45 years of work, not a single day of sick leave

Sats duty manager loves his job and says 'money cannot buy this kind of happiness'

Mr Khoo Chai Beng, 67, has been with ground handling firm Sats for 45 years. When he first started work there, he did not have qualifications, so he attended night classes to get O-level certifications.
Mr Khoo Chai Beng, 67, has been with ground handling firm Sats for 45 years. When he first started work there, he did not have qualifications, so he attended night classes to get O-level certifications.ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

When Mr Khoo Chai Beng first started out in his job in 1970, he slogged day and night in a sweltering kitchen, perspiring in singlet and shorts and wearing clogs.

"I worked in a hot kitchen where there was no air-conditioning and no ventilation," he recalled.

Mr Khoo was not helping to prepare meals at a hawker stall or eatery, but doing so for those who could afford the luxury of air travel.

In a career spanning 45 years at ground handling firm Sats, Mr Khoo, now 67 and a duty manager in catering, has watched the local aviation industry take flight.

In 1965, Paya Lebar Airport served about 700,000 passengers; last year, Changi Airport handled some 54.1 million passengers, nearly 80 times the number.

These days, flight meals are prepared in air-conditioned kitchens, where staff have to wear dust coats and face masks.

While Paya Lebar Airport could serve up to 10,000 meals a day, this has increased to about 60,000 meals at the in-flight catering centre where Mr Khoo now works.

"There was no automation. Everything was done manually - even the coring of pineapples," said Mr Khoo of his days in Paya Lebar Airport.

Now, every step of the food's preparation and transportation is recorded. The food, after being cooked, is chilled in a way that prevents bacterial growth and preserves freshness. With about 800 types of weekly menus prepared at the in-flight catering centres, passengers today have more food choices, said Mr Khoo.

Amid the changes, having colleagues he enjoys working with made him stay on through the years. "We had a group of catering (assistants), all whom were very cooperative, and had teamwork," he said of his early days on the job. "After work, we would go to Middle Road for steamboat."

The first time he travelled on a plane was when he went to Taipei with four of his colleagues, two years after he started work at Sats.

He added that his colleagues - the supervisors and officers he works with - continue to support him well. "I love to work," he said simply. In fact, he enjoys his job so much that he has not taken a single day of medical leave since joining Sats. He opts to use his annual leave when he falls ill.

It was not easy getting his job. Mr Khoo, who did not complete primary school education, had landed the job through the labour office, which helped the unemployed find work. "In the past, jobs were scarce," he said.

He started attending night classes soon after starting work. In five years, he received his O-level certifications and started to rise up the ranks. He went from being an operations assistant to an officer taking food orders from airlines and ensuring that meals were prepared accordingly.

He later became a supervisor, overseeing both the cold and hot kitchens, before becoming one of the first duty managers.

He conducts briefings for staff each morning and ensures that food prepared by the kitchens makes it in time for flights.

He is one of four duty managers who take turns working in the kitchens, and oversees operations run by some 1,200 staff. This is his longest-held position, and it is also the most demanding, he said.

One challenge, he said, is meeting the two-hour turnaround time to load in-flight meals when there are changes in aircraft. After making sure there is enough fresh food and putting the additional meals together, it takes time to load them onto the planes.

Helping to ensure there are no delays gives him immense satisfaction. He said: "Money cannot buy this kind of happiness."

His family may call him a workaholic but Mr Khoo, who has three children and three grandchildren, intends to work for as long as he can.

"The industry is always evolving with greater use of technology and automation. It is important to keep up and stay relevant," he said.

But he enjoys it. "That is my life," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 09, 2015, with the headline '45 years of work, not a single day of sick leave'. Subscribe