Friday, November 11, 2011

Journey to Retirement - Working my way out of poverty.


CHAPTER THREE - Journey to Retirement - working my way out of poverty 

After my getaway trip to Malaya to escape from the shame of being expelled from school, I returned to Singapore  feeling lost and abandoned. At age 14, with no relatives or friends who cared or could offer help, I had not many options. I was too young to be legally employed. My alternative was to work as an illegal underpaid worker at construction sites or a helper at hawker stalls/ restaurants. None of these jobs offer any kind of future for me.

Fortunately a friend recommended me to take up a 5 year apprenticeship at Keppel Shipyard. The apprenticeship required that I worked for three days and study for three days each week. My salary was about $25 to $50 a month (present day $250 to $500) depending on the amount of overtime. It was a tradition inherited from the British where tradesmen were trained through five years apprenticeship. 

It was my only hope to redeem myself and to prove that I was employable. Besides I need to stay away from nasty looks from my neighbors and relatives. I was treated like a leper.

The shipyard offered me a new environment and hope. The people were less bias and did not know much about my past as a student failure and a bastard child. I had a great time working in the shipyard, learning all kinds of trades - carpentry, electrical work, welding, etc. and actually having some money in my pocket. The sound of the coins in my pocket was music to me. 

Although I was in the paint shop department, I mixed around and helped out whenever I had the spare time. I found it much easier to pass time working than to idle around doing nothing. Most youths today prefer to act blur than to do more than the minimum required. This is a unique Singapore culture called, “kiasu”.  It is a very wrong attitude in life. We should never shy from work.

One day, an English supervisor named Mr. Moody walked by and saw me helping the carpenters building a cabinet. He stopped and said, “That’s  bloody good work, lad.” When he found out that I was actually from the paint shop, Mr. Moody immediately transferred me to the carpentry department as he thought that I would have a better career as a shipbuilder  than as a painter. In those post colonial days, the British supervisors' orders were unchallenged.  I got my transfer the same day.

It was a new and exciting beginning for me. I got to study, learn to build and repair ships. Text books were provided and with my small salary, I was able to buy more books and drawing materials. I discovered fun in studying and a new found thirst for knowledge.

Some colleagues advised me to attend night classes to get my Cambridge “O” level as it was a requirement for any respectable jobs.  At age 14 years,  I knew I was far behind in education
and went all out to study. I studied shipbuilding on alternate days at Vocational Institute funded by the Shipyard and attended night classes to study for the Cambridge “O” level certificate five nights a week and in addition I studied a correspondence course for the City and Guilds Certificate in Shipbuilding.  Within three years I managed to pass all the examinations for Vocational Institute certificate in shipbuilding, the Cambridge “O” level and the City and Guilds in shipbuilding. I was so happy that I managed to catch up with my age group. However, none of my neighbors believed that I passed the “O” level. Fortunately the results were published in Straits Times. They suspected that I must have cheated.

By today’s standards, all those certificates are equivalent to toilet papers.  The “O” level in the 1960s was equivalent to a BA or BSc today.  Now, in the 2000s, you find graduates holding MBAs or PhD driving taxis. There is something wrong with the modern social system.  I prefer the “kampong style” days where kids spent their time happily playing and enjoying their childhood instead of studying 24/7 only to be over-qualified for their careers. What a waste of time and money. 

Keppel shipyard - I did my apprenticeship from 1964 to 1968 for $25 a month.                                                                  
Apprentice learning and helping senior carpenter in shipbuilding.

Bird-eye view of Keppel Shipyard - the apprenticeship program was stopped in 1970.

The time between 1950s and 1960s were historic landmarks for Singapore. Self governance was granted to Singapore.  Malaya merged with Singapore to form Malaysia. Two years later, in 1965, Singapore was booted out of Malaysia and became an independent republic.

The racial riots between Malays and Chinese in 1965 created chaos in Singapore. All shipyard workers were kept inside the shipyard for our safety. Gurkas mercenaries were sent in to maintain law and order. It was a sad experience to witness mob mentality where people destroy properties and killed for no reason other than the difference in color of skins and religious beliefs.

Although the apprentice’s salary was low, I had fun learning the skills of shipbuilding. It was hard work carrying all the tools and equipment, climbing through the hulls and cabins of big ships doing repairs. America was fighting the communists in Vietnam in the 1960s and we had a fair amount of damaged American war ships coming  for repairs. I had first hand knowledge of seeing the kind of damages that could be done to supposedly thick plated war ships. Trust me, you would not want to be in a war zone because there was no place to hide.
With my newly acquired qualifications, I resigned from the shipyard and got myself a job as a Design Assistant with the Industrial Design unit of the Economic Development Board. Singapore was undergoing a huge industrialization program during 1960s to replace the jobs that were lost by the withdrawal of the British and the huge Naval Base. United Nations sent scores of industrial experts to help in the industrialization of Singapore.

