Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Tool pushers

Joseph Ngieng, Eric Wong, Awang Junaidi, Adenan Ali, David Chin, 
Jan Martijnse,Michael Ting,Gandu Giiang, Macmilan Bau, 
Lex Alink, Rasnan Arbi, Jeff Holbrook
(Lean Tai Lee and James Nguren)
After working 5 years as a wireline operator with production department, I had enough and I applied for a transfer to drilling department to become a trainee driller. In 1978, eight trainee drillers were recruited from outside Shell: Joseph Ngieng, Eric Wong, Awang Junaidi Abdul Razak, Adenan Ali, Michael Ting, Gandu Giiang, Macmilan Bau and Rasnan Arbi. Lian Tai Lee and James Nguren joined us a year later. Out of the 25 applicants from within Shell, I was the only one accepted by ODR, Lex Alink,[1] to join the training scheme. I think he liked my answer to one of his many questions during our informal interview:
“David, why do you want to work as a driller?”
“I hope to sit one day in your chair, sir!”
I was not smiling and I think he really liked the idea of a Malaysian taking over his position one day. He realized that I know a little about the oil operations, especially oil wells.

Most of the other internal applicants were mud technicians like Michael Tay, John Kusier, Mohd. Tabib, Pungut Luntal, Bong Han Chuon and Robert Chee. None of them wanted to be a drilling superintendent one day, apparently! They did not get the job even though there were 10 vacancies being advertised in the paper.
Michael Ting has to pay back Sesco something like 14K for his scholarship bond.
[2] Eric Wong paid DID about 7K only. Adenan Ali told me that when he got the job with Shell, it felt like winning the lottery! All Trainee drillers started at JG8, 1000 ringgit a month plus free housing and offshore allowances.

Any way, we began our training to become Shell Malaysia’s first oil well drillers. Nine young men and one, not so young, became the political pawns in the battle for control of the oil industry in Malaysia between Petronas and Shell. What actually happened, nobody knew exactly. Perhaps something like this:-

Petronas: Well, Shell, since your operations began in 1911 in Sarawak, how many Malaysian drillers did you manage to train here?

Shell: What driller? We have been using Dutch drillers and now American and French contract drillers.
[3] They came as part of the package deal of the rig contract of Reading and Bates or Sea and Land. We have not trained any Shell drillers anywhere in the world for a very long time now because of our policy to use contractor’s rigs and personnel to save on operating costs.

Petronas: Malaysia needs to have our own drillers because we are buying oil rigs to drill our own wells offshore Trenganu. These oil concessions will not be offered to the oil companies any more, we intend to do it all by ourselves by setting up a drilling subsidiary, Petronas Carigali, initially with help of man power from oil companies like Shell, BP and Exxon. Later on, it will become an all Petronas operation, including the production operations on the expired oil fields like West Lutong, Baram, Baronia and Samarang fields. We expect to run the whole show by ourselves and you had better help us by training Malaysian drillers for us, starting right now!

Shell: OK! There is no need to get excited. We can start recruiting 10 boys next month and two more every year after that. The programme is this. The trainee drillers will work hands-on on the rigs on a week-on and week-off basis. On their week off they attend training courses at our training centre in Lutong to cover the theoretical part of the operation. After one year, we will send them in batches of two and three to The Hague for more advanced drilling courses at the Shell Training Centre for 6 weeks. At the end of the course they will be issued with round-one self study courses to take home. They sit for round-one exams after one year working on the rigs as full time assistant drillers and if they pass the exam, they will become drillers as soon as positions become available.

They then work for two years as drillers, and then they go again to The Hague for more training courses on well control. Bring back round two self study courses and continue working on the rigs again as full time drillers, JG6, for another two years. Any time they are ready, the drillers can sit for the round-two exams conducted annually in The Hague. When they pass that, they will be promoted to JG5, drilling supervisors (tool pushers). They work for a few years on cross postings in Nigeria or Oman and some of the better candidates will return as head tool pushers, JG4 or even make senior head tool pusher, JG3 before their retirement!

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

It was a scam to bluff Petronas.

