From rubber tapper to MLNG MD and CEO, Laga a living proof of success

Laga at one of the LNG processing trains at Petronas LNG Complex, Tanjung Kidurong, Bintulu

BINTULU, Mar 16: Mohamed Syazwan Abdullah @ Laga Jenggi had already served Petronas for 31 years when he was appointed Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of Malaysia LNG Group of Companies and Petronas LNG 9 Sdn Bhd in April 2019.

Laga, as he is fondly known, brought with him a wealth of experience working across Petronas operations locally and abroad, including five years in Gladstone LNG, Australia and leading the commissioning and start-up of the world’s first floating LNG facility – the PFLNG SATU. But his vast engineering expertise and managerial experience could only prepare him so much for what was to come eight months into the new job: in December 2019, Covid-19 arrived in Malaysia and caught the entire industry off guard.

Suddenly, Laga found himself facing new and unique challenges whilst handling the impact of the pandemic, which had then largely forced the world into a state of lockdown. Like other countries, Malaysia enforced the Movement Control Order (MCO) in March 2020 to curb the chain of infection.

In compliance with the government ruling Petronas, the holding company of MLNG, instructed all staff to work from home, except the essential employees such as technicians, plant and platform operators who were allowed to operate from site.

“They could enter and work at the Petronas LNG Complex (PLC). The rest of us, including myself, had to work from home,” Laga said.

The MCO posed a huge challenge for Laga and his management team in operating the four LNG production plants – MLNG Satu, MLNG Dua, MLNG Tiga and Train 9 – without any interruptions.

“The pandemic taught us many things. MLNG is a strategic asset to Petronas and the country, we cannot let it fail. So, the biggest challenge for us was this: how to ensure zero interruption to plant operations,” he said.

To avoid major and lasting disruption, Laga and his team quickly implemented key initiatives to ensure the plant can continue to produce enough LNG to meet the Company’s contractual obligations to its customers in the Far East.

Laga and his colleagues at the LNG processing area of PETRONAS LNG Complex, Tanjung Kidurong, Bintulu

“During the early days of the pandemic, we conducted daily business continuity meetings to plan and ensure that plant operations continue to run smoothly with high safety standards, and conduct key activities such as shutdown and maintenance when required. We still hold virtual plant operations meetings to keep us together,” he said.

Another major challenge was the 14-day mandatory quarantine order for foreigners and visitors who entered Sarawak. Sometime last year, a scheduled maintenance had to be carried out at one of the production lines, which was critical to ensure its reliability and high utilisation.

For this purpose, MLNG needed specialist workers from the relevant equipment manufacturers in Europe to come to Bintulu and assist the local contractors. As the workers were not able to immediately enter Sarawak due to certain technicalities, Laga went the extra mile to engage with the local authorities, resulting in their timely entry and the maintenance work carried out with minimum delay.

The long period away from the office environment was also beginning to affect the staff mentally and emotionally. To nip the problem in the bud, Laga and his team created a support system for the 1,500-strong MLNG employees.

“We decided to engage staff regularly. I would personally write to them every week to share updates on the COVID-19 situation and the status of our plant operations,” he said.

Laga went to the extent of sending personal birthday greetings to his staff and communicating with them regularly via digital platforms such as MS Teams. These engagements include the virtual CEO Townhall which was attended by more than 900 employees and regular small-scale engagement sessions with the various departments and units.

During the festive seasons, Laga and his management team also personally distributed cookies and goodies to all the staff.

“We went from house to house to distribute the goodies. All of them were pleasantly surprised with our gesture and I could tell they truly appreciated it. We just want to remind our staff that the Company deeply cares about their welfare and the well-being of their families,” he added.

Laga said MLNG staff, especially those working from home, have adapted well to the “new normal”.

“Thanks to new digital tools, they are able to meet regularly to discuss about work, interact with each other and engage with external stakeholders, customers and colleagues from other Petronas subsidiaries. Working without meeting colleagues and stakeholders face to face is still quite challenging but we are getting used to it.”

Relating his own experience working from home, he said: “Typically, my day in front of the computer starts at 7.30am and ends at 5.30pm. There are times where I end my day around 6pm due to urgent matters. Occasionally, I would have late evening or weekend virtual meetings with the plant team to discuss any emerging issues.”

The mitigation measures that Laga and his team put in place since the beginning of the pandemic have proven to be effective in ensuring the smooth running of the MLNG plant, which sits on a single site the size of about 400 football fields at Tanjung Kidurong, Bintulu.