The team that I was working with at the Light Industries Unit of Economic Development Board.
 Four out of eight persons in this photo are quitters and have emigrated to other countries
( I was the 1st person standing on the left of photo)

I was very fortunate to be part of a team working for the  United Nations experts. They taught me new skills like industrial design, prototype making and production engineering. These skills helped me tremendously in my future careers.

Testimony in German by German United Nations Expert.  Standard statements saying what a great guy I was.

In 1972, I was shortlisted for an interview for the position of an industrial designer with American Marine, a yacht building company based in Jurong Industrial Park, Singapore.

For such an important job interview I decided to put on my best appearance. I never had a pair of leather shoes before because I was too poor to buy anything other than canvas shoes or slippers. I went and bought myself a pair of shining black leather shoes. 

When my name was called, I walked across the room to the two interviewers. Unfortunately, the pair of leather shoes I bought was a locally made cheap pair of shoes. That was all I could afford. As I was walking, I felt something wrong on my right foot. I turned and saw the heel of the right shoe had came off in the middle of the room. It was so embarrassing, especially for an important interview. I took a deep breath and backtracked a couple of steps aiming for the heel and stepped hard on it.  Fortunately, it fit right in and I was back to my normal walk instead of limping. I was traumatized but managed to put on a brave front.

The two interviewers were the company’s president and one of the directors - both English.
They were satisfied with my presentations but yet rather hesitant due to the lack of my formal tertiary education. At that stage, I cannot let the job slip through my hands due to the lack of an university degree. I made a proposal that took them totally by surprise. I told them that I would work for free on a three months probation. If they were not satisfy with my  performance anytime during the trial period, they could fire me without any cost to them. 
They laughed and said it was up to them to set the rules, not the other way around. However, they agreed to my proposal and I worked 15 hours a day to prove myself. Fortunately, they confirmed my position within one month and we had a very good working relationship and friendship since. In fact, more than 35 years after I left the company we are still friends. One of them is the God father to my eldest son.



   These were the type of yachts built in Singapore and exported around the world.
We took these yachts to Mersing, Malaysia for test runs every weekend. I was mistaken as a millionaire with so many luxurous yachts. Life was fun until the arrival of the NTUC  psychopath.
I had a wonderful time working at American Marine building yachts. Within two years I was promoted to Head of Dept in charge of production engineering and industrial design overseeing a workforce of 1,800 workers. My salary was very good, especially when compared to what I was getting as an apprentice. Together with my fiancee, we managed to purchased a 5 room HDB apartment and a brand new car. After more than twenty years living in a small rented room and sleeping on the floor with a straw mat  in the slum of Chinatown and a year in a rented flat in Outram Park, I bought my very own home. It was tough journey from a poor 14 years old apprentice to head of production overseeing 1,800 employees at age 27.  A small redemption that brought sparks in my mother’s eyes. One step away from poverty.

My fiancee and friend on one of the yacht during a test run in Mersing, Malaysia.

 Encounter with a psychopath. 

Life is full of surprising twists and turns. Just when I thought everything seem to be on the right track, disaster strikes. One night whilst I was working late at my office in the shipyard, I became an unwilling and unfortunate witness to a staged riot by NTUC unionists to frame a  popular labor activist by the name of Tan Wah Piow. I was at the wrong place and at the wrong time. The person in charge of that conspiracy was the NTUC assistant secretary-general by the name of Lawrence Quek. Mr. Quek was a politically powerful and ruthless lunatic who would stop at nothing to get what he wanted. It was an experience to deal with a merciless mercenary who would kill without provocation. To him, there was no negotiation, it was his terms or nothing.

On that late evening, Lawrence Quek with a group of  thugs came to destroy the union office that happened to be next to my office. I later learned that the plan was to put the blame on Tan Wah Piow as the culprit and have him arrested and possibly jailed for destroying private properties. The mission was to fabricate and implicate Tan Wah Piow.

