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

********************

49 comments

  1. I enjoy going back into archives and see exactly how much I’ve missed – I can really kick myself for not being here at this one sooner!

  2. It is one thing to read a story it is another to read it as truth and lived experience, thank you for sharing Eric….you are truly inspiring!!! My father also made his own way and has taught us to do the same, I’m so very proud of him. It would have been easy for him to have cited all the reasons for not getting a chance to succeed, but instead he made the chances.

    1. You have a real role model in your father – how very blessed.

      Even now, I come across people who play the blame game for their ‘failure’ in life and career. When I hint to them how I did it > they are quick to lash out that I am ‘boasting’ or ‘arrogant’ or lately, how ‘disconnected’ I am from the ‘real world’.

      Oh well…

      1. oh well indeed…in such situations it is wise to let it go in one ear and out the other without letting their hurtful words settle in the heart between…

    1. Dear Naima – Now that is a very heartening compliment to receive. Thank you and all my personal best hopes and wishes for your studies, Eric 🙂

      1. Thank you so very much Eric.
        You wont believe me but after reading this post, I was like extremely motivated that when a person like you continue to be such a hard-worker then why not ME with all the necessities and resources available. I want to be an Aeronautical Engineer and so I am grateful to you for sharing this experience and being an inspiration for “THE YOUNG BLOGGERS” (who are studying as well ). I will follow ya and will keep a check on your blog posts.
        Happy Writing 🙂 Cheers!
        Naima.

        PS– Come anytime and drop by my blog too , may be ya find it interesting. Thank you so very much 🙂

  3. Your wonderful story of staying the course serves to cement what I’ve already learned about you dear Eric–you are indeed the epitome of integrity. Few ever come to know what this really means. It’s hard to watch so many step into that instant gratification trap–so desperate to be a “success”…and as you know, success is more of the hidden things within ourselves and not the outward show that some prefer to see, or more money. I like the yardstick you use to measure with and in my eyes, you are a walking testimony to all that is good in a man. You, my dear Eric, are made of the “right stuff”. xoxo Jeannie

    1. OMG Jeannie – what sweet words and what a lovely lovely way for me to start this day. And this coming from a person like you – one who takes criticism square on, learns and improves herself – makes it all the more high praise. Thank you – this means much.

      A small anecdote: discussing a job offer in the 1990s, I was asked what I bring to the table. I said, “a pocketful of enthusiam and a heartful of integrity”. I did not speak about my qualifications or experience. They knew and would not have flown me to the UK for the interview if I did not already have all the ‘hard’ stuff. The UK company, managed by old world gentlemen – offered me the job to launch a new venture in Singapore. They gave me a free hand. I made millions for them – they paid me well too.

      As a former CEO, when I review CVs, all professionally written by agencies, I read much written but never – yes, never – that magic word, Integrity.

      It is sad indeed when people look for loopholes…

      Luv and great big hugz to one who made my day. Eric 🙂

  4. As one who attended college on a full scholarship and one who raised both children to complete college on full scholarships, I can relate very much to your reactions upon hearing well-off parents complaining about the high cost of college tuitions. As you can attest, and my engineering son can attest, a student who interns their way through has a great advantage with future employers. Wonderful post today, giving a swift kick to all complainers about college costs!

    1. Firstly – Wow! A family of scholars – that is a remarkable achievement. Congratulations and well done in successfully passing on the ‘genes’ to your children 🙂

      My children also secured scholarship awards for their school tuition fees. I can imagine the silent pride that we, as parents, harbour.
      Unfortunately for me, Singapore in the 1970s, unlike now, did not have many scholarships to offer. We were a 3rd world country then, struggling with basic infrastruture issues.

      Yes, those who intern their way normally turn out better than those who are merely ‘exam smart’ – though there are many exceptions.

  5. It’s strange that nobody remembers the time you slog, the sacrifices you made to have reach this far. But they remember the number of physical possession you have acquired since your achievement and why are you not sharing these with them. When you suggest that they should work for it, they will accuse you of being selfish.
    But this is not important as you know that not only you’ve earned it all yourself, you have also provided well for your children which matters most. This joy makes all the hard work pays.

    1. Very true Jasey…and it is not as though I have not helped others in my extended family with money etc – but people simply want more and more. When I stop feeding their laziness and greed – I become the bad guy. Oh well – they are definitely NOT my teachers.

  6. thank you for sharing this! I think that your life story is fascinating and inspiring

    THIS really got me

    “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!”

    Yes. I could not agree more. My kid can work 20 hours a week and go to a state school and work summers. we can help (but we might not) and he goes to a good private school now. I will NOT let him skate on the work ethic. My family all paid our way. I want more for my son than a university education; I want him to be a strong resourceful man. I want him to know want vs. need and I want him to know that HE can make things happen for himself.

    I am going to read him this post. I have already told him about you and this will help me help my kid.

    Thank you very much Eric. Once again

    Peace, Jen

  7. Your drive and determination are admirable. Qualities I’m sure have served you well throughout your life. My husband also had to work at a young age (prior to legal working age) to help with bills after his parents got divorced, so I know it can be tough on a kid.

    I was lucky enough that my jobs were my spending money and were used to pay my college tuition. I worked hard, but walked away with a degree and no student loans.

    1. Looks like your husband had a much more difficult life – divorced parents, man that can be devastating for a kid – and having to eke out a living while below age. At least, I was 16.

