The Lives They Live: Man who engineered a life in tech

Mr Sunny Chan Han Tiong's first job was as a mechanic in the Royal Air Force. From there, he fell in love with computers and spent 40 years working in the tech industry.
Mr Chan Han Tiong's 40-year career spans technology firms such as Texas Instruments and Hewlett-Packard, where he experienced first-hand the evolution of Singapore's technology scene. Mr Chan with a tool of a different nature. When he is not prising
Mr Chan Han Tiong's 40-year career spans technology firms such as Texas Instruments and Hewlett-Packard, where he experienced first-hand the evolution of Singapore's technology scene. ST PHOTOS: CHEW SENG KIM
Mr Chan Han Tiong's 40-year career spans technology firms such as Texas Instruments and Hewlett-Packard, where he experienced first-hand the evolution of Singapore's technology scene. Mr Chan with a tool of a different nature. When he is not prising
Mr Chan with a tool of a different nature. When he is not prising open computers and laptops, he is tending to his garden where he grows roselle and hibiscus plants and chillies in his spare time. ST PHOTOS: CHEW SENG KIM
Mr Chan Han Tiong's 40-year career spans technology firms such as Texas Instruments and Hewlett-Packard, where he experienced first-hand the evolution of Singapore's technology scene. Mr Chan with a tool of a different nature. When he is not prising
Mr Chan (standing, wearing red tie), with a Sperry Univac 1106 computer that he helped bring into the computer centre of DBS Bank in 1972 (then called DBS Chartered On-Line).ST PHOTO: SAMUEL RUBY RIANTO

While the pioneer leaders were the original architects of Singapore, everyday heroes helped build society here. This is another story about such people in the series, The Lives They Live.

In a modest workshop converted from a spare study in his two-storey house, Mr Chan Han Tiong, 71, tinkers with all kinds of electronics, fixing laptops, amplifiers and other electronic equipment that catches his eye.

His hands are steady from years of practice.

Mr Chan, known to friends and former colleagues as Uncle Sunny because of his "ever-sunny disposition", is an engineer through and through. In a 40-year career spanning technology firms such as Texas Instruments and Hewlett-Packard, Mr Chan experienced first-hand the evolution of Singapore's technology scene.

He remembers the days of computers that took up the bulk of the rooms they were in, which were aligned next to cupboard-size racks that housed the vacuum tubes used to power them in the early 1960s, and the cabinets that stored the magnetic cores and transistor chips between the 1960s and 1970s.

Then came the ancestors of today's modern computers that made use of silicon-based microchips, which started to resemble the small, desktop-friendly computers we know and love today. The entry of such silicon microchips also coincided with the growth of Singapore's computer and electronics industry in the 1970s, when the Republic jump-started its semiconductor and integrated-circuit industry.

Mr Chan's time in computer companies, which included American firm Sperry Univac and British technology company International Computers, was spent in rooms adorned with these large, hulking, brutalist-designed computers.

The sum total of those machines' computing power pales in comparison with the Samsung S7 smartphone Mr Chan now owns.

"Take, for example, a router. Today they are so small," said Mr Chan, holding his hands out in front of him. "But back then, they were huge and had to be mounted on racks in cabinets - cabinets so big that you could go inside and sleep in if you wanted to hide."

Mr Chan served as vice-president of site services at wafer fabrication firm TECH Semiconductor before retiring a decade ago.

"I've had the satisfaction of going through all phases of computers," said Mr Chan, who did not so much hang up his screwdrivers and soldering irons as much as squirrelled them away at his home workshop when he left the workforce.

SIZING THEM UP

Take, for example, a router. Today they are so small. But back then, they were huge and had to be mounted on racks in cabinets - cabinets so big that you could go inside and sleep in if you wanted to hide.

MR CHAN HAN TIONG, comparing the sizes of computer equipment today with those from his early days in the industry.

He is not comfortable unless his hands are busy, be it prising open computers and laptops to repair them or tending to the garden where he grows roselle and hibiscus plants and chillies in his spare time.

Speaking to The Straits Times at his house in Richards Avenue, Mr Chan pointed to a pair of vintage broadcast quality audio amplifiers which he had repaired. "I replaced the transistors in one and was so happy when I tested it and it worked. I shouted to my wife 'I fixed it!', I was so happy - and I dropped my screwdriver on a capacitor," Mr Chan said ruefully. "It shorted out and started a fire."

He said he had no exposure to technology growing up, being a mischievous "kampung boy" living in humble surroundings.

"I failed Primary 6 - but not too badly - and was placed in a remove class (a transition class for those who failed P6) when I entered St Patrick's Secondary School. I didn't know how to tell my mother that, so I asked God to change me."

And change he did, topping the level in Secondary 1 and later transferring to regular classes.

His first job fresh out of secondary school was to service and repair tracking equipment used on British fighter planes at the Royal Air Force in 1965. There, the 18-year old handled a computer for the first time, sparking a lifelong affair with it.

"Since then I've been attracted to computers, for whatever reason," said Mr Chan. "I would borrow and read all the books I could find in the workshop because I wanted to learn all about such computers."

Half a century later, he still takes apart laptops to repair them. He is currently chairman of non-profit organisation RSVP's Senior Volunteer Training Centre, where he works with volunteers to teach seniors how to use technology in their daily lives. "If they have any computers they can't fix, they will leave them to one side for me to repair too," said Mr Chan.

Engineering was seen as a noble profession when he was growing up, Mr Chan recalls. "Those days, engineers carried a degree. That instilled in my heart, all the time: I want to get a degree," he said. "At the same time, if I could not get one, then I'll help others get one. So all my life I was aspiring towards that."

He made good on both goals, obtaining an advanced diploma in full technology in computers and networks from the City & Guilds of London Institute in 1972 and a Master of Business Administration in 1988. He is a life member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Mr Chan also chaired the Electronics Industry Training Centre from 1986 to 1988 and 1990 to 1991, where he designed programmes for engineers to continue further education and upgrade their skills.

His love for computers also led him to the love of his life - he met his wife, Irene, at Texas Instruments where they were both working in 1969. They have two children, both academics.

Today, Mr Chan also serves as an elder in the Bukit Batok Presbyterian Church and speaks on how to marry faith and religion in the workplace.

"This is how I pass each day now, always looking for areas where I can be of help," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 07, 2017, with the headline 'Man who engineered a life in tech'. Print Edition | Subscribe