As an apprentice engineer, the OJT involved spending three months in each department. My three-month stint in the ‘Engine Shop’ was by far the worst.

Lim, the supervisor, was an engineer from Malaysia. If you recall except for one man, all the engineers in the company were foreigners.

He went out of his way to make life miserable. I was set to mop the floor, make coffee for the technicians and paint strip and clean components parts – this last I relished as it meant doing ‘real work’. I also took all the other duties assigned to me in my stride.

However, every time Lim walked past – I mean every single time and this is the truth – he would shout and scold me. It would be – Don’t think you’re smart! Want to be an engineer is it? Can’t trust you to do real work! Why must I suffer training you! Want my job is it? These were the milder ones – I’m not into reproducing his expletives.

The senior technician, an ex-con by the name of Goh, would mutter that Lim was seow (mad) and wondered why he picked on me for no reason. Goh was convinced that Lim, son of a rich Chinese businessman from Malaysia, simply could not understand what it was to be poor and to struggle for a living. Lim’s father had sent him to the UK for training – in the 1960’s this was something only people in rarefied levels of wealth could afford.

All the other apprentices who had rotated before me received proper training and could carry out many tasks such as repairs, assembly and even simple tests. I knew how to clean grease off parts and make coffee!

One day, Lim walked in with a big smile and even said ‘Hi’ to me as he breezed past. Goh stared in disbelief.

Then the news broke – Lim’s visa to Australia had come through and he could not wait to migrate. I wished him well, as this was 1973 and Australia had not really shaken off their ‘white Australia’ policy.

After Lim left, I approached management and insisted that my stay in the ‘Engine Shop’ be extended for another three months. I did not mind cleaning toilets or getting berated, but I was ‘paying’ for my training through my bonded service and expected management to live up to their end of the bargain. I was 17 but quite insistent that contracts terms be adhered to.

Management agreed. Apparently, none of the other apprentices wanted to work in the workshop. Situated in a secluded part of Seletar Airfield and about five kilometres away from the hanger and corporate offices, the workshop was the ‘backroom’. The others preferred the more ‘glamorous’ hanger where one got to work on ‘real’ aircraft and where the female staff worked.

So started my 18-year stint in the workshops, except for a one-year attachment in the hanger for licensing purposes.

Thank you Lim!

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


  1. You made the most of an opportunity and displayed your gumption in doing so! How awesome you could do this at such an early age!!

    1. Hello Jeannie,

      Many pointed to my age. I thank everyone for their loving words of support.

      I was 17 back then, and at that exact time many 18 year-olds were in Vietnam (from both sides). Taken in this context, I had it easy.

      (I don’t think much of politicians who don’t risk their own lives but quick to pawn the lives of others – only to hear McNamara say in later years that it was all a mistake. I wonder whether Iraq and Afghanistan are also all a mistake)

    1. Burdened as some of us are – we take time to encourage and compliment others > as my buddy Jane does for me. Much lov and hugz, Eric 🙂

  2. It is such a shame and disappointing that we made a pledge “regardless of race and religion…” and this is how we accord our fellow citizen. I read in one of your comments that Lim subsequently tried to take credit, cleanly forgotten he had done more damage then good. Proud of you for your great resilience and independence.

    I wonder what happen to the golden calf that he worshipped when he left Singapore.

    1. Lim was not Singaporean – I don’t think our National Pledge means anything to him.

      Yes, he did try to take credit – I wasn’t particularly rude in my response but also did not want him to rewrite history, at least where my training was concerned.

  3. Wow, another man who deserve my applause. You reminds me of
    1. My grandfather who also works from scratch: washing dishes in restaurant at the age of 12, slowly work as someone who do maintenance and repairing of bicycle wheel, and many other lowly work and later on he build his own cinema.
    2. My dad who refuses to fight for the family inheritance and work from bottom and finally own a car spare-parts shop though now he retires.

    I like your character, Eric. My hats off to you.

