Unique Passions: The sentiments of a Singaporean born-and-bred crane operator


 Welcome to Unique Passions! A segment where we interview various individuals who choose to pursue their niche interests, even if it means taking on the path less-traveled. Take a deeper look into their personal thoughts, opinions, and feelings towards life…

**DISCLAIMER ** The views of our interviewee is solely his personal one, and should not be misunderstood as representative, or generalized, to any specific organization, institution or community.

Have you ever heard of the occupation “crane operator” ? Do you know how cranes look like? Cranes are machines that crane operators operate on, to hoist up building materials.

Though Singapore is a nation buzzing with daily construction projects, many Singaporeans are not in the construction trade. As such, we hope to give readers insights on the early beginning of this crane trainer, as well as his present views towards social issues and societal ideals.

Name: Philip Chia

Age: 58

Race: Chinese

Religion: Catholic

Occupation: Crane Trainer



Past versus present generation                                           

Children used to run about in the kampong, and led very interesting and playful times. Now, they are being controlled by technology. On their hands everyday are computers, notebooks, laptops, handphones.. totally different from us.

I love plants and animals during my growing up years. When I learnt botany, I found joy and happiness because of my interest in remembering the names of the plants.


(Working in the airforce)

Poverty background

My parents migrated from China and they did not have proper jobs. I had 6 siblings. We lived very poorly, and depended on clothing given by neighbours e.g. I had to wear a dress when I was a small boy.

As children – we ran about a lot but did not practice proper hygiene, which is why I had “smelly head” (dialect term “Cao Tao”). This caused a lot of patches in my scalp. When people notice my head even now, they assume I was a big time gangster in the past because of these patches that look like “knife cuts” scars on my head.


(Receiving crane training in UK)

Past backpacking trips

After saving up – I went for a few backpacking trips as a young adult without thinking much, as I just wanted to explore the world. I was exposed to so many things.

These trips made me realised – we Singaporeans are very lucky. Some people in the world cannot even afford a basic education, or have to travel very far just to reach their schools. I talked to the locals casually and to my astonishment, they could work the whole day just for a few dollars.


(Local chinese newspaper interview on tower crane training)


From a crane operator to a crane trainer

I left the air force in 1980 after a 6 year stint, joining the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) as a crane operator, and subsequently progressed from there. I became a crane trainer in 1994. Till now, I am still in the crane industry.

Were you a pioneer in this line of crane work? 

Not really, but I was one of the first few people who started the tower crane operator’s training, and certification of tower crane operators. I have been in the crane industry for 35 years, and teaching trainees for the past 21 years.

I enjoy imparting skills to new crane operators so that they can earn a good salary upon entering the crane industry. At the same time, I also enjoy sharing with my students the joy of working with cranes.


    (Crawler Crane)

History and evolving of crane operator line 

HDB started to build flats in the 60s using “panjang” – a kind of wooden tower structure for lifting. As the buildings got higher over the years, there were more projects, and more crane operators needed.

Different types of cranes e.g. tower/crawler/mobile cranes which can help speed up the work were also brought in, as the demand for flats kept going up.  As such, this job as a crane operator has been in increasing demand since the new millennium.

The cranes are like “national birds of Singapore.” The operators are paid well e.g. they can get a basic starting pay of $2000 per month and with overtime work, they may be able to double their income.

Only basic academic qualification is required, and as long as you have the interest, you can be trained,  followed by being certified, and getting your crane license issued by the Ministry of Manpower.


(Mobile Crane)

What are the differences between tower, mobile and crawler cranes?

Tower crane is used in high-rise buildings projects, it has a tall tower mast. Mobile cranes can be driven on highways to the worksite. Crawler cranes travel on crawler tracks on the worksite.

Misunderstandings of a crane operator job

Singaporeans think this job is dirty, dangerous, demanding. But it is actually not as difficult as they think. You are on top of the crane, and you wait for instructions to control and lift a suspended load.

Do people look down on this job? 

No, they have to look up to us, since we look down on them from the top of the crane tower. [*Wife sitting beside him gives a snigger at his lame joke] We are proud to be crane pilots. 20-30 years ago, people felt working in construction were for uneducated and uncultured people, but this perception is slowly changing. It is now reckoned to be a dignified, dream job with quite a competent salary to be earned.

cas 2

(Tower crane)

How have you contributed to the industry?

