Monday, October 25, 2010

Puteri bunian di Padang Rengas?

If you were a student, and were looking forward to earning your money after completing your studies, you would do a lot better by not graduating in late 1985.

Like I did.

May be I should have tried failing a subject, and then I would have to repeat the whole year. That would allow me another year stay in Australia. If you had gotten married, then you could use that as an excuse for not returning either as you would have to wait for your spouse to complete her degree. A few of us at Monash used that excuse.

But I did not use any of those - no one at Monash was interested in me ;-), and hence I had to return home in April 1986.

The mid to late 80s was the worst of time in as far the economy is concerned. The country was deep in recession, and jobs were scarce, and obviously unemployment was rife. You would be lucky if you could land a job within a year.  The internship scheme was introduced then to help graduates find job, or getting retrained, I guess. Many had to go through this scheme and they were paid pittance.

It was within this context that I returned home in April 1986. Many of my friends had returned home by December 1985, practically upon passing their final exams, much earlier than I. I decided that I wanted to earn some extra money that summer; so I entered a student employment scheme at Monash where the uni would help student get temporary job during the summer, and delay my departure home until the very last moment.

It was easy to get a temporary job then. One would need to come early to the Students' Office at the Union, and put your student ID in a box and they would randomly select and categorize you by giving priority to those chosen in a descending order. I was given No 5 that day.

Then they would announce job vacancy, the location, job description and how much one would get paid. If it is to your liking, you could vie for the job. For example, if someone with a No 3 ranking decided to vie for the job with me, he would get the priority as his rank is higher than mine.

After 3 job offers, which I did not bother to go for,  this job came up. The job was as a Packer, working in a warehouse, and it calls for packing swimming pool chemicals into 1, 5 and 10 kg boxes. Obviously they are anticipating a lot of demand for chlorine during the summer. I like it since it involved chemicals and the fact that I could reach the warehouse by taking a single bus.

No one seems to want the job. Nothing wrong with the pay though. It pays A$10.50 an hour, and you work for 8 hours a day, five days a week. At the end of the week you would be paid A$420. That's more that what MARA would give me as my monthly allowance.

And it was tax free!

So I decided to take up the offer; there was no competition at all from anyone. Later on, I found out why no one would want the job.

The smell of chlorine (chloroamines) was just notorious. It was pungent, and attack your eyes and respiratory system. You would be sneezing quite a lot. We have to wear a mask while working. Even at the end of your shift, you could still be sneezing. And lots of hard, physical work.

But we were young and healthy, and the money was good. And I worked hard through out summer of 1985, and made tons of money - tax-free, mind you, and none of the commitment of today. No house to pay for, no bills either.

I was rich! If at least in my mind, and relatively speaking, I guess.

I must have been that good, working as a labourer then, that the management kept on asking me if I knew anyone else who would want to work there, and I managed to bring in 2 more friends that summer. The Aussies could not have enough of Malaysian students to ensure fresh supplies of chlorine for the swimming pools that summer, so that the guys could enjoy the gals in bikini dipping in the pool, and putting the shrimp on the barbie. ;-)

I did play my part in the Australian economy and social lives that year, albeit a rather miniscule role.

It was with this money that I was able to fly Mak and two siblings for a tour of Melbourne and Sydney before returning home. But that's another story altogether.

So despite the good pay, I decided to return home and find work as an engineer. I can't go one being a labourer in a warehouse. Money could not buy me dignity. I have a paper qualification, and I want to be called an engineer. Or so I thought.

Besides, my student visa was running out! ;-) I was just trying to turn this piece into a feel-good piece.

As I have mentioned, it was the worst of time to return home. It was the beginning of the recession that would last nearly four years in the country. I did have faith in my ability to find a job, but as days turned into weeks and weeks into months, it was running thin to be honest. Fortunately with my saving, I could survive months of unemployment, but fortunately for me, I could only be singing Aku Penganggur for three months before landing a job as a production engineer at a cement plant in Padang Rengas. The beauty was that it is just about 20 km from home.

