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22 Mar 2023
7 mins
Teo Keong Kok: “Kampong Boy” Pays It Forward as WMI Managing Director

Former Chief Engineer Teo Keong Kok, 57, was four months into his retirement when he was, “recalled back to active duty” in the industry that he is tremendously loyal to.

“The maritime industry has provided a ticket out of poverty for me and my younger brother who is now a marine technical superintendent. I want to make a difference and pay it forward,” Keong Kok told SeaVoices.

WMI staff Christmas Party 2022

As the new Managing Director of Wavelink Maritime Institute (WMI), his work is likely to be more impactful and valuable than it has ever been.

“Singapore is an International Maritime Centre. It is critical that we build a strong Singapore core,” he pointed out. The forward-looking MD is set to strategically transform maritime education and training.

“Cloud is the way to go,” he quipped enthusiastically.

“With cloud-based navigation training, cadets can learn at their own pace and be qualified before they leave home and go to sea. We can bring maritime simulations right to their doorstep.”

Not just that. “With cloud computing and learning, perhaps a seafarer does not need to wait five to 10 years to be a chief engineer. Maybe the training process can be shortened to perhaps 5 years. We seriously need to rethink the approach to training. For seafarers, if they upskill and reskill constantly, they can offer a lifetime value.”

Besides offering a suite of digital tools for training to take place from home or on the go, Keong Kok was quick to share more cutting edge ideas. To be one step ahead of the game, shipping companies can use artificial intelligence and cloud based assessments to objectively shortlist suitable candidates for new hire or put others up for promotion; use drones and remote inspection techniques to carry out tank surveys in a safe and efficient way and more.

Undoubtably, the fundamental passion that drives Keong Kok is to instil a growth mindset. “My aim is to change mindset. That is why I took up the job. We must always find new ways to learn and work smarter. Having a growth mindset is critical to future proof seafarers and Singapore as a IMC.”

Keong Kok on board a POSH DP 2 Offshore Supply vessel to conduct training

Describing himself as “very much a facilitator and trainer at heart”, Keong Kok’s last job before joining WMI was General Manager, Fleet Management Training, POSH Fleet Services. He also clocked 11 years of teaching at Singapore Poly, and was its Head of Advanced Marine Engineering.

At a very tender age, Keong Kok has had his hands right on the pulse of the maritime industry.

As a kampong boy growing up in the Sembawang Naval Base (established by the British in 1933 and later transferred to Singapore in 1968 as Sembawang Shipyard), “almost everyone in Chong Pang village & Naval Base neighbourhood worked in the shipyard”.

Keong Kok with his brother and grandparents

His grandma cooked for the New Zealand officers while grandpa was a shipyard butcher. Keong Kok’s father was a storeman in the shipyard before joining Singapore Poly as an electrician when the British forces, upon their withdrawal from Singapore, handed the Naval Base to the government.

To earn extra pocket money, Keong Kok at a young age worked as an “apprentice” for the various contractors who served the shipyard at the Naval Base. “I was paid $1.20 a day. It was a lot of money then.” Almost everyone who stays in Chong Pang Village works in the ship repair industry. He recalled how he was fascinated by the ‘ang mo’ (white people) in white coveralls and later found out that they were marine superintendents.

His interest was further piqued when learned that to earn more money, he needed to “go to sea and repair ships”.

Teo Keong Kok during his cadetship years onboard MV Anro Temasek

It was, therefore, a natural choice for him to be pursuing Marine Engineering at the Singapore Poly. And because his father was a staff, Keong Kok received scholarship for four years of his Poly education.

“I loved the sea so much that instead of clocking the mandatory 9 months at sea, I was out there for 14 months and had to be reminded to return home to serve National Service,” Keong Kok recollected with a laugh. He went straight back to sailing the second day after completing his NS.

Keong Kok on board MT Neptune Phoenix as a 5th engineer

“The money was good. The take home pay for a poly graduate then was S$700 a month. University graduate earned S$900 to S$1200 while a 5th Engineer took home S$1280 tax free!”

Polaroid pictures taken on board the ship when Keong Kok was a 2nd Engineer onboard MT Neptune Aquarius!

When Keong Kok left Neptune Orient Lines (NOL) as a Chief Engineer in 1997 to join alma mater as a lecturer, he was turning his back on a S$6280 monthly salary for a S$3800 job.

“Singapore Poly dangled a 4 years scholarship to pursue studies in the University of Cincinnati, USA. I obtained the Master of Science in Environment, Health & Safety in two years and was nicknamed ‘Superman’.” Keong Kok, together with three other Singapore Polytechnic scholars, was responsible for penning the Workplace Safety and Health Act.

As the Singapore Poly Head of Advanced Marine Engineering, Keong Kok looked into the training and certification of Certificate of Competency Class 1 & 2 Marine Engineers and represented Singapore as Technical expert in International Maritime Organization (IMO).

“I went to schools to give career talks and encouraged the young to be seafarers. My message to them was out of 120 graduates in every cohort, only five will eventually go on to become Chief Engineers. The future is bright. There is no competition.”

So convincing was he that his own son, now 27 years old, chose to study Marine Engineering (and graduated with certificate of merit) though he scored straight A’s for his GCE O levels examinations.

In 2009, the sea beckoned and Keong Kok went back to sea as Chief Engineer to refresh his knowledge and later joined the shore team as Group Technical Services (Special Projects) Superintendent with AET, a global leader in petroleum shipping.

“People thought I was crazy to be going back to sea after more than 10 years working ashore teaching, I went back to work onboard tankers that move crude oil for oil majors in the Gulf of Mexico where the demand for safety is very high by the Oil majors & enforcement is very strict by the US Coast Guards,” he said.

Not one to turn down a good challenge, Keong Kok moved on to serve as Fleet Director, PT Arpeni Pratama Ocean Line, an IDX listed shipping company in Indonesia where some 3000 seafarers and 35 regional offices in the Indonesian archipelago with a fleet of 100 vessels of Cape Size & Panamax bulk carriers , General Cargo vessels, Clean and Crude Oil Tankers, Tugs & Barges and more reported to him.

“It was my first-time providing top level leadership in the biggest Indonesian Bulk shipping company” Keong Kok highlighted.

At the age of 47, he had his first failed attempt at retiring. It took less than a month before POSH Fleet Services came knocking and wanting to tap on his expertise in planning and managing the training needs of seafarers for the offshore oil & gas Company. His second attempt at retiring in September 2022 was thwarted by WMI.

Keong Kok in his office at WMI

“I came onboard because I believe in adding value to people’s life,” he underscored. “I am just a kampong boy who wants to give back to the industry that has been so good to me.”

Keong Kok’s illustrious career demonstrated how he wears agility, resilience and adaptability on his sleeves. “We all need these three qualities to move forward and navigate life. If we add curiosity and grit to the list, we become future ready.”