35 years on, what has changed?

TL;DR – 35 years ago today, commercial diver Patrick Lee went to work and never surfaced.

Patrick's mother holding onto his photograph. (Source: the family of the Late Patrick Lee.)

Patrick’s mother holding onto his photograph. (Source: the family of the Late Patrick Lee.)

She has dementia now and when her children passed her a photograph, she laughed and said, “Why you show me Patrick’s photograph?”

Her children explained that we wanted to ask her about her son, she turned wistful and muttered,

“They found his body 4 days later at Sentosa.  His work was at Finlayson but they found his body at Sentosa.”

Her other children filled us in on the facts.  Patrick Lee Puay Yong was 21 years old and having spent his teenage years in drug rehabilitation centres, he was determined to turn over a new leaf and lead a new life.  He hardly completed secondary school and his job options were limited, so he took on odd jobs to save money to pay for a modelling portfolio and a SCUBA diving certificate.

In October 1981, he got a contract for a week’s work to start on 19 October, his job was to clean the hull of a ship.  Patrick caught a cold the weekend before he started work, and on Sunday night asked his mother to cook something soupy for him. She still remembers that she’d cooked mee sua but little did she expect that would be the last meal she prepared for him.

The first day at work ended without incident, but on the second day, he went to work and never surfaced from his dive.

His oldest brother explains, “We were told there were 7 other divers with him, they were paired up and assigned locations to dive, but not far apart from each other.  They started work and about 30 minutes into the dive, his buddy signaled to him to surface, he signaled back, so his buddy and the rest of the crew ascended, but he never surfaced.  They found his body 4 days later, drifted from the seas near Clifford Pier to Sentosa.  There was enough air in his tank to last another 20 minutes or so.  We are just glad to have his body for closure.”

Source: The Straits Times (22 October 1981)

Source: The Straits Times (22 October 1981)

We asked him about workman compensation, and he replied, “The insurance company didn’t want to pay, they said he’s a freelance worker and he went to work in spite of being unwell.  My mother worked for a lawyer as a domestic worker then, the lawyer took up the case and after months of letters and negotiations, the insurance company finally paid the compensation due to my mother.  Patrick loved mother, and we feel it was his way of thanking her for raising him, and for the heartache he caused.  We are poor, and illiterate, without the help of the lawyer, I doubt my mother would have been compensated.”

35 years and what has changed?

20 October 2016 marks the 35th anniversary of Patrick’s death.

But this is not the only case of workplace injury or death. Over the years, there have still been workplace deaths in our country.

In fact, this year, there have been 54 workplace deaths so far, with falls being the most common cause.

It’s a growing cause for concern, as the Ministry of Manpower has conducted more than 11,000 inspections and issued 76 stop-work orders this year as at August 31.

But it takes more than that, efforts to educate workers on safety measures have been stepped up.

Labour MP Patrick Tay says it is the responsibility of everyone along the value chain to do their part,

“Leaders of organisations need to take ownership. Supervisors need to lead by example. And workers on the ground cannot be complacent, they must be proactive.”

But until we get there, Patrick’s family continues to remember him fondly, sharing photos and memories of his childhood and short adulthood.

The niche belonging to Mr Patrick Lee (Source: the family of the Late Patrick Lee.)

Inscribed on Patrick’s niche is a poem which his mother wrote:

“So sudden the parting

So bitter the blow

What it is to lose you

No one will ever know.”

Hopefully it won’t take us another 35 years to finally see progress.



Author: Nick Lee

I'm the introvert who hides at the corner during parties. I'm the one who tries to be funny (sometimes can, sometimes cannot) I'm the one who can't count for nuts. I'm...oh, never mind...


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