Exactly two years ago, I wrote the post. [read if you are bored]  I don't normally re-read any of the posts. What written was meant to be archived as remembrance - to remind myself what was running through my mind at that point of time, sane or insane, logical or neurotic. As expected, some posts made me cringe when I had to revisit an occasion one inevitably at times. But not this post as mentioned above.

As usual, there were several people who didn't agree with my views. That was expected. If everyone agrees with me all the time, I will wonder if I should have a career change where it is extremely profitable just to convince, doesn't matter with truths or lies, more than 50% of the people I am dealing with. Such as being a white puppy.

In that previous post, my view was that trained hands make better managers. The counter-argument was that a manager performs with an entirely different skill set, thus makes it both irrelevant and unnecessary to go "through the ranks." The latter was the spine of the Singapore system, where we get totally un-tested noob scholar generals leading an entire army.

Why not? People will probably cite a few examples to back the system. Such as Bill Gates not being the best programmer in Microsoft or Carlos Alberto, the Brazilian World Cup winning coach, who never played professional soccer in his life. However, people forget the fact that most, if not all of these famous successful people have been involved in their respective industries before their pubic hair was fully grown. Whereas in Singapore, someone would place a person nineteen years of retail experience to head the major train provider in the country. The best example would be a group of monkeys holding the most important leading roles of the country, including tens of corporate at the same time and know nothing about what they are doing except "people management". That is why we see a particular surgeon making a fool of himself fixing ceilings and oppositions instead of sick eyes, starting from his own.

My ex bosses told me the exact thing. "You don't have to know what the workers are doing. Your job is to manage the project and make sure it finishes on time. If not, highlight to us the problems and we'll discuss how to get things back on track," they said. I dumbly nodded my head and did just that. Only after I left Singapore and saw how the others work, I suspected my ways were folly. The work I took on a few weeks back probably affirmed it.

The new beams in the factory was already installed before I went back to Singapore but they could not be used because they were not "tied" together by, what we would call in Singapore, the "tie-backs." Unfortunately, the beams didn't come with pre-drilled holes on the beams. That is a common mistake that happens in steel construction. (or perhaps just my ex-company? - I do not know.) This kind of errors can be anyone's mistaken, from the client, the engineer, the architect, the drafter or the factory. It doesn't matter whose mistake. When the bulky material is already delivered on site, we installers on site are royally fucked.

So by leaving it to the workers and their chief, we got into uncountable series of trouble with the clients and consultants when workers started to melt themselves the holes with their acetylene white flames and we project engineers or managers had to agree that was the best solution and plead for leniency in our NCRs. Basically, we took in whatever our Indian and Bangadeshi workers told us because we knew nuts about our jobs. But we thought we knew - because we complete projects on time and make money for the company. That was what we were paid for, right?

Balls. If we settle for half baked knee jerk solutions all the time, no wonder we had Little India gazetted for strip search.

The boss simply told me to drill the holes ourselves. Was he kidding me? With the 20mm thick flange and a 5 mm thick channel, we had to drill through 25 mm of steel to make a hole to hold a set of bolt and nuts. There were 24 holes in all. Alright, bloody crazed Aussie, we'd do it. So what were we using? Were we renting an automatic magnetic drill or something? "No, we use the hand drill. I'll show you," said the boss. "We'll need to spend two weeks to drill these holes and an aftermath of dead arms, broken drills and bits," I thought to myself.

So a simple hand drill was bought and I was elevated up to the right level full of skepticism. I peered down and saw my workers sniggering below. I wasn't alone, I guess. I followed the instructions of the boss step-by-step and to my surprise, I was actually hurting the nasty 25 mm of steel. Though I had to use a bit of elbow grease, it didn't squeeze the life out of me like I thought it would. We ended up with 50% of the job done with just two hour's effort.

I reflected back at my projects in Singapore. A flame cut hole would probably take just 1/4 the time to do the job, but it was never to be accepted by any QC inspectors because high heat alters the properties of the parent material. Drilling, I was told, was simply "not possible", not that it took up a much longer time. That impossibility was accepted as the truth not just for my company but seemingly the steel working industry in Singapore. So in a situation like that, managers had to give workers specific instructions when and where to illegally flame-cut their material, such that it minimise the chances of getting caught out by the "professional photographers." It would take us a lot more time to remove and rework the flawed material when we received an unexpected NCR, sometimes weeks later. At times we had to pay other contractors to remove their work, if any were concealing or obstructing ours. These "take a punts" were fun, but very stressful to the managers because it was morally wrong. 

All in all, the total costs of being caught for doing wrong things indefinitely worked out to be much higher than spending a bit more time doing it the "impossible" way. Young punks project administrators or managers would probably continue to pass down the tradition after the last remaining old farts who knew a little bit leave. By the end of this generation, we would have the blind leading the blind in this trade. 