Last year, MLNG churned out 383.4 big cargo equivalent (BCE) of LNG from this facility. It honoured all contractual obligations with long-term customers in Japan, Korea, Taiwan and China and still had excess cargoes which were sold on the spot market. The achievement is no mean feat under the current extraordinary circumstances.

“This is attained on the back of very difficult operational and market conditions, and partly due to our ability to adapt quickly to the new normal. We were resilient. We don’t let adversities and setbacks defeat us,” Laga said.

A recent picture of Kampung Sungai Jingkat, Roban which was rebuilt to replace the old longhouse that Laga grew up in

Tough beginnings in life

The 57-year-old MLNG head honcho understands the need to be resilient in the face of adversities. Born to a farming family at remote village called Kampung Sungai Jingkat, Ulu Roban in Betong, Sarawak, Laga had to work in the farm, tap rubber and sell ironwood to support his family make ends meet.

“I grew up in a longhouse where my life revolved around tapping rubber and primitive farming.”

“Life was really hard for us then. There was no electricity or treated water supply in the longhouse. We relied on kerosene lamp to light up our homes at night and take our baths in the nearby river.”

According to his younger brother, Jilan Jenggi, the family started with nothing.

“My late father Jenggi anak Indu and my late mother Madu anak Nyawai would ask us to tap rubber, harvest pepper and collect ironwood from the forest to sell at Roban Bazaar, a four-hour journey by boat from our longhouse. We were very young, but we had to work in order to survive”.

“But my parents knew the value of education, despite being illiterate. So, my late father worked very hard to save money and send us to school. He was adamant that we should get some form of education because he knew that was the only route for us to escape poverty,” said Jilan.

Laga and his three brothers were sent to the boarding school of Sekolah Kebangsaan Ulu Roban, which took some four hours of journey by foot from their village.

SRK Ulu Roban, the primary school that Laga attended in the mid-1970s

The primary school intake was once every two years, so Laga ended up going to school one year late. At weekends, he would go back to his longhouse to help his parents work at the farm and tap rubber with his brothers.

“I didn’t have time to study at home during the weekends as I had to help my parents earn money. Living in the longhouse with no proper means of income was hard, and it was only by sheer determination that we were able to continue our schooling,” he said.

At the boarding school, Laga, who is the second child in the family, became homesick.

“Initially, I was not very eager to go to school, preferring instead to stay at home with my parents and brothers. Gradually, I began to like school and became quite good at my studies,” he recalled.

After primary school, he went to Sekolah Menengah Kebangsaan Kalaka, Roban, to continue his lower secondary education. He scored good grades in his Lower Certificate of Examination (LCE) in 1980, and was selected to continue his upper secondary school studies at Kolej Tuanku Hj Bujang, Miri (formerly known as Kolej Tanjong Lobang). His excellent academic performance in college earned him a minor scholarship from Petronas.

“The scholarship was a big deal for me, a poor kid from the longhouse. My late father who was a farmer didn’t have that much money to send to me,” he said.

It was in Kolej Tanjong Lobang that Laga began to dream of studying overseas. This dream turned into reality in 1983 when he was awarded a full scholarship by Petronas to pursue a degree in Chemical Engineering and Petroleum Refining at the Colorado School of Mines in Colorado, United States.

“This was both a huge achievement and a major break for me. Without the scholarship, I might not have been able to further my studies, not even at a local university,” he said.

His brothers also did well in their studies. After primary school, Jilan continued his secondary education in Kelantan on Yayasan Sarawak scholarship and pursued his engineering degree at Imperial College, London on a Public Service Department scholarship. Their eldest brother, Kubu, and youngest brother, Luan, both studied in Universiti Teknologi MARA, Sarawak.

“(Getting out of) Poverty was the single motivation for my brothers and I to study very hard. With the help of scholarships, Jilan and I were able to go overseas to study,” he said.

The hardships that Laga endured in his early life were a blessing in disguise as they enhanced his mental fortitude in dealing with the challenges of Covid-19. He was able to draw strength and wisdom from that invaluable life experience to help MLNG ride the storm.

“The hardship I experienced taught me to be resilient in the face of adversities. At work, the desire to do better each day is the main driver for me. My principle is to focus on the job at hand, give it your best shot and let everything else take care of itself,” he said.