Friday, 23 August 2013

A taste of Estab after A-levels

For whom the bell tolls?
NEARLY everyone I knew, tried to get a job through the PSC (Public Service Commission) after they got their A Levels. That was in the 70's, the era of the "iron rice bowl". There was the bonus to look forward too, the annual increment, the annual leave. There would be courses to attend. There would be bars to cross in the salary scale and if crossed successfully, there would be increment. Everything very structured. That was what my sister-in-law told me. She had just become a "civil servant".

After my interviews at PSC and medical checkup, I was allotted the job as an Executive Officer (EO) with Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH). I was EO for Admin & Estab (A&E). The office was a brick cum wooden bungalow next to the canteen (a Nissan hut) at the hospital. A wooden staircase led to all floors at the side of the building. The big boss of this office was the Medical Superintendent. My immediate boss was the HEO (Higher Executive Officer). And his boss was the SEO (Senior Executive Officer) who reported to the Superintendent.

The long office (with wooden floor) had an open-space concept. The HEO took supreme position at one extreme end of the office. He had a huge desk with a glass pane over it. By just glancing up from his work, he was able to get a complete view of the happenings at the office. Seated at one side of the office, one behind the other, were two clerical officers (CO) -- a Mr and Mrs Teo (they were not husband and wife) who were extremely nice to me. They had been working there for eons.

In fact, everybody there seemed to have worked there for eons. There was another lady there who served another department but was somehow parked at our office. Another lady who seemed to be doing some correspondence and communications for the Superintendent, was seated near me. I wasn't quite sure what her main work was but it must be something to do with medical records of airline staff. Huge X-ray films would be delivered to her by a man who apparently looked very much forward to seeing her and would linger around to talk to her after delivery.

This lady was a great communicator. I often heard her calling one Mr Rubello (in an American accent, though I imagined Rubello would be an Italian ) who seemed to be an airline pilot, about his X-Ray. "Hello, Mr R-rrrubello.... How a-rrrre you?" The Superintendent always used her as an example of one who could write good minutes and memos. She was indeed, an extremely efficient lady with great diplomatic skills. Meticulously dressed and made-up, she was my idol.

There were three typists -- two served the entire office and one only typed stuffs for the Superintendent and the one who went "R-rrrubello". This special typist's work station was at the veranda of the bungalow office. I always envied the location of her work station -- and for being so attractive -- she was dating a young doctor whom she met while having lunch at the canteen next door.

I went to work each day dreading my "in-tray". It was piled high with correspondence I could not understand.  Mr Teo with his huge spectacles, would help me clear the tray, explaining each letter and memo. He was so capable and  efficient, I wonder why they needed me. At the end of the day, I was supposed to be supervising him. The logic didn't sound quite right to me. I was only 18 then, and he must be in his 30s at least. How would he feel to be supervised by someone so much younger -- and one who knew nothing?

After some idea of what to do, thanks to Mr Teo, I had to draft replies to memos and letters which needed to be cleared by the HEO. The HEO summoned staff to his desk by pressing a bell and then calling the name.

"Miss Lo!" was called very often -- in a snappy tone that did not augur well for me.

Back to the in-tray. At the top right hand corner of some correspondence, "Action"  with a little arrow next to it, would be scribbled. I would go to Mr Teo for help and he would patiently try to decipher whose scribble it was -- and to figure out the "action" required.

There seemed to be a difference between memos and letters. For letters, you can start with "Dear so and so" But for memos, it would be "Attention (attn): So and so". I didn't quite get the hang of things. It was the first time I heard of "memos". The only officialese I knew then was "To Whom It May Concern" (I learnt this from the movie, 'The King and I'). But I didn't have the chance to use this at TTSH.

So the bell continued to ring intermittently in the office, and the call for "Miss Lo".

The office sprang into life at 8.30am, with the office attendant frantically straightening the cushions on the sofa at the staircase landing and then galloping down to await the arrival of the Superintendent. We would hold our breathe and bend low over our work as THE Superintendent arrived, chauffeured. He would run up the stairs to his office on the top floor, with fair amount of alacrity -- followed by the attendant carrying his briefcase.

Life was a little regimental in this little A&E office. But I did have a lot of fun attending the orientation camp for new civil servants and made some friends working in different ministries. I liked my SEO though, he was a warm-hearted and cheerful Indian who never failed to make me feel at ease each time I was called to his office. His office was a little further down the veranda, separated from the rest of us.

There was a short cut we used to go to Balestier Road to catch the bus home. This was a narrow path which passed a football field. One day, much to my delight, I saw our Superintendent playing football and watched one of his shoes flew into the goal as he kicked the ball. That really made my day!

When I requested for a transfer to RTS (Radio Television Singapore) a few months after I joined TTSH, the Superintendent saw me (guess it was an exit interview of sorts) in his office which was lined with book shelves.  Very seriously, he told me that the job at RTS would probably suit me better. He was right.

Writing memos and official letters is definitely not my cup of tea.

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