Life As A Seafarer: Interview Q&A with Tan Huixian, 4th Engineer with Pacific International Lines

Image credit: SkillsFuture Singapore

Although the maritime industry has been the backbone of Singapore’s economy for a long time, many are unaware of what exactly makes up the sector and what goes into the job. One of the most misunderstood sectors of the maritime industry would be seafaring. The silent heroes who help man the ships, seafarers brave tough weather conditions and have to leave the warmth and safety of their homes for months on end.

Although many may hear about seafaring and assume it is a tough job meant for men, times are changing and there are many females who are proving that stereotype wrong, one of them being Hui Xian. The Diploma in Marine Engineering holder has proven that she is every bit as good as her male counterparts and is capable of pulling her weight on board a ship. Around the world, the number of female seafarers are increasing and with girls like Hui Xian, this includes Singapore as well.

Ever since young, Hui Xian’s love for travelling, physics & hands-on work led her to find her dream job in the Sea transport sector. Ever the passionate worker, Hui Xian is always on the move to constantly improve herself. Armed with her work experience, the Singaporean is in the process of attaining her Certificate of Competency (Coc) Class 1 and Class 2 certification, proving that with hard work, your gender can not hold you back.

Q: Tell us about what a day as a seafarer looks like?

A: I’m an engineer, so I can’t speak for deck navigation side. If the engine room is on unmanned mode, we start work at 8am. The 2nd engineer conducts toolbox meeting and we discuss our work plans. After which, all engineers conduct rounds around engine room to ensure all machineries in good condition. We split up to do our own jobs, as each engineer have his/own machineries to maintain.

For example, I’ve a purifier overhaul job so I’d inform my seniors, prepare tools, spares and stop the purifier. I’ll open up and clean the purifier till lunch time, come back at 1pm to continue cleaning and reassemble by 5pm. I’ll test run, and start cleaning up the area. Take a final round around engine room, then all of us engine crew leave the engine room for dinner time. Later at 10pm, I come down for a night round and log down all essential parameters to make sure everything is running well. I’ll go up at 11pm then rest till the next morning. We work everyday, as we don’t have public holidays or weekends.

Q: Tell us more about your background and how it led you to this career path?

A: A typical neighbourhood school kid that loved physics and maths, plus hands on work. Naturally, I was looking to become an engineer since young.

Q: What drew you to take on this career path? 

A: When I visited all the engineering schools in polytechnics, marine engineering stood out to me as the career that offers the most opportunities for hands on work and literally travel on the job.

When my crewmates observed how I work and willing to learn, they started to accept and respect me too.

Q: What were the challenges you faced initially and how did you overcome them?

A: When I first joined ship, it was a culture shock working with 24 men from 6 different nationalities. Sometimes I couldn’t understand their broken English, and they can’t understand mine either unless I speak broken English too. In addition, most of the seafarers have never worked with females before and some of their cultures strongly frown upon women working, much less sailing.

At first it was hard dealing with discrimination and lack of respect purely based on my gender, but slowly I gained experience and worked very hard. When my crewmates observed how I work and willing to learn, they started to accept and respect me too. Likewise, I respect everyone very much.

Q: Share with us an unforgettable experience at sea?

A: For scenery, I’ve seen night skies so clear I could see shooting stars and the milky way. In the day time, we watched dolphins follow our ship by swimming and jumping close to us.

For work, I was given the opportunity to work in the main engine crank case for maintenance job. It entails physical work at a height of almost 2 stories, 45 degrees Celsius and oil dripping from the ceiling. Needless to say, it was memorable. When the engine runs well, I’m filled with satisfaction and pride.

Q: Who are you thankful for your success?

A: My family for being (eventually) supportive, close friends for not forgetting who I am, and my amazing classmates that pushed and encouraged me along the way.

When I see my machineries running well and my crewmates sailing safely, the amount of satisfaction I feel is irreplaceable.

Q: What motivates you personally?  

A: When I see my machineries running well and my crewmates sailing safely, the amount of satisfaction I feel is irreplaceable. I’m motivated to learn more about machineries and management to make sailing life smooth and happy.

Q: Lastly, what is your advice to our readers who are interested to be in a male-dominated industry? 

A: Be mentally prepared for different mindsets, working styles and attitudes. Discrimination and harassment may be much more than in other industries, but overcome these challenges to find a career that truly interests you.

The MSC (Maritime Singapore Connect) Office was set up to be a central node connecting maritime employers, industry associations and the government to students and jobseekers. Maritime companies in Singapore can use the new website to publicise scholarship and management trainee opportunities, and browse through potential employee’s resumes. All services on the site are free and is a one-stop source of information on maritime education, training and careers. Members of the public will also have access to informative interactive videos and feature stories, which will help to raise the profile of the maritime industry. For more information, you can visit http://www.maritimesgconnect.com/.
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