When they discovered that I was a witness, Lawrence Quek decided that I, too, must be destroyed as co-lateral damage to keep my mouth shut.  First, Lawrence Quek approached the management to have me fired. When the management stood fast and refused, harassment started.  The car that I bought with my hard earned money was damaged, union workers were deliberately trying to scare me by dropping wood planks, tools, etc. on me. Union representatives hinted that I would be arrested under ISA and never be heard of by anyone.  By then, Tan Wah Piow had escaped to London under political asylum granted by the British government. Tan Wah Piow did not know me and we have never met but I was truly happy that he managed to escape otherwise he would be jailed like Dr. Lim Hock Siew who spent more than 30 years behind bars without trial.

My dream of an ideal family life was turned to nightmares by this psychopath. I knew that with a politically powerful psychopath like Lawrence Quek who was bended on destroying me, it was a matter of time before he succeed. It was a one-sided fight - with his political backing, only he can throw the punches and I was like a punching bag.  Lawrence Quek was nothing but a coward wasting tax payers money pursuing a childish game that had no positive contribution to the betterment of society.

Did I murder his wife or family?  No!
Was I a threat to his career? No!
Was I a national security threat? No!

I did not even know Tan Wah Piow and have never collaborated with him at all. I was a member of the simple working class with great admiration for the leaders of Singapore. Yet this psychopath, Lawrence Quek treated me like a terrorist and wanted me eliminated for nothing. What a waste of time and money for a high ranking official of NTUC who should be doing something constructive for the country.

In 1977, two of the company’s directors decided to resign from the company to set up their own business. They offered me a position as director in the new company with 25% sweat equity - no financial contribution from me. I took the deal just to get away from that psychopath. It was stressful to live in a society where a politically powerful lunatic like Lawrence Quek was allowed to abuse his position to satisfy his sadistic behavior without remorse or regrets. Lawrence Quek had converted an admirer of Singapore to a non-believer. However in hindsight, Lawrence Quek did me a great favor by forcing me to emigrate.

When my family and I eventually left Singapore for good, we thought that we would finally have some peace but ESM Goh Chok Tong started to brand us as “quitters and losers”. Other politically correct opportunists joined in the chorus and labelled us as being ungrateful, unpatriotic, to be jailed and banned from returning to Singapore, etc. etc.

In the frenzy, not one leader was intelligent enough to find the true reasons why we are quitters. The daughter of ESM Goh Chok Tong is herself a “quitter” as well as children of some leaders. What does that tells us? 

Next chapter 4 : Self-exile to Taiwan, China, USA and Canada.
Life as an entrepreneur


  1. "Most youths today prefer to act blur than to do more than the minimum required. This is a unique Singapore culture called, “kaisu”.(sic) "

    If you meant "kiasu", the term refers to "fear of losing out".

  2. An interesting read. thanks for sharing

  3. With regards to the ploy to frame Tan Wah Piow, I happen to learn from another person that told me that Tan Wah Piow was framed as he was having tea with Tan Wah Piow when that incident happened.

    This brave soul was arrested under ISA as well but he was not intimidated at all, stood firm on his stance even though they tried to label him as "communist". He said he was from the "largest party" on Earth and when ISD interrogators said that must be Communist Party, he replied, it wasn't. It is RICE BOWL PARTY....

    Anyway, that was really the DARKEST MOMENT in Singapore, the WHITE TERROR ERA.....

  4. @Meng Seng,
    Please thank your friend who stood by Tan Wah Piow as his alibi otherwise Lawrence Quek would make sure that I would not testify that the riot as the union office was staged.
    Well, the situation is not much better now. Look at what was done to Dr. Chee?

  5. Waulau, damn tok kong.

  6. Wow! One of the best blogs I ever read! Those days if you could not do well in school it is Vocational Institute under an apprenticeship scheme or SAF Boys' school. Thank you for sharing with us. It is our history and legacy captured and documented by you here for future generations! Keep blogging!

  7. There is a saying that behind every great fortune there is a sin committed.

    The sins behind the govt great fortune is slowly but surely beginning to emerge. Even if he were to step out of grave, LKY would not be able to prevent the light of truth from exposing the dark side of his rule.

    Would he die a discredited liar? Who can tell?

  8. Hi Wing Lee,

    Thanks for writing this blog. Will certainly read more!

  9. Hi Wing Lee,
    I really enjoyed reading this. This is an incredible journey. I hope you don't mind, but i'm going to post it to my Facebook.

  10. Hi Wing Lee

    Hope you don't mind that I post a link on my facebook. There is a small typo error. Lawrence Quek is Lawrence Kwek. I am thinking of writing something quoting a part of your chapter. May I have your permission please.

    1. Dear Soh Lung,

      Thanks for pointing the mistake on "Lawrence Kwek". Please go ahead and quote from my article. I am retired in Canada and there is nothing the ISD could do to me or they care.