When Van Koh received a pre-owned computer at the age of 12 from his aunt, it promptly made its way to a neat pile of “treasure”. It heralded what would become both a passion and a career for young Van – and he eventually converted a nook in his family’s four-room flat into a “workshop” to house more such treasures. His enthusiasm would eventually win him an SP Group Nithiah Nandan Polytechnic Scholarship in 2015 to study electrical engineering at Ngee Ann Polytechnic.
“I’ve always liked learning how things tick, and figuring out how to make them work even better,” says the 26-year-old, now the youngest cable jointer in SP Group’s Electricity Operations department.
As part of an 18-man team, Van maintains and repairs extra high voltage power cables that connect the transmission network, a key component of Singapore's grid. The team is also on 24-hour standby in case of any transmission network emergency situation.
The transmission network transports electricity from the generation plants to our transmission substations across Singapore before the power is distributed to customers. Therefore, it is imperative to maintain a top-notch transmission network to prevent network disruptions.
But maintaining the cables and connecting them is hard work – a single cable can be as wide as a human palm and has a complex internal structure, and the length of a circuit can be up to 30 km.
“These are large, high-voltage cables with many layers. It is hard work that is hands-on, and can easily take several days. But we need to make sure all the elements within the network function well to prevent an outage.”
It takes a four-man crew, excluding a cable engineer who cuts off power supply so the men can work safely, to get the job done. And the men often have to get down into the trenches – literally – since most cables are underground.
“You get very used to working in confined spaces,” says Van.
But working in close quarters forges tight bonds and means Van – surrounded by men who have been in the job for 30 to 40 years – has no shortage of mentors.
“They are like my uncles. They explain things I don’t understand but also give me life lessons when we makan (Malay for eat),” he says.
In fact, it was at the urging of these “uncles” that, two years into the job, Van enrolled for a degree course in electrical and electronic engineering at the Nanyang Technology University.
He graduates in 2021, having chosen to study at night and keep his day-job.
“At school, you learn a lot of theory. Work gives me the hands-on exposure you cannot find in books. That’s really important to me… and I enjoy that,” he says.
Even in his free time, the tinkering continues in his home “workshop”. Some of the inspired creations that emerged from that space include a fitness robot instructor for the elderly for his final-year polytechnic project and parts for his remote control planes.
It was also there that, with his colleagues, he developed a prototype device that will improve safety and productivity in his line of work. In January this year, the prototype won first prize in SP’s intrapreneurship competition.
“When I look at all the work that goes into maintaining the network, and how my colleagues really put their hearts into the job, it inspires me to want to make things better, and to keep getting better at what I do.”