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The PM driver in the S$4.7 billion machine

By Corrie Tan | Writer-in-residence

March 12 & April 13, 2022

Image source: PSA Singapore

We had the privilege of engaging with the processes and infrastructure of the hyper-efficient Singapore port system in two ways—first on an intimate, personal scale, and then on a sprawling, international scale. First, we had an informal chat with S., a Prime Mover (PM) driver, during one of our March rehearsals; then a few of the creative team had the rare opportunity to take a brief tour of PSA Singapore’s Pasir Panjang Terminal in April.

I. The PM driver

S. has been a PM driver with PSA Singapore for several months. His official job title is “container handling specialist”, which means he drives a prime mover for an entire 12-hour shift, doing four days of intense shift work followed by three days off. On a typical day, he wakes up at 5.30am, arrives at the Pasir Panjang Terminal by 7.30am, then drives back and forth between the incoming ships and the port yard for twelve hours straight (with a lunch break and toilet breaks in-between).

It is a repetitive but dangerous job, which makes for a strange tension between boredom and fear. He describes the weight of the containers and goods he transports with a mix of trepidation and awe. “Carrying 3 tonnes is like carrying nothing, like an empty container. But some days, you’ll get a container that weighs 60 tonnes. Imagine you are suffocating under 60 tonnes...” he shakes his head, “Your truck is like a 60-year-old auntie carrying 60 tonnes.” Because the terminal area is not always paved with tarmac, driving in bad weather conditions can often feel precarious and slippery. He’s still nervous about parking, and often feels disoriented when reverse or parallel parking a vehicle with such a “long tail”, which can take a painful 15 minutes of panicked guesstimating, twisting and turning. His least favourite containers to transport? Dangerous goods containers, and containers filled with liquid. The speed limit within the port area may be a 40km/h amble, but he describes the sensation of braking only to feel the enormous truck rolling forward from the sheer force of the liquid loaded onto its chassis.

S. does this loading and unloading in complete isolation—back and forth, back and forth, back and forth—where each one-way trip takes about 20 minutes. Well, not in complete isolation. Every prime mover is equipped with an ADD, or anti-drowsiness device. Drivers are under constant surveillance by computer systems to make sure they don’t fall asleep at the wheel—in the name of safety. The team is troubled by the overt surveillance, but S. takes this very seriously: “Safety is our main priority, to be honest. There are a lot of cases where you can lose your life, and knowing that every one of those stories is true is really scary. Imagine that one person, that one life you kill... it will haunt you for the rest of your life.”

But the ADD isn’t always accurate. S. loves having solo karaoke sessions in his prime mover, which he calls his favourite part of the job. “But sometimes, when I’m singing, they think I’m yawning!” he exclaims. Even the slightest yawn will trigger the ADD, which will immediately inform the operations team that the driver is tired—even if he’s actually jamming out to jiwang tunes. S. laughs: “You tend to get angry at it: don’t be stupid, it’s just a small yawn! But yeah, you talk to the sensor because you don’t have anyone else to talk to.” S. is deeply affectionate with the objects around him, and has conjured up his own constellation of relationships with them: “In the end, this PM is my friend. We’ll have a good time, you and me,” he grins. “My other friend is—my speakers!” he adds, having invested in a small radio and bluetooth speakers after realising he would have nothing else to do in his tiny single-seat vehicle.

S. is still on his six-month probationary period, but he’s already thinking long-term because PSA Singapore’s three city terminals at Tanjong Pagar, Keppel and Brani will be relocating to the massive Tuas port by 2027. The Pasir Panjang Terminals—where he currently works—will also be consolidated there by the 2040s (source: PSA Singapore). “That’s where I’m hoping to go,” he says, “The new megastructure at Tuas. This is still my learning stage. I want to be at Tuas because you don’t need to drive! Everything is all robotics, you just programme stuff—it’ll be like a game. It’s safer, and it makes so much sense and there’s no time-wasting.” He pauses. “But the bad part is that people will lose jobs, and I will have to upgrade myself. Waiting for them to upgrade me is like waiting for a seed to grow into a tree.”

In some senses, S. has already translated his daily routine into a combat minigame, with enemies and frontliners and other soldiers in the trenches closing ranks. “Parking is one of your worst enemies in the world,” he shakes his head. He describes the berthing crews and seamen as having the highest “risk factors”, and that it can be difficult to spot forklift operators, particularly on the night shift. “To me, it’s like being in the army,” he says. “These people on the frontlines are like people in the infantry. The truck drivers are like the logistics people. And those people on the cranes, they’re like the guarders and tankers.” While his shifts may be underscored by music, there’s also the competing soundscape of other staff interrupting with where are you, can you hurry up, please look behind you. He recalls a near-miss with some reticence. Another great fear is “jackknifing”, where reckless driving can lead to a prime mover or trailer truck bending itself into an acute angle. These accidents can be serious, even fatal. It isn’t much of a surprise then, when S. says that he craves the liberating thrill of getting on his motorcycle after a long day at work.

II. The S$4.7 billion machine