Confessions of a Port Chemist: Ship crews try to curry favour to get pass
Being tough with rules and saying no to bribes means S'pore's ports are kept safe
Yes, people have tried to bribe him.
For the record, he has refused.
It doesn't stop them from plying him with tea and coffee, and inviting him to sumptuous lunches - which he waves away.
You see, with a wave of his pen, Mr Gary Lim can stop a ship from coming in to dock.
And each day's delay translates to thousands of dollars lost for shipping companies which operate on tight schedules.
As one of the 10 Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore port chemists trusted with keeping Singapore safe, it is his responsibility to make sure there are no hazardous gases and chemicals aboard the vessels entering Singapore's shipyards.
Holding a handheld meter, he boards and inspects ships - from small boats to large crude oil carriers - and picks up on the crew's bad housekeeping if he sees it.
Each inspection can last from 45 minutes to a few hours, depending on the ship's size. He does this three times daily, assisted by another port chemist.
A ship that fails an inspection will have to redo its clean-up. That means delays of several hours to a day as the ship crew has to start scrubbing again.
Holding up a slip of paper, Mr Lim, 31, says: "All they want is this golden ticket, a certificate that allows them to enter the shipyards here.
"Sometimes there are arguments with the ship captain or their chief officer because they do not understand why we have to be strict."
Call him a professional nitpicker - he gladly welcomes the moniker.
After all, hundreds of people working in the shipyards depend on his careful inspection.
If he passes a ship that carries flammable gases, it could result in a repeat of the Spyros disaster in 1978, where 76 people were killed.
The Greek tanker exploded at Jurong Shipyard after a welder's torch ignited explosive vapour in the ship.
It was the worst industrial accident in Singapore.
"We are the front-line safety officers," he says, adding that port chemists also have a hand in responding to maritime emergencies like ship fires and oil spills.
As Mr Lim would usually be the first new face a ship's crew sees after being out at sea for months, they are usually boisterous in their greetings.
Says Mr Lim: "They would crowd around me excitedly and start bombarding me with questions about food and tourist attractions. Seeing me usually means they get to have shore leave."
And yes, some do ask about the red-light district, he adds.
He fondly remembers an encounter with a desperate Ukrainian captain who wanted to contact his wife and family but did not have the means.
This was around the time of Russia's annexation of Ukrainian territory.
"He had been out at sea for months and he was so anxious to see me. I tethered my phone's Internet connection to his phone so he could talk to his wife privately," he says.
Mr Lim left his previous job in a lab for something "more exciting".
Now, he experiences thrills three times a day, climbing a rope ladder up ship hulls - some are several stories high - while they are still out at sea.
This reporter tried the climb and can attest to the sheer height.
That does not bother Mr Lim, who says with a smile: "My office is now the sea."
SECRETS OF THE TRADE
1. You need a background in chemistry. Read up on the subject constantly so you do not become rusty.
2. Arguments with ship captains will lead to nowhere. Be patient and professional when explaining why the law has to be followed strictly.
3. Always be mindful of your surroundings, as the ship decks can be very oily and slippery, and the corridors can be quite cramped