Lee with his family.

Being a SEC Commissioner is a great responsibility. This is the reason why he has become more cautious, he said. “I am more careful in my public statements, for instance, as any statement I make could affect the stock market,” he stressed.

When it comes to his family, he does not talk much about them as he is worried about their safety. “Back in 2019, I recalled that the chairperson and a few commissioners (myself included) received death threats in relation to some enforcement actions we authorized against investment scams,” he explained. “It was difficult experience because I hadn’t expected I would get such threats as a commissioner.”

Threats aside, Atty. Lee said the most challenging task being a commissioner is getting particular projects out in a certain time. He cited the time when he was overseeing the roll out of SEC’s digital services such as the Esparc (SEC registration program), the Efast (the online submission tool), the Epaysec (the online payment portal) and the SEC App, among others.

“Getting those out during the pandemic and having them operational within a specific timeframe was very, very challenging,” he said. “I am happy to say that with the collective efforts of the people in the SEC, we were able to successfully roll those out and now you can incorporate a company within minutes, online. In fact, you can access a full suite of online services of the SEC from end to end now, making the SEC one of the more advanced government agencies when it comes to digital transformation.”

As a SEC Commissioner, Atty. Lee is doing his job well. In fact, he recently received two international awards for his leadership in promoting fintech innovation in the country. Out of more than 800 nominations across the region, he clinched the Gold Stevie Award for Thought Leader of the Year at the 10th Annual Asia-Pacific Stevie Awards.

“It feels great,” he said of getting the prestigious award, which could be confirmation of his exemplary performance. “It’s always wonderful to be recognized for all the hard work and changes you are pursuing at a government agency. And I was quite surprised to get the Gold Stevie Award, which is the highest level of the award for thought leadership. I feel so honored!”

In addition, Atty. Lee was also recognized as an exceptional FinTech Regulatory and Innovation Leader by the Asian FinTech Academy.

As SEC commissioner, he has received several awards already.
As SEC commissioner, he has received several awards already.

“I also am quite happy to receive this award,” he admitted. “It’s significant as this was the first fintech award I received this year and which recognizes all the fintech policy work we do in the sector. It is often very hard to know if you are doing the correct thing when it comes to regulations and policy work, especially in a field as dynamic as fintech.”

With all the thrills, the challenges, and the awards he received of being a SEC Commissioner, will he still pursue the like of life he has now? He answered affirmatively but added, “However, I would definitely make one major change in my life – and that is to lose weight!”

Atty. Lee has indeed come a long, long way. To think, he dreamed of being a scientist when he was a kid growing up in Davao City. “I never thought I would become a lawyer, much less a government official,” he said.

He graduated at the Ateneo de Manila University in 2000. “I took Legal Management because at the time I had started becoming interested in doing business but I thought it best to have some legal background so it would be easier to get into business,” he said. “I never imagined it would help lead me to becoming a lawyer, years later.”

As fate would have it, he attended Ateneo School of Law and graduated in 2008. “The best part was learning all these interesting laws,” he recalled. “I found law fascinating as it opened up a whole new realm of knowledge. And for someone like me, I really enjoy learning new things.”

The worst of becoming a lawyer was the pressure. “The pressure to excel, much less pass the bar, was very, very hard,” he said. “And I honestly am not sure I could do it again today. That’s why I have the utmost respect for bar examinees. The challenge of getting through a bar exam is always hard.”

Atty. Lee took the bar in 2008. While waiting for the results of the bar exam, he worked with the Siguion Reyna Montecillo and Ongsiako Law Office in Makati City. When the results came out the following year, he stayed and worked with the same law office.

“I only left Manila when my family and I decided to go home to Davao,” he said. This was around 2013. He decided to stay in Davao City for good but then Rodrigo R. Duterte became the president of the Philippines.

Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea invited him to join his office as an assistant secretary, which he accepted.

“It was great,” he said of his stint at assistant secretary of the executive secretary. “I learned a lot from him, on how to deal with problems and issues of a national scale, and how to handle crisis, among others.”

But there were other important things he learned from Sec. Medialdea. “Among those I learned from him were how to stay calm under pressure, to get as much information you can, and assess all the evidence and perspectives before you make a decision,” Atty. Lee said. “To have a leader panic during a problem does no one any good. I try to apply those lessons even now as a SEC Commissioner.”

Despite all the hectic schedules he has, he still has a time working as a law professor at the Rizal Memorial College School of Law.

“I started teaching back in 2019, and I focused on Corporate Governance and later on in Corporate Law for Commercial Law Review,” he recalled. “I usually teach one to two days a week over zoom. And it is very difficult to manage the time considering my busy schedule as a SEC Commissioner. But I consider teaching very important, so I try to make the time.”

Talking of time, he said that time is the hardest part of being a law professor. “Time management,” he said. “Balancing the time between work and teaching and of course family, is very, very hard.”

So much so that for the 2023 school year, he said he had to take a break “as the demands of the office have been a bit too much, especially with the many meetings.”

As part of his job as SEC Commissioner, he is also oftentimes invited to be a guest or invited speaker. He also does lectures.

“Making the topic interesting to the audience,” he replied when asked on what makes lectures challenging. “I usually lecture on very complex topics such as corporate law, corporate governance, fintech policy and sustainable finance. So, it is often a challenge to keep the attention of the audience for an extended period of time on such difficult topics.”

Ten years from now, Atty. Les still sees himself working in law, and perhaps technology. “I hope to still work in government and trying to make a difference,” he said. “But more importantly, I foresee I will still be a happy family man, with a supportive wife, wonderful kids, great mom and siblings and a very fulfilling life.

His final words: “Working in government can be quite fulfilling. I encourage young lawyers and professionals to enter the arena and work in government to try and make a positive difference.” (Photos courtesy of Atty. Kelvin Lester K. Lee)

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