There was another case in my very first project, this time with PRC workers. These worker had so much trouble securing a 3mm steel surface with 1-inch screws. The contractor working for me was so frustrated that he had to spend lots of money buying screw bits that he shoved the bills in my face everyday. In the PRC workers started hammering screws through a pre-drill hole so that they "looked completed" because they had so much difficulty drilling a single screw properly. There were at least a thousand holes to be drilled. Needless to say, we were caught. A hammered in screw provided no fastening, because their threads would be completed worn out. As the one in charge, I was thoroughly embarrassed in site meetings and I had no solutions. I knew the PRC workers tried their very best. They were not slacking in their work but it was a fact that they were struggling. When I raised the red flag, an old bird supervisor provided me his "elite Bangadeshi worker" with just two helpers to do the holes over-time. To my surprise, he drove the screws through with relative ease and little drama. Same tools, same material. The trick was the technique. If I were to know a thing or two myself, I would simply give my contractor a middle finger and demonstrate to his workers how to do it properly and my project would not be set back for two weeks. The contractor need would not need to spend heaps of money on broken drive bits either and came after me crying.

Now and then, I still received emails asking me about "white collar" or "blue collar" bullshit. To me, if you have never been a so call "blue collar" worker or at least closely involved in any work of its nature in Singapore, you know crap and you are unfit for your job. To put it nicely, you will be much better in your "white collar" job if you are equipped with the right "blue collar" skills. Note that I said skills, not knowledge. Everyone gained some knowledge in school but it's inadequate to make one outstanding. And being outstanding is something Singapore is struggling to do at the moment. We are focused on being cheap instead of being so good that the whole world wants nobody but us. At this rate, the gutter is the only place we'll end up. I said that two years ago and I'll say that once again today.


  1. Hi Nix,

    Did you have to use a special drill bit for the job ? I am pretty amazed and curious of how the drilling process went. I once had a hard time drilling 4 x 5mm holes in 6mm thick aluminium plates :)

    1. It is a normal 14mm drill bit that makes holes that allows me to bolt-and-nut a 1/2 inch set. The trick was to drill a centre hole right through with a much smaller drill bit, say 2mm in size. Then drill the actual hole. The most important thing is to constantly apply metal working/cutting oil on the drill not just to cool the bit but to provide an extra cutting edge. That makes the difference.

    2. Two comments:

      1. Why does ur afghani workers watch u do it instead of them doing it? If the buy and drive a car surely they can follow instructions!

      2. I don't think ur ex bosses were wrong when they said "You don't have to know what the workers are doing. Your job is to manage the project and make sure it finishes on time. If not, highlight to us the problems and we'll discuss how to get things back on track", otherwise you risk micromanagement and end up burning out at work keeping track every detail.

      The real problem is that the contractors and subcontractors are half-trained or poorly trained even when they say they have 20 years experience. The 'experience' is based on handling unskilled workers who are often ex-farmers more than building workers.

      30 years ago we use Korean workers with some training. Expensive but at least knows what they are doing.

      Now we use cheaper Bangladeshi farmers with very little education. They are taught basic skills by supervisors dealing with power tools, monkey see monkey do, no certification, it's amazing we don't see more accidents at work sites in SG than officially acknowledged. Unfortunately many contractors or supervisors are themselves not fully formally trained and just accepts that some things can't be done simply because the workers can't do it, and the supervisors can't do it without actually asking a qualified builder.

      And when you are a project manager dealing with some two-bit companies contracted to build things, you would assume that they know what they are talking about.

      As your Aussie boss demonstrated, a amateur DIY builder and metalworker at home can teach even a basic DIY-101 lesson about Pilot Hole (a metalwork and woodwork trick) to an experienced supervisor from Singapore. Nothing for you to be ashamed about. Years of dealing with incompetent contractors and workers simply dulled your ability to seek other ways and accept those 'cant-be-done' attitude, and who wants to argue with some of those old bird contractor who always says I eat salt more than you eat rice.....

  2. It depends on the level of management. At the middle management level, it is crucial that managers understand the technical risks when they make decisions. This applies not only to blue collar jobs but also to white collar jobs such as engineering. Without going through the ranks it is impossible to develop the understanding of where the risk areas are when making decisions to trade-off one aspect versus another.

    Having the practical experience actually gives you the ability to cognitively understand the scope of the problem, even if you move into a new but related area subsequently as a manager. The key to success is the ability to learn the ropes quickly and understand the new business, but all of that is predicated on one having enough hands-on experience early in the career to develop the good sense.

    On a side note, would have expected most mechanical engineers and supervisors to know that a pilot hole is needed before using the larger drill bit, and that cutting oil is absolutely essential for steel and aluminium work :) For screw holes it will also need to be tapped first and the thread pitch needs to be correct :)