At last I was an engineer, never mind that the pay was pittance. It was July 1, 1986, to be exact, that I stepped out of the bus from Taiping into the muddy surrounding what was then a construction battlefield that was Perak Hanjoong Simen (now YTL Cement).

This is The Engineer in late 1986. I guess I must be about
to enter the manhole of one of the equipment, a cyclone may be. The whole plant was my
 training ground. I even appeared on the telly during the official opening ceremony of the
plant, explaining tothe Perak MB , if I am not mistaken. It was quite a big ceremony
as the government wanted to showcase it and the benefit it brought to the economy.
Seriously, I earned more working as a labourer in Australia than I would as an engineer in Malaysia. My one week's pay there was about the same of what I would earn in one month here.

"Macam gaji cikgu saja," was the then MCKK principal's verdict when I visited him in his house in Bukit Kerajaan, Kuala Kangsar, just to inform him that I have gotten a job - as a show of respect. He was a neighbour, and a good friend of bapak when we were staying in the nearby government quarters in early 80s.

Gaji cikgu pun gaji cikgu lah, more importantly I had secured a job. The 1.2 M metric tonne capacity cement plant is going to be there for a long while. Even though construction industry was not in the best of health due to the recession, in the long run, we would be slowly chipping away the limestone crop of Padang Rengas. The production team, that I was part of, was a young team. The heads and the managers were Korean, and we had to learn their style fast.

Puteri bunian of  Padang Rengas. Not!
I wish though as she looks
beautiful except for those ears.

Then it was quite fun, to be honest. Climbing the limestone hill was the most fun. We have been to the very top. The view was fantastic. You could see the hill if you were to drive to Penang from Kuala Lumpur, as you passed by Padang Rengas. There is a big crusher up there that would take blasted limestone and turn them into smaller pieces for processing.

Obviously working on night shift was even more fun. It was bright and cheery in the plant, but the hill was dark and gloomy. You would not want to walk alone for too long.

The Korean contractors then were quite superstitious. A cow was sacrificed before the plant was commissioned and started up. This was to ensure the spirits that roam the limestone crop would be appeased.  The blood of the sacrifice was splattered all over the ground. Some bomohs must have officiated the ceremony. We did not join in; young engineers then would baulk at such ceremony.

They must have been feasting the bunians, I guess. Then there was nothing in the vicinity of the plant but deep jungle with thick folliage. Stories about spirits roaming and bunian dwellers were rampants amongst the operators and workers. To make it worse, working as a shift engineer would entail one to roam around the plant on our own, and not just stay in the control room. It is one thing to have someone with you, but most of the time, you would have to do your job alone.

But unfortunately, or unfortunately, depending on one's perspective, I did not get to see any puteri bunian, not even during the graveyard shift [sigh]. Did they really exist here in the 80s? Many thought they did. Or were they trying to avoid me during those years?

I think they must have known that I was just a poor engineer, with pittance pay and would not be able to support the lifestyle of a princess! Hehehe..

The cement plant in 2009. Supposedly in 1986, the limestone crop was home
to thousands of bunians, but for some reasons, even as a bachelor then,
I did not get to see (or marry) a puteri bunian there! ;-) 
I have more stories to tell about this plant, but I guess, that would have to wait for another day.


  1. budakjawidinewcastleOctober 27, 2010 at 9:01 PM

    You, my friend, had a figure like me during those years. It must be not a problem whatsoever to enter the cyclone with that shape.Wonder where it's gone now.

  2. Haha, masa dulu2. Cyclone, kiln, column semua masuk punya. Apa yang hilang? The cyclone ke? kilang tuh ada kat situ lagi;-) Dulu, hari2 panjat monkey ladder. Tower 15-20 tingkat naik jalan kaki je, sedangkan batukapur padang rengas tu kami naik sempoi je. Mana x slim mcmtu. La ni, ish, asyik micit lift je.