SINGAPORE: For nearly 30 years, he worked in a kind of solitary confinement, with the sky, the stars and the wind for company.
Perched seven storeys above ground in a tiny glass-and-metal cabin, as Mr Lim Chin Chye put it: If there was a problem, you couldn’t just turn around and ask a colleague “why like that ah?”
Well, except maybe his “girlfriend”, whom Mr Lim sometimes found himself speaking to.
Like in a crunch when jobs were piling up, and she acted up. “I’d tell her, she can throw whatever tantrum she wants when I’m not so busy,” recalled the veteran yard crane operator with fond humour. He sometimes spent five to seven days at a stretch working with the same machine, such that it felt “like home” – or a girlfriend.
These days, after operating the manual cranes for so long at PSA Singapore’s Keppel Terminal, the 53-year-old container equipment specialist rather misses being inside those towering machines.
But, in a time of sweeping change at Singapore’s port, Mr Lim understands that you have to let go of the past and embrace the future.
The future, in this case, is a mega port at Tuas that will be the world’s largest fully-automated port once completed. All of PSA’s container terminal operations will move there progressively from 2021.
For staff like Mr Lim, an automated future means having to pick up a fundamentally new set of skills to do with computers and digital screens, instead of controls inside a machine.
That’s a challenge one must take on – even if you’re a tech “dinosaur” (as Mr Lim calls himself) who still clings to his vinyl records at home.
“Everything is high tech now. Do we want to be left behind?” he said.
There’s help. PSA – tapping on the support of Workforce Singapore’s Professional Conversion Programme (PCP) – has been sending staff like him to be retrained and redeployed to new roles at its Pasir Panjang Terminal.
It’s home to the world’s largest fleet of automated yard cranes, numbering nearly 200, and a testbed for Tuas.
WATCH: Keeping up with change (5:56)
IRON RICE BOWL
Mr Lim was 23 years old when he interviewed for a job that he “didn’t know anything” about, but needed urgently because he was newly married and had applied for a flat, which required him to have Central Provident Fund savings.
He knew only that PSA, then the Port of Singapore Authority, came under the Government at the time, so such jobs would be “regular and stable”.
“The older generation called them an iron rice bowl. So long as you do your part, there’d be food on the table.”
Armed with only welding certification then, he thought himself lucky to be selected. His father, however, disapproved initially of the job because of the perceived danger of working with big machinery and heavy cargo.
He also had to climb up and down the cranes, in rain or shine. Thankfully, he was not afraid of heights.
Still, on his first solo shift – which was at night — he felt the jitters as he sat up there and heard the hum and clanking of the equipment hoisting and moving containers.
“I was slow and cocked it all up, causing delays in everything. Many customers complained,” he admitted. “My controller had to ask for an assistant to come up to help me.”
inside the crane cabin, his only means of communication with his team was a walkie-talkie, which was not ideal for resolving difficulties on the spot.
He also had to climb down for toilet breaks or to eat. “If you worked overtime, you’d have to eat your meal up here,” he said. “We were always eating cold rice.
“And at night, I had to buy my own coffee and climb up with a Thermos flask.”
Despite the challenges, he grew proud of the role he was playing in Singapore’s port, which he notes has consistently been among the top three in the world.
“When (the management) says that we’ve beaten so-and-so this year, and tells us what target we’ve hit, of course I’d show off,” said the straight-talker in a mix of Mandarin and Singlish.
The job has also given him beautiful sunset views. And when dusk turned to night, a kind of peace would descend. “There are no other sounds at night, except the humming of the cranes,” he described.
It’s as if they’re talking to you, or singing different songs.
WINDS OF CHANGE
Over the years, Mr Lim saw many changes at the port, such as the move from the use of paper records to computerised systems.
“Our equipment got more and more advanced as well,” he said.
Then in 2012, the Government announced the plans for Tuas. PSA’s city terminals, including Keppel where Mr Lim worked, would be relocated by 2027. Meanwhile, he had the choice of whether to be redeployed later or now, for the automated operations at Pasir Panjang Terminal (which would be the last to merge with the mega port come 2040).
