Steel Work

Setting up the lines
The first rack took us a long time
and the rest were brisk

I had a rare opportunity to install some steel racks in the workshop. It was the first time I had all the time in the world and no main contractor or safety officer behind my back. When I was doing this sort of thing in Singapore, I was merely running the project, so this would be the first time I actually did the work myself, with the help of both the factory workers of course. Everyone in the company cast doubting looks, except the boss of course. He simply brought me the tools I asked for and went for his short work trip to the East. Curious eyes fixed on us during the various stages of the small project, I wished they would just leave me alone. Soon enough, they disappeared once they found the workshop too hot, too noisy and too dusty to handle. Hopefully they secretly told themselves that they wouldn't want to do my job. Your job wouldn't be a threat if nobody wanted to do it. For anyone who wondered why the company was paying me that amount of money for my seemingly easy 'routine work', they should be aware that was because my job involved taking up anything that wasn't routine that comes my way. These were not common occurrences but they would happen for certainty.

Work wasn't easy as I thought it was. I identified the typical pitfalls and tried to avoid committing these mistakes but I still did. The differences between practical and theory were glaring. Neither school includes human stupidity and that every human has an opinion in their manual. I used to tell my mother she wasted all her money sending me to school. I didn't want her to do that because I felt education did nothing for me and I was just a passenger throughout, learning nothing except to craft wily ways to pass all my examinations and graduate. But my mother insisted I complete my university education and told me I could do whatever I want after that, she wouldn't bother about me thereafter. This was when I realised the wisdom in her mentality.

I used to think education wasn't important because once we got into the working world, most of what we learnt in school would not be put to use. The seniors at work would not hesitate to take a potshot whenever a newbie makes a mistake or appear dumb not knowing what to do. The nicer ones would put an arm around the shoulder and had said, "The school would not teach you this, now watch." The mean ones would simply put you down as often as they could, especially if you were higher educated than themselves. Eventually, the working society had little regards for education and only saw it as a qualifying ticket to get a job. Networking, EQ and working smart are the keys, nothing else matters, they said. And we believed that because it seemed right.

On hindsight, that was a terrible disease of our society. It was so bad that students were simply looking to pass their examinations than actually seeking, absorbing knowledge. Begging for exam tips, hard memorising, some even exchanged sexual favours to get an easy route to goal. 读死书, 死读书,读书死. We just wanted to get that ticket then we would rely on our EQ and networking skills to go far in life. Fuck the exams, fuck knowledge.

Only when workers kept asking me questions, I finally realised and manage to shrug off the shroud off my musty brain. Such as, "How do we lift this rack?" I stopped for a moment and wondered why their different doubts had never been a question in my mind. None of us had the solution off our fingertips. The difference between them and me was that I knew it could be done. The challenge was to lift a heavy irregular, non systematical structure as upright as possible so that it could be lowered to the mounting bolts and installed with minimal difficulties. It didn't help when I realised there was only a 1mm clearance with each of the holes on the mounting plate. We had to be very precise, there was no room (literally) for errors.

I had learnt that before. We had some fun calculating how to find the centre point of any structures such that it balances and will not flip over when we do a single point lift. It was magic. Alas in the real working world, there would be safety requirements to hoist any object over a certain weight by two or more points. That emphasize my point about people losing faith in education. "Study so much for fark? All forget, or cannot be used in practical life." If I never believed that, I would solve my problem that day and balance the rack in a single attempt. My workers were already tying all kinds of exotic patterns on the rack and yakking to each other in their foreign languages, much to my annoyance. I shut them out, focused my glare on the rack for a few good minutes and visualised, hoping to imagine a solution out of my mind.

Then I snapped out of my thoughts, picked up a single belt and did a simple loop over the top beam and signaled one of them to drive the forklift into the loop. When I got it where I wanted it, I ordered the guy to lift. He obliged, though still in doubt. When the rack was lifted high enough, he stopped. "It would swing and hit me if I lift it further." I told him not to worry and listened exactly to my instructions and guided him to move forward and lift up at the same time only at my call. When the last end of the rack was lifted off the ground, it did swing, but so marginally that all I had to do was to balance it with my hands. There it was, an odd shaped structure lifted upright with just a belt and no cranes, a magnificent sight. My workers were visibly excited.

The previous mentality was so wrong. Education should not be about the paper chase like the way we know in our Singapore society today. Education should have always been about seeking knowledge not to find a job, but to gain the wisdom of providing solutions to the problems of the society.

I have only 6-7 projects under my belt in my short 2 years in the construction industry, some of them are decent highlights for any portfolio and many of them are multi-million projects. None of them though, inspired me like this simple one of erecting just 6 steel racks. I spent all the time fighting wars and politicking in our jobs right from the start like everyone else in the industry spare no second to appreciate. I shut my world out of this ever since I came and didn't even want to answer the people who asked me why I didn't consider a return to 'my profession' in Singapore. I think I was so tramatised about the industry that I had totally lost faith in it. My mum would be sad to hear that because she kept telling me over and over how different I was with the other kids and I was building things all the time with anything when I was a kid. Sometime back, someone rejected when I volunteered to do his home tiling job because he "wanted a professional job." That was the first and last time I offered anyone my help because while I had no more aspirations in building, I wanted to keep a last ounce of  pride within me.

It isn't my business people get the 'pros' to do their decking or tiles. It wasn't my pocket. I told Jen I would build a house with my bare hands if I am allowed to do so. It would be a better house than any of these builders here can do and at a lower cost too. Yet, it would never be approved by the council, or anyone, of course.


  1. Bro, when I get my house, help me build a tree house.

  2. Your education is not a total waste of time. That education enabled you to determine where to put that sling and lifted the structure without too much swinging. The other guys, probably with less education merely asked how and stared. We might have forgotten our structural formulae but the basic principles stay with us for life.

  3. Good job with those racks. They look impressive.

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