SINGAPORE: When 77-year-old Mohamed Yasin gets scolded by a customer – and make no mistake, some can get demanding indeed – it affects him so much, it keeps him awake at night.
“I wouldn’t be able to sleep,” said the petrol pump attendant. “I’d think, ‘Why did I make that mistake?’”
Take the one time years ago when he put in the wrong fuel grade, after a couple differed on the grade they wanted. The woman refused to pay the S$87.
So he told her: “Though my pay is little, I made a mistake and I’ll pay.” His manager later made up for his loss by giving him vouchers.
You could say that for Mr Yasin, his job for the past 15 years at an Esso station in Yishun has been both a source of comfort and of anxiety.
Assurance because, despite the long hours which can be exhausting at his age, the work is a source of income he desperately needs to support his wife and mentally disabled child.
It's a duty to them that he will take seriously – in his words – for as long as he lives.
Anxiety because, as one of the oldest workers at the station, there's always the worry that he could lose his job at any time to younger, fitter workers.
And yes, there are the patrons who find it easy to complain about attendants like him, especially as they wear a name tag.
“As a husband, I have a big responsibility,” he said in Malay. “If I can’t work, I don’t know what I’d do.”
Which is why for the past 15 years, he has been working doubly hard at his job. He shares his story in the documentary Don’t Make Us Invisible, about those labouring in jobs that are crucial to Singapore but thankless at times. (Watch the series here.)
Mr Yasin’s 48-year-old son Amran, the second of four boys, was nine months old when a high fever left him permanently brain-damaged.
All his life, he has been almost totally reliant on his parents. And they have devoted theirs to caring for him. “His disability isn’t that bad. He can speak a little and eat properly,” his father said stoically.
Mr Amran helps clean their flat as he “doesn’t like mess”, shared his mother Iminah. And when she is not feeling well, he'd rub ointment on her hands and feet.
With his strong hands, however, he sometimes breaks things at home, even a window handle once. And he goes into physical fits when, for example, he feels stressed.
His father said: “It’s quite pitiful to observe him going through it, with his face stiffening up, his hands and feet all cramped up. To open his hands is very difficult.”
Both Mr Yasin and his wife doubt that their other sons’ families can ever take care of him, even if his siblings may want to do so. Nor can the couple depend on them financially.
“It’s not that they forget about me. But they’re lacking when it comes to finances," said the elderly man. "It's not that they don't give me money. Sometimes they do."
So he thanks his “luck” that Esso has shown no sign of letting him go – even if it was the merit of his hard work that saw him promoted to senior pump attendant 10 years ago, and that has kept him going all these years.
He earns well under S$2,000 a month, including Workfare benefits, which means he does not get to save very much after paying for daily necessities. But it is enough for his family, he said.
“There’s no need to have a table full of dishes," he said. "If my wife cooks today, she doesn’t need to cook tomorrow – we can eat the leftovers. That’s how we cut cost."
JOB ISN'T JUST PUMPING PETROL
Like the other attendants, he works an eight-hour shift. And each month, he gets six rest days.
He is such a familiar sight at the station that the regulars he often chats with sometimes enquire after him – “the Malay man, the one with the songkok” – on his days off.
WATCH: Dealing with tough situations (3:21)
As one of its senior service attendants, his job is not only about loading cars with fuel, but also about knowing the station’s protocols back to front, even more so than the eight regular attendants.
They must all go for safety training at the Singapore Civil Defence Force once every two years, supplemented with annual refresher courses conducted by Esso.
At these sessions, they learn how to put out a small fire, perform first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation, as well as handle oil spills. And Mr Yasin has attended them all since 2003.
He must also be on the alert for "petrol thieves" – those who fuel up and drive off without paying.
But those are not the only unexpected situations he must be prepared to handle.
While Channel NewsAsia was filming him, something happened that he had never faced at the station: All the diesel pumps malfunctioned – and he had to handle the irate customers.
Trying to maintain service levels, he told one driver: “Sorry, they can’t do anything. The system got cut off. Please hold on a little while.”
But the man snapped back: “What the hell, man? You must tell us earlier.”
Five minutes into the problem, and Mr Yasin and his colleagues were having to minimise the impact on the ground. So they were told to redirect diesel customers to another petrol station, in Sembawang.
Before long, the team returned the pumps to normal, after judging that the circuitry had been tripped.
MASTER OF THE SEA
Long before that, before he started directing vehicles and filling up their tanks, Mr Yasin was steering much larger vessels in a different career – as a tugboat master.
For decades, with his knowledge of local waters and sea laws, he ensured that ships made it through the narrow channels of Singapore’s harbour.
Safety was paramount to building a reputation as a first-class port, and he took that responsibility seriously – not least because his own life was also at stake.
“All it would take was one wrong step, and we could fall overboard,” said Mr Yasin, who did fall into the sea twice.
He emerged unscathed, however, unlike some colleagues who lost life and limb: Manab, who died after his tugboat capsized; Peter, who had a forearm severed by boat propellers; Joseph, who suffered the same fate when a winch rope snapped.
At the age of 62, Mr Yasin had to retire, and his glory days as part of Singapore’s rise were over.
He still misses that life, and the memories came flooding back when he recently visited the Sembawang coast, where he used to work at the shipyard.
“I was a happy at sea,” he said, even though there were times he would not be home for days.
WORK, THE BEST PLACE TO BE
Then and now, he feels “more stressed” at home than at work, he admitted. “It’s healthy for our mental state when we’re working,” he explained.
If I keep staying at home, my mind slows down, I can’t think and I have negative thoughts, especially with my son like this.
Working as a pump attendant at his age can be tiring, especially on the 3pm to 11pm shift, when there are more cars to service. But he shrugs this off, saying: “I’m tired, but so is everyone.”
While attendants are allowed to sit when there are no vehicles, an empty station is a rare sight.
At the back of his mind, there is also that niggling unease about his job security. When two Channel NewsAsia crew members came around one day, he thought the worst at first.
“I told them, ‘If you’re here because you want to fire me, I hope you won’t.’ They were taken aback, then they said, ‘No, no, uncle. It’s not like that. We’re from Mediacorp,’” he recounted.
“I had thought my company didn’t need elderly workers any more.”
Pronouncing that he is “still strong, still active", Mr Yasin added that he is happy to be working at his petrol station. “As long as I can walk and I can work, I would," he said.
“I’ll take care of my child, my wife, for as long as I’m alive … I pray to God to lengthen my life.”
Watch the series Don't Make Us Invisible here. Read about other profiles featured: The 23-year-old out to change the way we think of bus drivers and the food and beverage manager who delivers service with a smile.