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Sink or Swim: A Captain’s Take On How To Soar At Sea

Captain Cheong Kwee Thiam stumbled into Singapore’s maritime industry by chance. It all started with seeing an ad in the New Straits Times offering free school fees and a monthly allowance. Although he was sceptical at first, he decided to take the plunge given that he lined up with all the requirements. And luckily he did, as his suspicions slowly flourished into a successful career at sea. Now a senior lecturer at Singapore Maritime Academy (SMA), we caught up with Captain Cheong to hear his experiences on how to make the most of what is a challenging yet rewarding career.

“If I can take the worst ship, I can take any other ship.”

After completing a Diploma in Nautical Studies in 1990, Captain Cheong did the unthinkable: he asked his in-charge at Neptune Shipmanagement Services Pte Ltd (NSSPL), a subsidiary of the then NOL (Neptune Orient Lines), to work on the worst ship in their fleet. They denied his request and put him on the second worst ship of which he sailed for the next 14 months (keep in mind that most people sail for a maximum of 6 months). This experience had a large impact on Captain Cheong. Upon returning ashore, he felt that he was ready to take on life and live with no regrets.

“He would hit our fingers if we weren’t doing it correctly, but I appreciated it. Because of that, my oil tanker knowledge, especially on pipeline tracing improved so much, even until now”

Captain Cheong attributes much of his growth to learning from a number of Chief Officers, each of whom possessed different styles of leadership. Firstly, there was Chief Officer Surinder Singh Brarr, who was strict and taught things the hard way. Then there was Ng Wee Peng who never got angry and Ong Kek Leong who inspired him to never give up. And finally, there was Captain Leong Kee Yeen who remained forever calm and meticulous. All in all, a strong reminder that mentors come in all shapes and sizes.

Working with people from other cultures can be challenging but Captain Cheong agrees that seafaring is a great starting point to pick up soft skills in a multinational environment.

It’s very similar to changing companies. You learn to work with a different group of people. Better still, you work with people from different countries and you learn from them, practise certain skills on them. Through this constant change, you learn how to manage people, interact and socialise with them – all people skills. You can never have this when you work ashore.

“The job will not kill us. But you need to be prepared for the mental part of missing family.”

Being away from family is a reality that every sailor needs to deal with. However, the times have changed a lot since Captain Cheong’s days. The availability of email, messaging apps, and on-board Internet makes keeping in regular contact with loved ones much easier than before, when all you had was snail mail (which you had to number individually since you didn’t know which would actually arrive first!)

“When we work, we can really focus”

It’s understandable that some parents will be hesitant to let their children go to sea. However, Captain Cheong remarks that the leap is much smaller than it once was and that there are in fact, many advantages to a career in the maritime industry. A seafaring career is not so different from moving abroad to work or study nowadays. Furthermore, being away from family and friends allows you to focus completely on your work and studies. We all want our kids to get good grades, right? And finally, Captain Cheong believes that the future of the maritime industry is bright and assures that it is here to stay.

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