Learning > Inspiration

Merdeka Generation: He quit football to sail the high seas

Rahimah Rashith on 05 Jun 2019

The Straits Times


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While the pioneer leaders were the architects of Singapore, everyday heroes helped build society here. This is another story of the Merdeka Generation, those born in the 1950s who lived and persevered through a tumultuous period.


Land or sea? This was a choice Mr Rosli Ridzwan, now 66, had to make in his younger days.


Growing up in Arab Street, he had aspired to be a great footballer like the late Dollah Kassim.


Clad in a sarong during the 1950s, he would watch the yet-to-be-discovered Majid Ariff in action on a field near Sultan Gate.


"The Arab Street area was where a lot of iconic football players like Majid grew up in and were discovered. I watched them playing andwas inspired by them," he said.


The young Rosli started playing football and dreamt of becoming a professional player.


At 14, he signed his first football contract with Kota Rajah Club. He was later invited to play for the under-20 team, from which national players were selected.


But he hung up his boots after completing secondary school as he felt he might not make the cut.


"I was trying to decide what to do in life and I realised that I was not as good as the first 11 players. So I thought the future was quite bleak for me in football," he said. "I asked myself, 'do I want to continue my life on land or at sea?'"


Mr Rosli chose the thing he had heard so many stories about - ships and the sea.


He had grown up in his grandparents' shophouse in Bussorah Street, which doubled as lodgings for Muslim pilgrims waiting to board ships to Saudi Arabia for their pilgrimage to Mecca.


"After completing my studies, I went to Clifford Pier and asked around for a job," he said. "Sailing was an obvious choice back in the late 1970s. The career prospects were good, and uniforms and meals were provided."


He was 16 then and started as a passenger ship steward boy.


"My job was simple. It was to call the passengers to go and have their meals. It was my first taste of being on the open seas," said Mr Rosli, who recalled that the journeys on board the ships would take about 15 days at a time.


"I was only 16 and the passengers thought I was cute. By the time the journey ended and they walked off the ship, my pockets would be full of tips," he said, laughing.


Mr Rosli later became an apprentice at a shipping company. He did well and was selected to study at a maritime college in the United Kingdom.


When he returned to Singapore at 24, he was promoted to ship captain. He piloted passenger and cargo ships as well as oil tankers and ocean tugboats across the world, from Europe to the Middle East to America.


It was not always smooth-sailing at work. Out at sea, the ships often encountered nightmarish weather conditions and pirate attacks. Back then, pirates were armed with parangs (Malay for machete) and axes, he said.


He recalled an incident in the 1970s when he was piloting a tugboat off an island in Indonesia and a group of six pirates suddenly closed in on a speedboat.


"They thought they could chase us. And they threw parangs and axes at my boat to get our attention," he recalled. "Thankfully, pirates did not use guns then."


He added with a laugh: "I fired a rocket parachute flare in the direction of the pirates. Flares are not meant for that, but it was an emergency situation."


Rocket parachute flares are usually used by vessels to send distress signals 300m into the sky.


"The flare barely scraped the pirate's boat. But it sent them speeding away," he added.


Just as dangerous as the pirate attacks were unpredictable weather conditions.


"My worst experience was when we were stuck in a storm for nearly a week in the South China Sea," said Mr Rosli.


"I was standing on the monkey island, which is the highest accessible part of the ship at 23m above the bottom of the ship. A giant wave came crashing onto the vessel and drenched me completely, even though I was so high up," he added.


In spite of facing turbulent weather, Mr Rosli never got seasick. And he believes that ships are a safe form of travel. "It takes a lot to sink a ship," he said.


After a decade of being out in the open seas, he joined Jurong Shipyard as a dockmaster at 27. On his job, he said: "I piloted ships that entered the jurisdiction area and guided them into the dock for repairs."


After two years, he decided he wanted a simpler life and joined Singapore Polytechnic as a nautical studies lecturer.


In 1991, he helped develop one of the school's maritime diploma curriculum.


He said: "The course was important to Singapore's economy at the time because global trade was growing. Singapore had the manpower to operate and maintain ships, but there was not enough relevant skills in port management and operations."


Over the years, he has shared his knowledge with many students. And after five decades of dealing with all things nautical, he will retire later this year.


Mr Rosli, who is married and has four children and two grandchildren, hopes to take it slow after retirement.


"I don't have any plans yet. Like a boat with a sail, I will go wherever the wind takes me."


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.


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