Over the years, I have trained many crane operators in Singapore, and helped set up the crane training center to train tower/crawler/mobile crane operators.

I was also part of various crane operations and hoisting teams that help built various commercial buildings – e.g. IMM in Jurong East, Ngee Ann City, Republic Plaza, and South Point project.

Every time when we pass by these building, I would tell my children “Papa was part of the team that build it.” I feel a sense of accomplishment when I think back on my associations with these buildings, and they reminded me too – of the sweat and hard work put in during my younger years.


(Taken from Transitioning.org)


Are the jobs of foreign construction workers in Singapore same as that of a crane operator?

They have a variety of jobs – carpenters, steel benders, concreters, scaffolders, machine operators etc. But most would like to become crane operators.

On Xenophobia and immigration policies

A lot of foreigners come here to earn a living. They know what they are here for. Before they even start earning, the initial few months of their salary will be used to pay off their agent fees. They are also more hardworking, obedient, and take instructions well. There’s no reason for us to be xenophobic towards them.

I’ll like to see society giving them more respect, treating them like any other human being as they are an integral part of us. They are my colleagues.

With regards to the immigration policies, there are too many foreign workers if you ask me honestly, and our infrastructure cannot cope. I also find our immigration policy too relaxed, as many are able to circumvent and come in.

How he hopes the construction industry will progress

New building technologies and methodologies should lead the way. Productivity, site safety improvements, and mechanizations – can be the way forward to ensure better construction working conditions.

Having a better understanding of colleagues from diverse backgrounds or nationalities will allow them to feel more welcomed, which aids in societal immersion. Parental negative mindsets, or misconceptions towards being in the construction line has to be changed too. 


(Taken from 3E Accounting Pte Ltd)


High Cost of Living

Food items are costly and difficult to cope compared to 20 years ago. Food prices keeps going up, but do not come down. [Housing and healthcare?] Not really affordable.

If I have to buy a house now, I would have to spend my whole life paying for it. Healthcare is still expensive even with the governmental-introduced policies, which is why people often say “living in Singapore – you can die, but you cannot fall sick”.

Changes to policies he hopes to see

Government should have a second wave of Pioneer Generation Package. More can still be done to bring down prices of flats. [Increase on social spending?] Yes. I have trust, that the government can manage their funds well, and spend within their means. But honestly, I don’t think they have maximized their spendings.


The present governmental control– some are for it, some are against it. There is no one perfect policy and this puts the government in a dilemma. What I can say is – “spend within your means, buy what you need, not just what is good to buy.”


Catholic faith

The faith is there, but it is not strong. So I try to build up and maintain it by going to church more often. 

Is there a difference between Christians and Catholics?

 They are the same to me, as both ultimately reach the same destination, just that they are walking different paths. To give an analogy – if I want to reach Kuala Lumpur, I can drive up, or take a train, and I would still reach the ultimate destination of Kuala Lumpur.


(Backdrop of the Ngee Ann City Project) 

Meaning of life

Be happy with what you are, be grateful with what you have, and just be yourself. [Did your poor background decrease your ambition?] It woke me up, and I tried my best to save up when I started to work. I know my level of satisfaction, I don’t ask for more. Life is never equal. Some comes to this world poor, some comes to this world rich.

For me, I’m just who I am. I do not need to follow people (*mainstream ideals), just live within your means, there is no need to compare with people. Take care of your health. Health is better than wealth.

What does success means to you? 

It is important to have enough money but nonetheless, success to me is when you can do what you want, when you want, and how you want, without worries.

Your immediate family is always your closest people. As I grew older and wiser, my priority turned towards spending more time with my family, and doing less of overtime work.


(Son’s 1st birthday)

Death and Future

I’m not scared of death as it has to come to everybody. [Do you place God or family higher?] Both are equally as high.

I thought Catholics are supposed put God as the highest?

You can put God as the highest if you put it this way, and ultimately, we have to go home and see him (God). I just want to rest and relax after working for almost 40 years.

For me I believe, my savings is enough. For another person, it might be different. It is up to your mental thinking – if you feel it is not enough, it will never be enough. 一山还有一山高 (*English definition – there is never an end to comparison. No matter how much a person has in life, there is a tendency to always feel someone else is having it better).

[** Philip has a passion for writing poems too. This is one of his older pieces.]




To check out our other posts on Unique Passions, click HERE

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Written by: Cass

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