I started earning my keep in March, 1978, about two months before I received my "license" to work, a Bachelor of Engineering degree from University of Malaya (UM), in May. Actually come to think of it, that was the result certifying that I’ve satisfied all requirements for the award but I would receive the scroll during the commencement ceremony about another month (June) later. But that was enough to put me on the official roster of the Public Services Department as a Drainage and Irrigation Engineer (or Pupil Engineer as stated on my service record).
After the mandatory interview at the headquarters of Drainage and Irrigation Department (DID) conducted by Ir. Cheong Chup Lim and Ir. Khoo Soo Hock, I was dispatched to Muar, Johor. A vivid scene that I still recall from that interview was my response to Ir. Cheong’s inquiry as to the nature of my graduating thesis when I said, kind of smugly, “It’s complicated.” [Judge for yourself. It’s entitled The effect of a lignin-based additive on the shrinkage characteristics and strength development of cement mortar, or something to that effect. And that’s the best I could come out with from my recollection effort, the thesis copy probably misplaced in some dark corners of my house back in Malaysia.]
And so I thought, until I was challenged by Ir. Cheong’s curt reply, probably accompanied by some raised eye-brows that may have escaped my then rattled state of mind, “Try me.” Fortunately, I really did put in an honest amount of work into the thesis, albeit sharing duty with my co-author, Ir. Kan See Yam, except for the writing part, from casting the cylindrical specimens in the lab, curing them, stowing them away in a temperature-controlled glass-walled cabinet, and measuring their daily “growth”, and testing for concrete strength to failure.
At the end of my rather lengthy explanation interspersed with concrete (as in the material) jargons, I was smart enough to suppress the urge to issue another wise crack when Ir. Cheong commented, “That wasn’t too tough, right?” So there goes my first less than confidence-instilling interaction with a senior member of the engineering community.
I reported to work at DID Muar on my old faithful, a 125-cc Honda motorcycle that I had acquired while doing my 3rd year industrial training at Johor Bahru, from a Public Works Department (PWD) junior technician, as one of the Assistant District Engineers. The District Engineer then was Ir. Ferng Meow Chong, a meticulous, by-the-book engineer in the traditional Chinese mold with a somewhat philosophical outlook on life in general, perhaps a consequence of more than ten years of having his square edges rubbed off by the reality of the engineering world, whatever that may mean [I found out later that Ir. Ferng was 13 years my senior in UM]. But that he had a lot of old tales to tell is not an exaggeration. Ir. Ferng had definitely opened my eyes to a lot of stuff that one does not learn in a university setting, e.g., contract management, for which I’m thankful.
I first met the late Ir. Dr. Hiew Kim Loi in DID Muar, in 1979 [He had not been minted a Ph.D. yet then]. As a Senior Planning Engineer, he had stopped by the Muar office to discuss the technical requirements for a proposed pumping scheme the construction of which I would later supervise. A man of relatively tall stature, he exuded technical proficiency in his apparent mastery of the pump characteristics (e.g., negative/suction pressure, lift head which I later had to read up). Not knowing any better, I was suitably impressed.
The subsequent interaction with Ir. Dr. Hiew would have to wait another five years when I was transferred from Raub, Pahang to the Headquarters. To work under him directly. And my desk (yes, those day the office layout was like an open office where even Senior Planning Engineers like me were only allotted a desk), was just outside his room, with glass partition. The first impression I got of his room was this guy must be overworked: reams of reports cluttered the space, and computer printouts strewn all over the floor. Hey, this guy actually did Fortran programming.
From that moment on, I knew that him being known as the technically smart one in DID was no fluke. And some of the things that filtered through the grapevine such as being a result-oriented man that he was, he liked to hand-pick engineers who could exercise technical rigor to work with him, did have a ring of truth to it. Some would and did call it a discrimination bordering on elitism but it did make one feel good to be recognized.
Ir. Dr. Hiew was not one to heap praises openly, but preferred to give the guy a pat at the back for a job well done. He chose his words carefully, and seemed serious most of the time. But he did occasionally let down his guard, so to speak, though to even imagine him letting down his hair, metaphorically of course, would be quite, well, unthinkable.
I found that I could always interact with him on technical matters, often ending up as the beneficiary in the exchange. He was always meticulous, questioning and revisiting assumptions and procedures of analysis, and yet not one who shirked making decisions when called for. He might have appeared to be pushy to some, evincing impatience if the work was not up to the mark or speed. He was quick-witted, thinking fast on his feet, and that in itself could be “intimidating” to those who were not well-prepared.
I would like to think that my “fetish” for thoroughness and details, often opting for lengthy account rather than concise summarizing, and prompt turnaround time, especially in the preparation of technical minutes, had impressed him to certain degree.
After more than a year under his mentoring, he left on study leave to do his doctoral graduate work at Colorado State University (CSU) at Fort Collins. And I followed more than a year later, but to UC Berkeley to do my Masters. While there, we talked to each other over the phone a couple of times.
Just before I returned to Malaysia after my Masters in July 1987, I and my family visited him and his family at Fort Collins while on a 2-week tour of the western one third of US by car. His daughter was just born then and I remember him showing us around the CSU campus.
He finished his Ph.D. work in three years. That in engineering is quite a feat (I got mine in over four years from University of Florida about 8 years later). Upon his return to DID in 1987, I worked briefly under him. Otherwise our contact was sporadic, except during the Annual series of Senior DID Engineers Conference, a 2-3 day retreat during which senior engineers meet to discuss matters of strategic importance to DID.
Even when I was on secondment to the National Hydraulic Research Institute (NAHRIM), a sister department under the same Ministry but at a different locale, at the completion of my Ph.D study in early 1995, I had always made it a point to drop by his office to chat on a variety of topics (DID works, NAHRIM works, Institution of Engineers, Malaysia (IEM) matters, etc.).
It was in early 2002 that I learned that he was diagnosed with kidney cancer. I visited him once at the KL General Hospital. He was sitting on the bed, in what seemed like a work dress, and chatting with us in a normal tone, albeit seemingly on the emaciated side. That was the last time I saw him, but I continued to get updates on his treatment status from colleagues. And the prognosis did not look good.
Then the news broke when I was attending a conference at Cardiff in July 2002, Wales via a brief email from a DID colleague. Ir. Dr. Hiew had passed away. Just like that, DID has lost a great engineer, and I have lost a great personal friend.
I have always valued the mentoring period that I had undergone under Ir. Dr. Hiew’s guidance and would always cherish the interactions that I was fortunate to have with him. In a way, I can understand Welton’s admiration for Richard Feynman (read here), seeing a semblance of the parallel in my case. Likewise I would consider my knowing the late Ir. Dr. Hiew as a privilege. May him rest in peace.