SINGAPORE - Fifteen years ago, Mr Thamboosamy Subramaniam was an enforcer for the National Environment Agency, fighting daily to keep Singapore's many unlicensed curry puff-hawkers and fake goods-sellers off the streets.
Today, the 65-year-old still makes his rounds, but now at construction sites, where he hunts for mosquito breeding grounds as part of the dengue control team.
He was one of more than 550 pioneer staff from the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources, the Public Utilities Board and the National Environment Agency, who were honoured at a tribute lunch today.
In an interview with the Straits Times, Mr Subramaniam recalled his work on the frontlines of a 10-year effort to purge street hawking from Singapore.
"Geylang Serai, Chinatown, Little India, Sungei Road - these were all troublesome areas," said Mr Subramaniam. "When we took enforcement action, they would be very angry and want to attack us."
That is why his team was always accompanied by a Cisco or police officer, a practice no longer seen today.
Hawkers would also cluster at Changi Airport to sell kueh, tea, otah and satay to taxi drivers.
Sometimes they hid the food they couldn't sell in covered drains for the next day's sales, recalled Mr Subramaniam, and his team would pick up on the "tell-tale signs like ants and flies."
During the lunch at Orchard Hotel, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan paid tribute to "the engineering and organising genius of the pioneer generation that has transformed Singapore".
They cleaned up the Singapore River, built reservoirs, built incinerators, and turned flooding into a thing of the past, he said.
"As a doctor, I always tell my colleagues that more lives have been saved by engineers - drainage and sewage engineers - than by doctors, because that made the biggest difference to public health," he said.
Dr Balakrishnan also urged Singapore's second generation to take lessons from the pioneers; to have a sense of urgency, to be practical, and to collaborate across disciplines.