All the above plans sound so very impressive and plausible at the time. I was completely fooled! However, Shell had no oil rigs of its own in Malaysia. We faced many problems being trained on contractor owned rigs because, to start with, their insurance policy did not cover Shell personnel! After passing our round one exams we could not progress any further because the contractors refused to use any of us as drillers. They have trained their own already! Aji and Maga Ratab on the Jumbo and Johnny Tan and Michael Ting[5] on the Trident. We became mere observers and were not allowed to touch the brake or anything else on the rig floor. Although it was easy money for us we could not progress further. We were moved from rig to rig every 3 months. Jan Martijnse, our trainer claimed that was for exposure to the different types of oil rigs being used; but we all knew better. It was more like marking time actually. Since we have 8 rigs at the time, two more years passed quickly and we did not make much progress at all. We were very angry and frustrated with our training. There were rumours of resignations from Shell to join the contractors, Reading and Bates or even Carigali as drillers! Our frustrations grew. I was suffering from gastric ulcers, kidney stones, schizophrenia, delusions and also developed a very severe persecution complex! Every time on my days off from the rigs, I went to the head office to kick up a big fuss with personnel dept. for not doing their job. Patricia Chapman and William Ng wanted the drilling dept to do something quickly with all the trainee drillers.

The next thing I knew, Ben Frietmen (my drilling boss) and Dr. Jaya, the Shell medical officer, ruled that I was too sick in the head to work on the rigs.[6] I was told to stop going out to the rigs; but to report immediately to Jan Verloop in the materials warehouse in the Miri Supply Base! Patrick Lee the material graduate trainee kindly gave me a table and a swivel chair in the warehouse. My colleagues were Hassan Aton and Quek Chong Seng. There was no telephone and no IN tray on my table for a long time![7] I was given free run of the Miri warehouse and marine yard for about a year. It was certainly less stressful and I slowly recovered from my afflictions whatever it was. Dr. Jaya never gave me his medical dianogsis. The fact is this. My career to become a driller in Shell has ended. Later after I have recovered, Christine, my wife told me that during that period I was behaving very badly to her at home and that she almost left me on that occasion!

I believed at first that I was only temporarily attached to materials department and that I would return to work on the oil rigs one day. I was feeling bored with my job with no responsibilities. I saw all the surplus materials returned from the Bintulu LNG projects: flanges, elbows, and tee joints and weldolets. They were of all grades, sizes and pressure ratings just sitting there in the rain, rusting away.

After two months of doing nothing, I saw a way to fight my boredom. I asked Jan Verloop, the warehouse supervisor, to let me do something about the Bintulu project returns. He was very pleased and said: go ahead! It was the signal he had been waiting for![8] I was on the road to recovery. However, the job was really a can of worms! I found to my dismay that most of the project materials were one-off items, not standard Shell stock at all. The stock analysts for steel products, Abang Ahmad and David Suckling refused to accept them back into their stock in the warehouse. I had to follow protocols to get each item coded into their correct mesc numbering codes,[9] raise the proper documentations (MRV), process them through the EMA2000 system[10], and then physically place each item on the shelves in the warehouse! Mesc are ten digit numbers which identify all equipment and spare parts used by the Royal Dutch Shell Group in the oil industry.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

New job as a buyer/stock analyst

I raised MIV’s, bought a welder’s umbrella and connected a long air hose from the production workshop to the site. I obtained two contract labour and we started to do descaling of every item, treating them with antirust compound. I built wooden pallets to lay them out and in general, kept very busy every day for about six months. It all came to nothing of course; but in the process, I learned a lot about the warehouse and material operations and got to know the people working there and understanding their work culture. For example, R&D did not refer to research and development; but receiving and dispatch of goods, a section under George Lian, the Kayan!