      You worked and paid your tuition fees – admirable. We both did the same thing – you paid in cash, I paid in kind (labour).

  8. I love to hear stories about young folk who dedicate themselves to what they need to do. This still happens, but you hear more about the people who don’t, sadly. Disappointment can stop us in our tracks – if we’re not careful. Thankfully, for so many it doesn’t . Here’s to tomorrows – in all the forms they come.

    1. Thank you Elliot – you are right, I did.

      My older brother suggested I try for a technician’s job with Shell Oil. Shell had established a huge refinery and within 3 years, I stood to earn S$400.00 or more he said. His friends signed up years ago and they highly recommended I do the same. Many of them referred to me as ‘young punk’ – three years older, they were worldly wise.

      I did not bite. I was 16, but was sure I knew what was best for me. Though the money (S$400 in the early 1970s) looked good, I could not further my studies and I did not see much upside. I took this lower paying ‘apprenticeship’.

  9. Thank you for sharing this, Eric, I found it an interesting story. Determination will go a long way indeed.

    Ciao, Francina

  10. when the going gets tough……
    you are so incredibly brave and inspiring..to overcome the hurdles and to make the best of whatever and whenever you got…that is life ,that is living
    and only those who dive in and attempt to cross the river shall see the rainbow form so near 🙂
    Big Hugs 🙂

    1. Owww! Soma dear, what beautiful thoughts behind these words. Will a ‘Thank you’ suffice…but that’s all I can do – Thank you and I love that ‘Big Hugs’ 🙂
      Eric

  11. Delayed gratification is a hard concept for our current times and it’s all the more important that folks like yourself share your experiences. Hard work, determination and keeping the “eye on the prize” isn’t easy but certainly rewarding! Thanks for sharing your story with us.

    1. Yes, the ‘instant coffee’ culture has a strangle hold on most.

      Based on what they are doing, I believe my wife and I have passed on ‘delayed gratification’ to our three adult children. Nothing like teaching by example, I suppose.

  12. Truly inspiring Eric! Real life always has more stories and adventure than the fictional ones… your integrity is your biggest virtue…As for me I have been through many ups and downs and faced series of crisis and situations till now in my life. I believe these are the things which makes a person more stronger,compassionate,considerate and tougher for the forthcoming situations.This endurance with a smile always churns the best out of our abilities and qualities to mould us into a better and ideal person ..

    1. Thank you Soumyav dear.

      I am sorry to hear of the challenges in your life. You seem to have a positive approach to these difficulties and that is inspiring. Smiles are therapeutic for the giver and the receiver, I reckon.

      Yes, tough situations make us stronger. However, we also need to be careful that life’s disappointments do not turn us ugly or bitter.

      I believe you’ll continue to be a shining light for those around you.

      1. Thanks for your concern Eric! I agree that we should be careful that these dissappointments dont turn us bitter..but it all depends on the faith you have in yourself and God.. . For me, any toughtest situation is also a grace of god ,for something more better or good to happen.nothing happens without anyreason…so as every action has an equal and opposite reaction..hence in life too.. the action must have been a deed in past for which we get thereaction now…anyhow I have been cheerful and enthusaistic in every instant in any situation… which has been good for all..

  13. Thank you for sharing that history. You came through the hard way. A bond was a bond then, wasn’t it? Nowadays, companies do not hesitate to buy out sponsorship contracts in order to poach a good worker. Money speaks.

    1. Thank you.

      I am a firm believer that a man is only as good as his word. I’ve lived by my word and still do…if at all I have something worthy – this is it, my integrity.

  14. Your stories interest me. From the story I gather you were in the plane maintenance work. We had an aviation program running in East Indonesia which I was responsible to fund while living in Singapore. I wonder if you worked on the engines we sent to Singapore for scheduled maintenance. In the mid-1950s I started work on a salary of about AUD 40 a month. Big change to salaries now paid.

    1. That makes two of us – as you know, I relish stories of your younger more carefree days too.

      In the 1970s through 1990s, Indonesia gave us the most business. I could have worked on your engines.

      Yes, AUD 40.00 would have been a nice sum in 1950s…In Singapore, we could buy a bowl of noodles for five cents back then 🙂

  15. Excellent — perseverance can take a man far. I started in the IT field as a tape librarian at $2.50 per hour ( last century ). A princely wage compared to $60 per month!

    1. I would love to hear the stories of others and hope my readers would share similar snippets.

      US$60.00 was pitiful but compared to starving…for me it was a princely sum. Plus, I believe the cost of living in 1972 Singapore was a mitigating factor.

      1. I often had dinner at my girlfriend’s family house, and after we broke up I lost weight. I thought it was because I was heart broken, and I realized it was because I was missing all the fine meals.

        Love to hear about your life. So similar in some ways, but so exotic and different from mine.

    1. Thank you.

      My story is not unique. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, when most of the world had written off Singapore (especially after we got booted out of Malaysia) the vast majority did what I did – focused on delayed gratification. Though history gives all the credit to politicans – it was the unsung people of Singapore who shelved personal freedom/rights and built Singapore – literally. I belong to a proud generation, if I may say so.

      1. Singapore today is a fabulous place! Last July I was there enroute to India. Self sufficient in every way. You are right, the people slog and politicians take the credit.

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