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After my ten years in school in 1971, my family financial situation did not allow me to continue with high school. But I was desperate to further my studies – in any discipline.

I landed an offer as an apprentice engineer and enrolled in a polytechnic and studied aerospace maintenance engineering. I was paid S$180.00 (US$60.00) a month – money that was badly needed to support my step-siblings through school. At 16, I was also the youngest apprentice and the next youngest person was 18.

It was a four-year stint supplemented with on-the-job training at the sponsoring government company. At year-end, I did not have any three-month vacation break, as it was all spent working to pay off the company.

As it was a government approved apprenticeship, I secured national service deferment for the duration of my studies. (Subsequently, I completed my national service obligations on a part time basis in the Special Constabulary).

After graduating from the polytechnic, I attempted the aircraft maintenance engineers licensing examinations. The Airworthiness Division of the DCA  (the predecessor of the current CAAS) was the controlling body that tested, issued and audited engineers and MRO facilities.

I passed all the papers and my four years of part-time work experience counted as adequate to qualify for a first license. (As required by the DCA, over the years I had submitted a painstaking and detailed record of my work with each item duly certified by my immediate supervisors.)

However, after the results were announced, the DCA declined to issue my license. I was three months short of my 21st birthday! In fact, according to them I should not have even taken the final type-certification examination until I came of age.

The law apparently requires an engineer to be at least 21 years so that in the event of an aircraft accident and if found negligent, he can be charged in court. The maximum charge could be manslaughter and upon conviction, incarceration can be up to a life term. As you can well imagine, from age 16, I grew up with a healthy respect for preventive maintenance, quality assurance and took dead serious responsibility for everything I did – in work and in life.

I did not mind the three-month wait – but it meant, my salary adjustment was three months late 😦

(The DCA fixed the loophole and ensured such administrative slip-up did not recur)

After securing my license, I had to serve the company for eight more years as part of the sponsorship contract. Breaking the contract attracted severe financial penalties – not that I ever dreamt of breaking it. It also meant I would be immediately drafted into fulltime national service in the military at a grand salary of S$90.00 (US$30.00) a month. During those eight years, I passed over several good job offers.

Now, when I hear parents complain about how ‘expensive’ university tuition fees are, I keep silent – especially when they torment themselves between tuition fees for their kid versus an overseas vacation for themselves!

********** Copyright @ Eric Alagan, 2012 **********

DCA – Department of Civil Aviation

CAAS – Civil Aviation Authority, Singapore

MRO – Maintenance Repair Overhaul

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