“I kept thinking whether I should go over or not,” said Mr Lim. “To give up something you’re familiar with and do something unfamiliar isn’t so easy.”
But inquisitiveness won: He was “curious” to find out, after having worked in this job for so long, how different the changes at Tuas would be, he said.
And, as he discussed with his wife, “if I dragged it out, and made the switch at a later time, I’d be 55 or 56 years old … I’d learn things more slowly.”
So in 2018, Mr Lim – a man who admits he finds Microsoft Office “difficult to use” and has never used his personal email account – took the plunge, taking up his company’s offer of retraining.
More than 1,200 people, from operators to engineers, and from frontline staff to office folks, have been redeployed to Pasir Panjang Terminal so far.
DIDN’T DARE TOUCH ANYTHING
Mr Lim admitted that some older colleagues were resistant to change. He himself had been more positive – but even then, the first few days of retraining in August were daunting.
He was introduced to his new workstation, a digital console in a control centre from which the automated cranes were handled. It all felt foreign to him; a far cry from his old world.
“When I saw those screens on the first day, I didn’t dare to touch anything. I refused to,” he said. “The screen was too digital.
“And in that room, there isn’t a sense of the real world; no wind or sound.
“But by day two, I knew I had to try my hand at this. So I did.’
His training consisted of four days of theory lessons and three months of on-the-job training before the final certification.
It was conducted by two PSA container equipment specialists who themselves had switched from manual yard cranes to automated ones, and could thus speak from experience.
This helped when many of the older trainees had doubts and fears. Also, many weren’t computer literate. “So we have to teach them basic common terms in English,” said trainer Tengku Rasulludin, 35, who remembers Mr Lim in particular.
Other seniors would say, ‘Cannot be’. Mr Lim would say, ‘No lah, we must try’.
Mr Lim also hit it off with his on-the-job mentor Muliadi Mohari, 40, especially when they found out they had a shared interest in home entertainment systems.
Mr Muliadi noted, to Mr Lim’s stifled laughter, how he was the first mentee to “ask a lot of questions” – even after work hours via WhatsApp.
It’s open-minded staff like Mr Lim who help convince the others to embrace change, said PSA’s head of human resources Ng Kok Cheong. “It requires a lot of persuasion. We show that their friends can do it, so can they.
“And we give people a lot of time to pick up new skills, a lot of flexibility in the programme. We have good mentors to make sure they are properly settled in.”
Mr Lim’s training conducted by PSA received funding support from the PCP for Port Professionals, introduced in 2018. More than 100 PCPs have been launched – since the national scheme’s inception in 2007 – in some 30 sectors as varied as aerospace to healthcare.
The scheme, under Workforce Singapore’s Adapt and Grow initiative, aims to reskill mid-career professionals, managers, executives and technicians (PMETs) for occupations or sectors with good prospects.
Aside from supporting employers like PSA to redeploy workers, PCPs also include place-and-train and attach-and-train schemes for new hires.
ALONE NO MORE
These days, Mr Lim’s job isn’t so much about controlling every move of the crane, as about stepping in when the automated system encounters issues in completing a task – for example, if the computer can’t read the container number.
Instead of one man, one crane, now about 30 people can handle 186 automated yard cranes at a time. The future Tuas port will have almost 1,000 such cranes, which will be managed by new hires as well as staff retrained and reskilled under the PCPs.
Sitting in front of his four-screen console, the usually animated Mr Lim is a mask of concentration when a job appears. He is “still learning” and adjusting, he says.
There are some things he misses – he can no longer look up at the vastness of the sky when he’s feeling exhausted, and feel its calming, soothing effect.
But the new workplace makes up for it in other ways. It’s ironic that even as more technology is involved, his work setting has become more human in a way.
“If the person next to you has a problem, we can ask each other, ‘Eh why like that, ah?’ There’s interaction,” he said.
“In the past, for example, our yard (and) shift managers were all below us, on the ground. Now, they’re behind us. When we have any issues, they directly help us resolve it. So we’re closer to one another now.
“You won’t feel that you’re alone … It’s like a big family.”
This story by CNA Insider was done in partnership with Gov.sg.