The real story was this: four senior buyers in Materials dept had recently got the sack for corruptions and it was not such a pleasant place for me to work in 1983. Every one was under the microscope! Investigations were on going and the material staff was very wary and suspicious of my actual role there. Was I a company spy or what? How come I only report to the orang puteh supervisor and I seemed to have no fixed jobs or responsibilities, just walking around the place, looking and listening?! What happened to my telephone and IN tray? My colleagues told me all this, much later. Let me back track a little here…

One time, as trainee drillers we were attached to production wireline operations to learn the routine daily operations. All of them were happy to follow the production crew offshore to makan angin, except me. I was assigned to Yee Khai Pang for my training. He was a little embarrassed because previously I was his mentor who taught him all that he knew about wireline operations. He was my protégé when I was his mentor for two years! To avoid an awkward situation, I quietly stayed on-shore, packed my golf set into the Healey Sprite and went to play golf every morning! The beauty was: I got paid a good salary with over time payments and was given a meal allowance for playing golf for three months! Ramli Hj Lani,
[11] the production payroll clerk, just credited every thing to all the trainee drillers as per roster given to him, including me who was not even there! Life was great! Shh!! However, it was round about then that I finally realized the truth. We were merely recruited to keep Petronas happy! There was no real intention on Shell’s part to carry on and finish the training programme for the drillers. They don’t need us at all because Shell had no rigs operating in Borneo! The company was using all contract rigs supplied with drillers.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Marking time

After that we were grounded because the drilling contractors flatly refused to have us on their oil rigs and we marked time in the training department doing stuff like defensive driving courses, breathing apparatus, fire fighting, first aid and swimming courses. Most of which were only indirectly related to the job. Some of us were eventually assigned to Deutag heavy land rig in the Baram area, Tudan and also Pujut corner to work as mud technicians on the land rig. Since there were more trainees than rigs available, some of us were told to clear our annual leave while the remaining ones were sent to England to do courses in steam plant technology.[12]

It did not seem right. After more than 5 years working on the rigs as nothing more than rough necks really, we could see clearly that the training programme was leading nowhere. Eric Wong with our support and encouragement wrote a letter to Petronas to report on the slow progress and explain the frustrations we felt about our training. Petronas jumped on Shell. The end result was, Peter Fletcher, training department head, got the sack! The blame culture in Shell was strong and healthy and he was blamed for it when it was not his fault at all. Every body knew that! It was company’s policy not to finish the training for drillers. They have no use for them!

Jan Martijnse, the head tool pusher in charge of our training, was angry with us for blowing the whistle on Shell. Because he had 6 more months to retirement, he told us not to rock the boat or write any more letters. We agreed, and to buy our silence he rewarded us all with a promotion from JG8 to JG7! Eric Wong, our leader and spokesman was also given another ungpow, a two year scholarship to go to study in England! He came back with a diploma in steam plant technology!
[13] To camouflage this clever move, Shell also sent Joseph and Michael to London with Eric for a holiday. The three Foochows all came back with their diplomas in steam plant technology and what happened? They demanded for more money! By that time, I was working as a buyer/stock analyst, with Benjamin Kaboy in Materials Department. This was no longer my concern.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Where are they now?

Today, Eric Wong is still working with Shell in the Bintulu SMDS project[14]. Joseph Ngieng is a drilling engineer, assigned to Petronas, on and off in KL. Michael Ting left Shell and is working as a consultant toolpusher with an American firm and making the mega bucks in US dollars! Awang Junaidi got the sack way back when he challenged Shell as a Malay bumiputra and lost! I have lost touch with him when I was reassigned to Materials department as a stock analyst in 1984. 

I saw Macmilan Bau working as a clerk in the training centre. In my opinion, although he still had a permanent job; he got a lousy deal with a dead end. Adenan Ali and James Nguren were sent to Oman to work as drillers on a Shell rig there and I lost touch with them also. Gandhu left Shell to work in the Middle East some where. Lian Tai Lee disappeared from the scene altogether. I continued to work as a stock analyst and was promoted to senior buyer, JG6. I worked there until 1995 when Shell restructured and I was offered an attractive redundancy package. I accepted, took the money and migrated to New Zealand with my family. Let’s go back again to the main story:

After Jan Martijnse left Shell our new trainer Mr. Corster was completely useless. He did not even bother to learn our names! He called me Gandhu! He did some other unforgivable stuff also. Fortunately I had a spy, Lucy Chin
[15] working in the drilling office and we were able to neutralize some of the terrible plans he had been hatching for us. One day Awang Junaidi’s keys to his office did not seem to fit the door! The drilling boss, Ben Frietman, did not even have the guts to tell Junaidi, a Malay that he was no longer working for Shell! Instead, he arranged with camp services to have the lock changed during the night! Just fancy that! Is this Shell culture and the Dutch way of doing things? I am so glad that I am no longer a part of all this bull shit. None of my three children show any inclinations to work for Shell in Lutong and I am so glad!

