When was the last time you stepped into a fashion boutique, sped-browsed through an entire season’s collection, and rang up a receipt of S$5,000 in five minutes? For former sales associate Norlin Abu, that was the sort of shopper she used to encounter regularly at her previous job.
Fresh out of her ITE Higher Nitec course, working in luxury retail was an eye-opener for Norlin. She rubbed shoulders with wealthy Indonesian businesswomen, assisted size zero models at fashion shows within the boutique, and basked in the excitement of the fashion industry.
Among the affluent customers she met, occasionally there would be eccentric characters. She recalled one particular woman who asked her colleague to help her shave her underarms so that she would look better in a sleeveless dress from the boutique. Nonetheless, these encounters added colour and flavour to the retail job, which Norlin enjoyed.
However, after spending five years in the job, Norlin unexpectedly moved from swanky boutiques to the more spartan setting of a bus interchange. Today, she serves public transport commuters instead of jetsetters, and works with middle-aged bus captains instead of young lanky models and sales associates.
As interchange supervisor at Tower Transit Singapore, Norlin helps to keep our little island moving, even through major upheavals such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Reflecting on why she made the extreme career switch, the 35-year-old mused that sometimes, the most unexpected choices may turn out to be the most enriching ones.
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A FORK IN LIFE
In Norlin’s case, a family tragedy was the catalyst for this change. In 2013, her mother was suddenly diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer. Devastated, Norlin quit her job to be her mother’s primary caregiver and accompany her for chemotherapy.
Though chemotherapy was a difficult experience, her mother pulled through and her cancer went into remission. Overjoyed, Norlin went back to work, this time for another luxury brand.
Eight months later however, in 2014, she received grave news. “The doctor suddenly said that my mum had only three months left to live,” said Norlin. She then resigned from her job again to take care of her.
“When my mum was hospitalised, I slept in a small bed beside her every day. Whenever she was in pain, I would help to inject her with morphine. I remember feeling very helpless because I couldn’t do anything else to ease her pain. But I stayed by her side and kept reassuring her that one day, she would be in less pain,” she said.
“Like the doctor predicted, my mum left me exactly three months later on a Saturday,” recalled Norlin, tears welling in her eyes.
“I remember that just before she passed away, she suddenly requested to shower. But since I had just showered her two hours ago, I asked her to shower the next day. I did not expect that her morning shower would be her last. That day, as I sat beside her holding her hands, she passed away.”
Norlin was so affected by the loss that she took a one-year break to grieve. “As a caretaker, I saw her every day, but after she passed away, I could not see her anymore,” she said.
“It was hard to move on. We were really close and she really loved and pampered me. I was not used to life without her.”
When she finally picked herself up, Norlin decided to return to work. Although she could not fully understand why she decided to switch industries, she confessed that her mother’s death influenced her decision.
“My mother’s death had a big impact on me. It shook up my life. When I decided to go back to work again in 2016, I felt like I needed a brand new start to move on. So although I enjoyed working in retail, I decided to do something else… something I had never done before,” she explained.
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“Another interesting thing was that when my mother was around, she suggested that I move to a different industry. She felt that the long hours at retail, with only one day off each week, prevented me from spending quality time with the family,” Norlin added.
Since both her friend and brother were working in the transportation industry at the time, Norlin decided to give it a shot. She applied for the role of a Service Controller to support Tower Transit buses.
However, she was offered the job of a Customer Service Revenue Officer to check if commuters tapped their EZ-Link cards and paid the right fare instead. A few months into the role, she noticed an opening for Interchange Supervisor at Jurong East Bus Interchange, applied for it and got the job.
STEWARD FOR BUS CAPTAINS
And that is how Norlin went from the glitzy world of luxury fashion to running a busy bus interchange where thousands of commuters pass through each day.
There is nothing glamorous about the job. Each morning, Norlin wakes up at 4am to make her daily commute from her home in Chua Chu Kang to Jurong East, arriving while the sky is still dark to open up the passenger service office and do a check of the interchange.
She looks out for suspicious characters and drunks who may have passed out at the interchange, and ensures that the interchange fans and screens, as well as air conditioners in the buses are in working order.
Supporting more than 100 bus captains each day, she also ensures that they arrive and depart on time, know where they are going, and that all bus services are on schedule.
The young interchange supervisor found herself having to adapt to a predominantly male workforce where only 8 per cent are women. Her young age was also another issue.
“The first six months on the job, I encountered some difficulty because it may be hard for the bus captains, especially older uncles, to listen to a young woman like me,” she said. “But after taking time to slowly understand their personalities, I now know how to communicate with them. I approach them in a joking manner and know how to cool them down when they feel stressed.”
“Although many think that ‘uncles’ and ‘aunties’ are hard to handle, they are actually very nice and genuine – we are like one big family. All you need is mutual respect,” she added, noting that this was very different from her previous workplace where the competitive commission structure sometimes led to unpleasantness between colleagues.
A large part of Norlin’s job involves customer service for everyday commuters. She helps customers find the right bus service to get to their destination, resolves EZ-Link card issues, ensures commuters wear a face mask, and manages complaints whenever bus drivers overlook picking up commuters.
She also frequently finds herself having to help customers find items they may have lost on the buses. “The lost items are usually wallets and bags, but we also have very unusual requests to locate fresh fish from the market that some aunties left on the bus. I would, of course, do my best to help them, but so far, we have been unable to locate the fish,” she laughed.
Sometimes, she is even enlisted to help locate missing persons. Last year for instance, she helped an elderly lady locate her wheelchair-bound husband who suffered from dementia and had wandered off on his own.
“My colleague and I searched the entire interchange and found him at the side of a berth. I left him with my colleague at the bus captain lounge while I called his wife. However, my colleague had to step out to attend to a bus captain for a while, and when he returned, the elderly commuter was missing again,” she recalled.
“We searched the interchange and found him trying to board bus 334 with the help of a bus captain. We stopped them, and after two hours, he was finally safely reunited with his wife,” she said.
Norlin said that while these everyday encounters may not be glamorous, they give her job more meaning. “I feel that this industry has a huge impact on society, and it gives me the opportunity to meet and interact with lots of people from all walks of life.”
Reflecting on her huge transition from luxury bags to local buses, she said, “At the end of the day, it is important to be open to new experiences or jobs. If you are willing to learn, you may just find that you like something you didn’t expect to like at first.”
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