    1. Dear Yoshiko,

      You are indeed blessed to have such great men in your life. I’m sure this shows in your life and will also surface in your child’s/children’s. Many people all over the world worked/work hard to provide better lives for their loved ones.

      Thank you for your kind words, Eric

      1. Dear Eric,
        Thank you. Indeed i am blessed to learn from them.
        You are welcome. Because your life and maturity indeed shows a man with a good characteristic. And it is a good way to encourage more people to be more down to earth. The world needs more of such stories.
        God bless,

  4. The white Australia policy has always been a shame and embarrassment to younger generation Australians who want no part of such a racist policy. Modern Australia is a mixed race population now and we have been indebted to all the cultural imports which have made this an interesting place to live and work today.

    1. I can attest to the fact that during my years working in Australia – managing a company (5 years) and doing sales (7 years) – not once did I encounter any racism. I took the trouble to understand the cultural undertows and ‘fit in’ – something which I noticed many immigrants don’t do, even now.

      You are right – it is a very interesting place to work and live in today.

    1. I understand what you mean Madhu 🙂

      One year later, Lim visited the workshop and actually had the cheek to tell me how much he had ‘taught’ me – he meant technical skills. I was not angry but did say firmly something to this effect – “No, you did not and don’t you ever forget that.” He gave me a sheepish smile and I walked away.

      I don’t know whether he visited Singapore after that – but he never set foot in the workshop/

  5. The story should be plastered over every European newspaper… if ever Europe wants to understand why it’s in decline. @D

    1. I know what you mean @D,

      The only thing most ordinary people like us can do is, to live by example and inculcate certain values to our children.

      All good wishes, Eric

      1. Yes, true, it’s rather what you do than what you say that matters. When you say too much, that even works counterproductive. @D

  6. Oh yes Lim must have enjoyed his stint in Australia i am so sure.what goes comes around…good riddence
    but my heart goes out for that kid,no one should go through all that..and i am so sure he would grow up a sensitive warm friendly and a strong person…
    loved the write up 🙂

    1. Actually, my story is not unique. Many in my cohort struggled to make a living – something glossy reports, about Singapore The Economic Miracle, ignore.

  7. The smallest of things done perfectly make a perfect man… The simplest job which you must have done laid a strong a good foundation and filled you with humility since then..

    1. You are so right Soumya dear – Foundations need to be solid for all of us. Only then can we build with confidence. All good wishes, Eric 🙂

  8. Wow, great story, Cik Eric! It reminds me of my first job and the ‘extra’. It wasn’t much of making coffee or things like that but often the school principal wanted me to draw cartoon for the school magazines. LOL.

    Subhan Zein

    1. Thank you Pak Subhan – drawing cartoons for the school magazine. You must be good – how about posting some cartoons on your blog posts. Cheers, Eric 🙂

      1. No! Coloring wasn’t difficult, but when it comes to drawing my brother does it better. I suppose the principal asked me to do the artistry work despite my lack of skill. hahaha.. 😀

        Subhan Zein

  9. What a drive to survive and keep the job! We got things easily because of the hard work of the prior generation.

    1. Thank you my dear – that is more true than most realise.

      My parents’ won independence in 1965 and came up with the blueprints and held up the torch. My generation realised that dream – that is Singapore now. Politicians take all the credit, true but the people are the cogs in the wheel.

  10. All these lessons contribute don’t they? I’ve found on a few occasions that the best advice / help comes from the most unexpected source.

    1. We can learn from everyone and every incident – or we can play the blame game and watch the world go by.

      Throughout my life, after every incident, meeting, encounter, discussion – I always took stock a few hours or even days later.

      1. I often laugh to myself after a conversation and wonder why I didn’t think of my humorous remarks earlier.Thank you for reading and liking my poetry, be my critic whenever you like, I always welcome different ideas.

    1. I signed a 12-year bonded service with the company in return for learning a skill and securing an engineering diploma – it was a major decision I made at age 16. No father to advise me and my older brothers could not be bothered.

      Interesting how one learns to take care of oneself at a very young age.

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