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Divide and rule

In Sarawak Shell Bhd, senior staffs (SS) are not encouraged to mix socially with COE (clerical and operational employees). There is a clear line drawn and apartheid[16] is alive and well, especially in the clubs! Each category has their own social clubs at different locations.[17] Most new comers struggled with this caste system at first; but they soon gave up and toe the line because it was just like banging your head against a brick wall. It felt so good when you stop!

I liked sailing, but being a COE wireline operator, JG10, I was not allowed to join the Piasau Boat club! It was meant for expatriates (orang puteh). Tidak apah lah. So, I bought my own boats and I learned to sail by myself. Fortunately for me, the golf club has been returned to the Miri people and I could play golf on my days off from the rig. It would be too expensive to buy my own golf course otherwise. Smile! There was only the one golf course in Miri. These two hobbies put me in a very good position now in New Zealand because I found many sailors and golfers here. I do feel really at home at the tee or on the water.

The people in Miri town hated us as Shell employees because of our snobbish behavior. If you picked up an ikan dwai and you are a bit slow in deciding whether you can afford to eat it, the Shell employee standing behind you in the queue, is liable to make a sign to the fish monger and buy the fish even before you have put it down! Perhaps we should all read Dale Carnegie a bit more!

We also flashed our gold credit cards, some with no limit, around town simply to make the rest of the world jealous! No wonder Shell employees are becoming less and less popular in Miri. The strange thing is this. There is today a new breed of people doing exactly the same thing to the Shell employees! The weekend shoppers from Brunei!! The men came to drink beer and visit the massage parlours. The women visited beauty salons for their Botox injections, buy durians and do a little shopping at the new supermarkets and shopping malls. They stay overnight at the Righa Hotel and Holiday Inn! Miri is still a booming oil town. Actually, it is a very expensive town for pensioners to live there. The chances of my going back there to live in the Pujut house, has become more and more remote as time goes by.

[1] Lex was the drilling superintendent at the time and he was due for retirement shortly. I was not a threat to him at all. Moreover, I suspected that he was looking for young Malaysians with oomph![2] This meant that he worked for no pay the first year! Only a Foochow would do this.[3] R&B were using Americans whereas S&L used French drillers.[4] This was a very critical point as Shell owns no drilling rig in Malaysia. The position was never available![5] Identical name, not related to our Michael Ting. This is the son of the barge captain, James Ting on the Sedco A. He owns the big house on the peninsula close to hole no: 14 of the Miri golf course.[6] I was too dangerous to let loose on the oil rigs offshore because of my specialized wireline knowledge![7] I was quietly left there to recover from extreme stress. Time was a great healer.[8] The first sign of recovery from stress.[9] materials and equipment standards code.
[10]Electronic Materials Administration soft ware programme which controls every single stock item in the Miri and Labuan Supply Base. Every month the main frame computer generates print-outs called action notices. As stock analyst, it was my job to study each document and make quick decisions on the exact action required for that particular stock item[11] Ramli was my school mate in St. Joseph’s primary school many years ago. We pakat pakat lah![12] All rig equipment was powered by diesel/electric motors! (They were marking time out of sight of Petronas!) Eric Wong, our spokesman was gagged effectively.[13] All the rigs had diesel-electric power plants. Steam plant is an obsolete technology and is useless.[14] Eric came to visit me in NZ in 2000. Four families came together with him that time![15] Wife of Bill Chin, my second cousin.[16] COE, SSS and SS are socially kept apart.[17] In BSP there were three labour social clubs arranged by Shell on strictly racial lines: Malay, Chinese and Indian recreation clubs. It certainly was a case of divide and rule there!