Poverty not a barrier for Kayan engineer at Petronas

A group photo of Isrom (third right) with his team when he was in charge of the Baronia Rejuvenation Project.

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MIRI, Sept 15: Isrom Udau was born into a farming family in Tinjar, Baram, a remote district in northern Sarawak famed for its treacherous rivers, bird nests, Mulu caves and the hospitable Orang Ulu tribes.

The longhouse he grew up in, Long Sepiling, is located along the mighty Tinjar river deep in the interior of Baram and is totally cut off from the outside world. The only way to reach the longhouse is by express boat. A journey from Miri would take about six hours.

Without the luxury of electricity and treated water supply, Isrom’s family and the other villagers had to depend on rainwater for drinking and cooking. They bathed as well as washed laundry and dishes in the crocodile infested Tinjar river.

“Those days, life was a constant struggle. We only survived on food from the jungle,” Isrom said.

Fast forward to today, Isrom is now a general manager at Petronas Carigali Sdn Bhd in Miri, Sarawak, a position he achieved two years ago at a relatively young age of 44.

Isrom recalled that both his parents, Udau Along and Puyang Lah, now deceased, had to stay at their farm hut and only returned home on weekends, leaving their children to fend for themselves. Isrom’s oldest brother, Eden Udau, who was only 11 years old at that time, would fill the role of a guardian.

They were forced to be independent, learned to cook and did household chores.

“I remember my brothers would go fishing at the nearest river after school and came back late in the evening with their catch. And when we ran out of fish and vegetables, we would just eat plain rice sprinkled with a bit of sugar,” Isrom recalled.

A portrait of Isrom (second left) with his parents (now deceased) and siblings.

In 1981, Isrom’s family moved to Subis, Miri in search of greener pastures. There, his parents worked as labourers in an oil palm estate and later at a cocoa plantation. They earned minimum wage and the estate house in which they lived in had no basic facilities.

“Unfortunately, our family situation did not improve much after we moved to Subis,” Isrom said.

Family hardship also forced him to delay going to school because he had to babysit his little sister Lahong and do house chores while his elder brothers were in school and his parents at work.

“So, I started schooling one year late at Sekolah Kebangsaan Kelapa Sawit No 4, Subis,” he said.

Seven years later, Isrom’s family moved to a squatter area near Pujut, Miri. His parents had to start farming again – this time they farmed crops and rice on a piece of State land in upper Miri River some three hours journey by boat from Miri town.

The long journey to the farm forced Isrom’s parents to stay at the farm on weekdays. Isrom’s elder brothers were also away at boarding schools.

“At that time, my two elder brothers were at boarding schools, SMK Luar Bandar Miri Bekenu and Kolej Tun Datu Tuanku Hj Bujang. So, my parents entrusted me with the responsibility to look after Lahong, who was only seven-years-old. I was only 10 at that time.

“There was no electricity or treated water supply to the squatter area. We relied on oil lamps to study at night. We used rainwater for bathing, washing and cooking. During the dry season, we would go to the nearest fire hydrant which is about two kilometres away to get clean water for use at home,” he said.

In Miri, Isrom continued his studies at SRK Pujut Corner Miri, about two kilometres away from his house.

“Every day, my sister and I would walk four kilometres to school. My father would give us RM1 each for pocket money every week, just enough to buy food worth 20 sen a day. It was enough to buy a small pack of ‘mee goreng’ or two pieces of kuih,” he recalled.

Isrom testing the fire-fighting water pump at an offshore platform.

Despite the challenges, Isrom scored excellent grades in both Ujian Penilaian Sekolah Rendah (UPSR) and Sijil Rendah Pelajaran (SRP).

After completing Primary Six, he was offered a scholarship to further his studies at STAR college in Perak.

He also received an offer to study at MARA Junior Science College (MRSM) Balik Pulau, Penang as well as Kolej Tun Datu Tuanku Hj Bujang Miri after his SRP exam.

Sadly, he had to turn down those offers because he needed to look after his sister. Instead, Isrom continued his lower secondary education at SMK Baru, Miri. He then continued his studies at SMK Dato’ Permaisuri Miri.

After Form Five, he pursued his tertiary education at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) with a scholarship from Public Services Department (JPA). Isrom graduated with a degree in Mining and Mineral Resources Engineering in 2000.

Six months later, he landed his first job in SOSMA Sdn Bhd (later known as SCOMI) as a Production Chemist and was stationed in Miri Crude Oil Terminal (MCOT). The job provided him with the opportunity to work at various onshore terminals and offshore platforms in Malaysia including Sabah and Terengganu.

“I led the company to secure several high value contracts and established the ISO14001 certification for them. However, due to my passion in reservoir and drilling, I joined Sarawak Shell Berhad on contract term in 2003 as a drilling engineer,” he said.

In 2004, Petronas Carigali Sdn Bhd, Sarawak (PCSB) offered him a permanent job as a field engineer in Miri Crude Oil Terminal (MCOT). After nine years working as Field Engineer at MCOT and an offshore field, he was promoted to Field Operations Manager for Bintulu waters.

“When I first became a manager, my day-to-day work was hectic. I had to oversee all production and operation matters in Bintulu waters including engaging with our new production partners. It was physically and mentally draining but the autonomy and empowerment given by my superiors gave me the added motivation to carry out my duties,” he said.

In 2015, Petronas transferred him to Kerteh as Asset Head for Dulang and Sepat Field at Peninsular Malaysia Operations (PMO), and in the following year he managed the Angsi Platform and Besar Field in Terengganu waters. Isrom was then transferred back to Miri in 2017 to lead the team at Baronia, Baram and BOBELA fields.

Isrom with his wife and kids.

In March 2020, Isrom was promoted to General Manager of Engineering at Petronas Carigali Sdn Bhd, Miri.

After about two weeks in the position, the world was hit by the Covid-19 pandemic which led to a slowdown in production and mobility worldwide, producing a significant drop in global demand for oil. The pandemic also caused delays in the oil and gas projects, and Petronas was not spared.

“During the Movement Control Order (MCO) period, we were asked to work from home, and I had to manage my new team virtually. Responding to the plunge in oil prices, I had to lead a series of cost cutting exercises and reprioritisation activities. With limited budget allocation, we need to ensure safety, asset integrity and production are safeguarded,” said Isrom.

In August 2021, Isrom assumed a new role as the General Manager of Specialised Maintenance. His responsibilities include overseeing all maintenance activities related to specialize disciplines such as metering, pipeline, structural, rotating, mechanical, electrical and instrument in PCSB, Sarawak.

“I am thankful for the support and guidance given by my predecessors. They helped me build my career in Petronas as well as to grow in the company. I would do the same to develop the young leaders especially those who work under me as I want them to flourish and become more successful than I am.

“All my life, I had to be persistent and resilient in the face of adversities. I never blame my fate for being born poor. On the contrary, I cherished it more because through all the hardship, I become who I am today,” he said. — DayakDaily