SINGAPORE/CAMERON HIGHLANDS: For Mr Loo Chin Khong, spending time at home with his family is a luxury he cannot afford.
The 59-year-old trucker practically lives in his lorry – he works 48-hour shifts and commutes between Pahang and Singapore up to three times a week, across six days.
“I’ve become used to it over the years, but I can never shake off that feeling of being perpetually fatigued,” said Mr Loo, who has been plying the route for 16 years.
Mr Loo and his co-driver Mr Muthukumar, who goes by one name, are employed by Malaysian logistics company Sun Yee Cheong Trading.
They are among dozens of Malaysian truck drivers who ply the long-haul route to deliver fresh produce from Cameron Highlands to Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre.
For every shift, they transport vegetables freshly harvested from farms in Ringlet and Brinchang to wholesalers in Singapore, who then sell the cucumbers, cabbages, spinach, tomatoes and more to supermarkets and retailers islandwide.
Mr Loo and Mr Muthukumar take turns to drive during their 48-hour journey. While one is behind the wheel, another rests in a small space behind the driver's seat.
The resting area is tight. Neither driver can stretch their legs fully when lying down.
When Mr Muthukumar drives, typically at night, Mr Loo curls up in a fetal position, shivering slightly underneath a thin blanket.
“It’s not comfortable, and I don’t usually get to sleep. It’s not easy with the engine noise and the cold air-con,” he said.
According to statistics from the Singapore Food Agency, Malaysia is Singapore’s top source of vegetables, supplying 69 per cent of the imported leafy vegetables.
Drivers like Mr Loo are important to the process of ensuring that Singaporean families are able to consume fresh greens. Despite the hardship, Mr Loo is contented with his job and life.
“Work becomes less of a chore when I think about the deed, the transportation of vegetables. I’m putting food on people’s dinner table and I think that’s a noble thing.”
NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCE ON TREACHEROUS ROUTE
Negotiating the slopes of Cameron Highlands is risky business.
Mr Loo typically drives up and down via the Tapah route from northern Pahang, where there are no street lights and the sharp turns make it a treacherous journey.
He navigates the winding route in complete darkness, turning the wheel with one hand skilfully to ensure his 14-metre truck does not hit oncoming traffic, while a lit cigarette is pinched between his fingers in another.
Mr Loo is familiar with the dangers on this route.
When he was in his 20s during the 1980s, he was regularly commuting between Cameron Highlands and Thailand to deliver fresh flowers.
When he was driving on a rainy day during the monsoon season, his truck skidded at a sharp turn and tipped over.
His co-driver at the time died from the accident, while he suffered severe injuries to his head and limbs.
“The risk is part of the job, I knew that from the start … I still remember him (my co-driver). He was an excellent partner. But what happened, happened, and I can’t change that,” he said.
As a senior driver, Mr Loo earns RM 4,500 (S$1,500) a month, an amount he considers “not enough to be rich” but sufficient for him and his family to “survive comfortably”.
“It’s better than being a farmer, earning RM1,000 to RM 2,000 a month. No one wants to be a truck driver because they can’t stand the working hours, but to me it’s worth it financially."
DOING THIS FOR HIS SON
Mr Loo lives with his wife and his seven-year-old son in an apartment in Tanah Rata, Cameron Highlands.
He laments the fact that he misses a large chunk of his son’s growing-up years because he is always on the road.
“It is not easy. I hardly get to spend time and help him with his school work,” said Mr Loo.
“But when things get hard on the road, I remind myself that I’m doing this to make sure he gets a good education and goes to a good school,” he added.
HOW A TYPICAL SHIFT LOOKS LIKE
CNA followed Mr Loo on a 48-hour cycle between Cameron Highlands and Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre to better understand how it feels like to be a trucker.
Here are some of the highlights from the journey:
Tuesday, 6pm - All loaded up at Cameron Highlands
After two hours of rest at his apartment in Tanah Rata following his previous shift, Mr Loo heads to his company's shophouse to prepare for his next journey.
He jokes and shares a laugh with his colleagues, and ensures his lorry and the necessary paperwork are in order.
The truck is loaded up and Mr Loo leaves Cameron Highlands at around 7pm.
Mr Loo drives the truck down the dangerous Tapah route, and picks up Mr Muthukumar from his home in Bidor.
The pair then drive south through the night towards Singapore. Having been partners for nine years, they have exhausted all topics of conversation and now mostly drive in silence.
Wednesday, 4am - "Morning exercise" at Woodlands Causeway
Getting through immigration is a lengthy process because of the stringent security checks, especially upon entering Singapore at Woodlands Checkpoint.
Unlike commuters who travel by buses, motorcycles or cars, the lorries go through several stages of scanning, and sometimes – once or twice a month – customs officers would request that Mr Loo and Mr Muthukumar open all the boxes in their truck.
“They would give us a morning exercise, opening hundreds of boxes to check for contraband items.
"We will never smuggle anything illegally, but I understand that they are just doing their job, just like us,” Mr Loo said.
Mr Muthukumar is less understanding.
“It’s easy for them to ask us to open the boxes, but who are the ones that have to tidy them up and arrange them back nicely? It’s us two,” he said, his voice thick with frustration.
Wednesday, 8.30am – Unloading vegetables at Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre
From Woodlands, Mr Loo and Mr Muthukumar arrive at Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre and begin unloading 15 tonnes of vegetables from the back of their truck.
This is the most physically demanding part of their shift, where they are required to climb up and down the back of the truck, do heavy lifting and push trolleys around a busy market hall to deliver the boxes to the wholesalers.
But Mr Loo said this is one his favourite parts of the job, because he is not cooped up in the driver's cabin, and the sweat makes him feel refreshed.
As soon as they finish unloading the vegetables, the pair drives up north back into Malaysia.
Wednesday, 4pm – Playing the waiting game at a cardboard factory in Melaka
Mr Loo and Mr Muthukumar stop at a factory at an industrial area in Melaka to load up their truck with defective cardboard, which will later be restored by a factory at Cameron Highlands and used to pack vegetables.
Here, they usually have to wait for an hour before the workers begin to load up the truck, and another two hours before the job is done.
Thursday, 3am - Here we go again
Mr Loo drops off his partner at his hometown in Bidor, and drives up to Cameron Highlands in the wee hours of the morning.
When he reaches Ringlet at 4am, he sleeps in his truck overnight because he fears that the cardboard might be stolen from his truck.
The cargo is unloaded at 9am the next morning by factory workers, while Mr Loo takes the time to run some errands in town.
At around 11am, vegetables for Mr Loo's next trip have arrived at his company's shophouse in Ringlet from nearby farms.
He helps load up the boxes and then heads home for a few hours of rest, before he starts his journey all over again at 7pm that evening.
While Mr Loo has lived at Cameron Highlands all his life, his brother moved to Amsterdam to work.
Asked why he did not follow suit to get away from the monotony and traffic jams, he simply replied: “What would I do there? I am happy with my life and where I am and what I'm doing.”