Still on top of his top of the world job

Mr Martin Verghese, 71, officially retired in 2013 but still works with port operator PSA. He is an associate trainer with PSA Institute, where he mentors the next generation of port workers.
Mr Martin Verghese, 71, officially retired in 2013 but still works with port operator PSA. He is an associate trainer with PSA Institute, where he mentors the next generation of port workers.PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Trainer one of first quay crane operators in S'pore

PERCHED 10 storeys above sea level in a compact crane cabin, Mr Martin Verghese felt the weight of the world on his shoulders.

The day was June 23, 1972. Singapore was set to open its East Lagoon terminal in Tanjong Pagar and welcome its first container vessel - the MV Nihon from Rotterdam, the Netherlands, carrying a cargo of 300 containers.

As one of the first few quay crane operators in Singapore, Mr Verghese, then just 28 years old, was responsible for unloading the country's first cargo container.

With the world watching this historic moment, the pressure was colossal.

"The night before, I was like a small kid going for a holiday," Mr Verghese, now 71, recalled.

He remembers waking up for work at 5.30am that day, doing final checks with his team before the vessel arrived. "All of us were pretty excited yet tense. You could not afford to make a mistake," he stressed. "Everyone would notice."

But when the vessel finally docked at 8am, there was no place for nerves. "I did not have time to count how many containers I unloaded. I just had to concentrate," said Mr Verghese, who spent about three hours up in the crane that day.

While that was one of the biggest days of his life, Mr Verghese's journey with the shipping industry started almost a decade earlier. He joined the Singapore Harbour Board (now PSA) on March 4, 1963, as an auxiliary police constable who helped to maintain the port's security and traffic control.

Then, in 1971, a golden opportunity surfaced. His company was taking applications for workers to train to become quay crane operators ahead of the container terminal's opening. "I thought, 'Why don't give it a shot?' I was young and just wanted a challenge," he said.

That decision changed his life.

Together with about a dozen others, he was trained by a Japanese engineer to operate the new Hitachi quay crane in 1972. It took about three weeks for them to learn everything about the machine, including how to start it, perform maintenance checks, lower and hoist containers, and what would happen with the push of each button.

"None of us knew anything, we all had to start from scratch."

A few months later, they would put their new skills to the test with the arrival of the MV Nihon.

Mr Verghese served as quay crane operator for about three years before also taking on a supervisory role for more than a decade. When he was promoted to operations supervisor, his duties included delivering lectures and leading crane simulator training sessions.

Despite retiring in 2013, he found it hard to leave PSA. He is now an associate trainer with PSA Institute, where he mentors the next generation of port workers. He remembers a trainee whom he described as a "very angry person" who frequently picked fights with others. Mr Verghese called the man into his office to chat about his problems.

"I asked him about his family, and he showed me a picture of his wife and four children. Tears came out. He said none had ever spoken to him like this," he said, adding that the trainee turned over a new leaf after that.

Indeed, many of Mr Verghese's students and colleagues know him as the stern-looking man with a soft heart.

Mr Muhammad Irwan Ibrahim, 30, who met Mr Verghese in 2009, said: "He... looked very serious. I thought he was going to be a very fierce instructor.

"However, along the way I found him very approachable. He would lend a listening ear to the other trainees and offer them advice," said the prime mover instructor at PSA Institute.

He added that Mr Verghese eventually became a role model and father figure to him. "He reminded us that it was not just about doing the job, but also going home safe to our families every day."

Mr Verghese's own family has also stood out in their own fields.

The father of two sons and grandfather of one is married to Mrs Iris Verghese, 69, a retired healthcare worker who counselled many people including Singapore's first Aids patient in 1985.

His younger of two sons, Kevin, 40, starred in the 1996 local comedy film Army Daze.

Glancing at the automated vehicles at the Pasir Panjang terminal, Mr Verghese smiles as he recalls the days when cranes had neither lifts nor air-conditioning.

Crane operators had to scale a 10-storey ladder to reach their cabins. As a tough form of training, they even had to descend and climb up again as a punishment if they neglected to lift their crane "flippers" when lowering containers on a deck - a mistake which could damage a ship.

Though he now spends most of his days in the classroom, Mr Verghese's heart belongs out in the wharf, where many of his close friendships and fond memories were forged.

He remembers representing PSA in soccer tournaments, and seeing fireworks from the top of the crane in the 1980s when he worked during National Day.

"It's a bird's eye view from up there. You feel like you are part of the celebration."

With a career spanning 52 years and counting, he has much to celebrate.

When asked why he chose to stay on as a trainer after retiring, he replied: "It's the difference I can make in one's life - that's motivation enough."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 29, 2015, with the headline 'Still on top of his top of the world job'. Print Edition | Subscribe