His successful late switch to pharmaceutical sector

The biomedical sciences industry, nurtured by the Economic Development Board, is a key pillar of Singapore's economy. With 1% of the resident workforce in it accounting for 4% of gross domestic product in 2013, it punches well above its weight. Arti Mulchand profiles some of the people working in it.

When he was retrenched after 17 years of making television glass panels, Mr Derek Lau was at a loss as to what to do.

The plant at which he got his first job in 1989 as a production technician, and eventually rose to foreman, had shut down.

The O-level holder, who has a National Certificate Grade 3 in Electrical Fitting and Installation from the Vocational and Industrial Training Board, was 37 and older than many other job seekers.

He joined a friend's food business, cooking and selling dishes such as nasi lemak but, after three years, he had enough. Plus, the pressure was on - his wife was pregnant with their first child.

A friend working at Merck, Sharp and Dhome's (MSD) Tuas plant recommended him for a job as a chemical technician.

As he had no experience, the then 41-year-old had to undergo rigorous training to bring him up to speed on work processes and the equipment used in the plant.

"I struggled in my first year. This was completely different from the work I had done in electronics, so I was starting from scratch.

"In making the products that go into medicine, you have to do a lot of documentation to ensure everything is done right.

"That was a challenge. I worked very hard," recalls Mr Lau, now 46.

After three years, he was promoted to senior chemical technician and, last year, he was made lead chemical technician.

He now oversees a team of 16 technicians who make what is called Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (API), or the biologically active parts of pharmaceutical drugs. Products he works on include Ezetimibe, the active ingredient in the anti-cholesterol drug Ezetrol.

On any given day, he could be assigning jobs to other technicians or donning his white overalls and helping at various stages of the production process.

He works 12-hour shifts at the 24/7 plant, which means he works morning or night shifts for two or three days and could be off for two or three days after that.

That means being able to spend long stretches of time with his wife and son, who is now five, cycling, shopping or playing computer games.

He says: "When I made television panels, it was about entertainment and did not feel as important. Now I am actually making products that save lives. I'm lucky to have been given the chance."

This article was first published on June 2, 2014