Story by Stella Soon, Photos by Zhu Tong Yao
It’s no surprise to see Uncle Kwek Soo Soey when you head down to the Dining Hall for breakfast. Stationed at the Cinnamon ticket tapping counter from Mondays to Saturdays, you’ll often see him handing out meal tickets or lending the kitchen staff an extra pair of hands – then rushing back to the ticket counter once students arrive.
And if that doesn’t ring a bell, perhaps the chirpy “good morning”s he greets each of us with will.
2017 marks the second or third year Uncle Soo Soey’s been working with Chartwells. After wrapping up his morning shift, the father of two heads home to watch news clips on Youtube – mainly news from around Asia Pacific – to glean different perspectives he can’t get from local media.
However, behind his affable demeanour lies a gung-ho seafaring man and an undying love for the sea.
It’s something he attributes to his family’s heritage – all his ancestors lives’ were, in one way or another, intertwined with the sea. Even his son was part of the navy during his National Service days.
A love for the sea that runs in his blood
As a teenager, Uncle Soo Soey began helping his uncle fish in the waters of Pulau Tekong. But upon realising that there were more fish to be caught beyond the borders of Singapore and Malaysia, he quickly set his sights on Indonesia instead.
Fishing in Indonesia was tricky business. Since neither he nor his fishing buddies were Indonesian, they were technically not allowed to fish in Indonesia’s waters – making every trip there a harrowing experience for them.
The stakes were high: getting caught for illegal fishing would mean being thrown behind bars and having one’s fishing nets and boat confiscated. Though it wasn’t something that a small sum of “kopi money” couldn’t solve, it always paid to err on the side of caution.
Their modus operandi went like this: upon reaching Indonesia’s waters, they’d dive underwater to plant explosives on the rockstones near Indonesia’s smaller islands. Once the explosives went off, they’d then round up all the fishes that passed out or died from the impact, and that would form their catch of the day.
Even after splitting the profits with his boss and amongst his fellow fishermen, Uncle Soo Soey still acknowledged that the job paid better than average. But he told me, “it’s really a risky job.” Apart from the perils of being caught for illegal fishing, he also ran the risk of getting blasted by the explosives and feeling groggy after.
Following his stint as a fisherman, he switched to being a seaman for the higher salary and better stability it provided. Lonely days out at sea saw him fish onboard, and it was in overseas waters that he caught the biggest fish he’d ever seen.
He chuckled while recalling the time he caught a 30kg heavy sotong, which he and his friends hauled onto the boat with a rope and clamp.
Memorable incident on sea
Even Uncle Soo Soey’s free time was spent out at sea. In his younger days, he’d round up a couple of colleagues and they’d drive a motor sampan (a small, flat bottomed wooden boat) out to sea to have fun.
He brought his wife on one of those expeditions to Seletar Islands – but the capsize of their boat on that trip traumatised her and she refused to go out to sea with him again.
That memorable day, a passing speedboat sent waves of seawater into their boat. With his years of experience out at sea, Uncle Soo Soey knew the best thing to do was to get as much water out of the boat as possible.
But some of his less experienced friends panicked instead of trying to remedy the situation – and the whole boat capsized. Thankfully, Uncle Soo Soey was able to drag his wife, who couldn’t swim well, out of water before any mishap happened.
“After that, she was very traumatised and didn’t want to go out to sea with me anymore. Going to Changi Seaside is okay, but she doesn’t want to take a boat.”
Throughout our interview, Uncle Soo Soey kept telling me that going out to sea is extremely dangerous business. I didn’t doubt him. This former seaman, fisherman, 3-month-long navy man, and sea-based import/export contractor definitely knew his stuff.
Despite the perils involved, he still persists in going out to sea. Why he does so is best encapsulated in one sentence: “If I leave the sea, I’ll die”.
But eventually, he ditched his seafaring life for a more stable job on land to spend more time with his ailing mother. 30 years of dedicated work at Singtel later, he found his way into NUS.
So while our resident “good morning” uncle may have found a job on the shores of our Cinnamon-Tembusu Dining Hall, his heart ultimately still belongs with the big, blue sea. And for his lifelong passion and dedication towards this enormous work of nature, I salute him.
(Writer’s note: this interview with Uncle Soo Soey was translated from Mandarin)