Saturday, July 11

Empowering women in the technical field


Garnet at the SMDS plant.

WOMEN nowadays need to be more resilient to succeed in life, especially those who pursue careers in technical disciplines.

Resilience is the key in life that enables women to come up against diversity and find a way around it.

That’s one of the qualities required to be successful in life, according to Garnet Balangalibun, the Health, Safety, Security, Environment and Quality (HSSEQ) manager of Shell Middle-Distillate Synthesis (SMDS) plant in Bintulu.

“As a woman, in a technical arena, my role is to bring a different way of thinking. It’s an individual role. I might not think like a typical chemical engineer but I have my own thoughts on the process and they’re helping other people to understand so that you can get the best out of them,” she said.

Garnet also believes women can play bigger roles and if there is something they want to do, they should go for it because they will never know until they try.

“That doesn’t have to be at the professional level. It can be at any level and it will be good if people believe more in their abilities.

“Appreciate the people who support you and I suppose if someone says no, always challenge the no,” added Garnet, who completed her Bachelor of Science in Biotechnology at Universiti Malaya.

She has never viewed HSSEQ as being predominantly being done by men.

When she joined the technology department in SMDS, it comprised at least 50 per cent females. An aspect of HSSEQ is process-safety, which the technologists contribute greatly to.

Garnet believes it’s not just attracting women to the workforce but also creating a work environment where women feel accepted for their abilities and can contribute meaningfully.

The 39-year-old from Bario shared her working experience in the technical field with Shell in a Q &A interview during the recent International Women’s Day celebration.


Can you tell us about yourself and your family background?

My father was a civil servant all his life, while my mum was a botanist so she enjoyed being closer to nature and in the jungle.

I have one sister and two brothers – my sister is a mechanical engineer, one of my brothers is a chemical engineer while the other one is working in administration in Kuching.

Education-wise, it’s been mixed. I have moved because of my dad’s work. I studied in Kuching and then he did his master’s in the States. So we were there for a couple of years.

We’ve been moving around quite a lot – back to Kuching and subsequently Kuala Lumpur because he got transferred to KL, then to Thailand because he got transferred there, and back to Kuching again. I studied at Universiti Malaya in KL.

Garnet (left) with her colleagues at the SMDS plant in 2011.

How did you succeed in school – and life?

My parents were very supportive. They would ask if there was anything I needed. Been moving around so much, made me a bit more resilient because you had the expectation you were going to a new school.

I’ve done this before, making friends, and you’re also not always in your comfort zone. That has been going on in my career. I need to try something else – do something else.

There’s the standard answer – you study. I had a very healthy balance of school and extra-curricular activities. My parents are not the kind who say you need to go for tuition, so basically, it was up to me to meet my expectations.

My parents also challenged a lot of my thinking. I was upset once in UM because it was another change, moving to KL and being independent.


Can you share about your journey in SMDS?

I did my internship in Shell in 2004. I went in for one project – fugitive emissions – but I wasn’t interested in that, so I asked for another project – wastewater treatment – and they gave me both.

After my internship, I went back to UM and after finishing my final exam, I got a call from SMDS, asking whether I was interested in their undergraduate programme.

I gave it a try. The interview was late in 2005 … with a whole bunch of graduates coming. We were tested on how to think strategically over the long-term, answer questions, and react to situations.

I started on Feb 2, 2006. Coincidentally it was Chinese New Year. I had one or two colleagues celebrating and everyone was very welcoming, bringing me around Bintulu.

At that time, the Bintulu Airport road hadn’t been paved yet – still gravel – so it took about an hour to get to SMDS on the first day.

Bintulu was a lot quieter back then – a nice town but now not as quiet as before.

In SMDS in 2007, I had the opportunity to go for an international assignment. For about a year, I was in Singapore and The Hague.

During the assignment, I also had the opportunity to go to Brunei and KL to experience different things. It was more a broadening assignment.

I gained exposure to a broad range of HSSEQ elements – from due diligence, incident investigations, to assurance activities and greenhouse gas.

I returned to SMDS in early 2009 as the environmental advisor in the HSSEQ department. I remember talking to our general manager Mark Pattenden in 2009. That was when the gas and power section just signed an agreement with Iraq.

Interestingly, I liked working in Iraq. One day in 2012, I applied and got a job in Basra and spent four years there as the operational field HSSEQ advisor on a 28-28 rotation.

After four years, I was given the opportunity by SMDS to do the safety leadership space. It was a new experience because safety leadership was something we just embarked on.

Garnet (seated left) with her family in Bario.

I think the safety leadership journey started in 2015. We also learned how we looked at ourselves and the culture which we wanted to transition into because you couldn’t stay the same all the time.

Safety leadership took me until about 2018 and I had the opportunity to take my current role as HSSEQ manager deeper into the organisation.


Why did you choose SMDS to work in?

There are a couple of things. Shell is a very reputable company. When the opportunity came knocking, well, I felt I needed to at least give it a try. I’m a bit stubborn, so when I joined, my HR at that time said you had to manage your expectations and you were going to be here for five or maybe six years.

So it was in my head that I was going to be there for that long.

If I remember my conversations with my university peers correctly, not many of them follow the same field that we studied.

They found it easier, I suppose, to move jobs whereas I needed the permanency, and if there was an obstacle, then learn to get over the obstacle. That was why I chose Shell.


What are the qualities required to be successful in SMDS?

Resilience and an open mind, looking to bring ideas from outside into the work environment and also being a good listener.

When someone has ideas, listen instead of saying no straightaway. Think about how we’re going to make it work.

Garnet (right) with colleagues at the Basra Gas Company in Iraq.

What’s the biggest challenge you face in SMDS?

I don’t think there is any biggest challenge. I feel it’s always a continuous journey. There’s always going to be something you think you can’t do.

When I started, I never thought I was going to be an HSSEQ manager but just how to take the day-to-day challenges and achievements. Celebrating the small things helps you to move forward.

One of the challenges was moving to Basra when I took up the Iraq assignment. It was completely new to me – working 28 days straight, no break between the weekends.

It was also a new concept – you get there, take the first step, adjust, and see what works for you, then move on to the next challenge.


How do you see the participation of women in the technical field?

I don’t see the technical field as being dominated by men because I have a lot of female friends, very close friends, who have been educated in the technical field.

My sister is a mechanical engineer, a lot of my close friends are chemical engineers and instrumentation engineers.

I think they have all done well in their disciplines, which I believe everyone else thinks are male-dominated.

Men are also doing well in areas where women are excelling like being chefs, in human resource, communications, and public relations jobs.


How do you enjoy your life?

I like Bintulu. I enjoy my life here because of the food. There’s always a place to go to eat – really good food.

Apart from that, I enjoy travelling. I try to do something different, have a different experience and always come back to eat.

So when I travel, I enjoy going to cooking classes. I have attended cooking classes in Thailand, Colombia, Bogota, and Bali. I will take some time off to be myself and to be with my three cats and two dogs.


Can you share some of your childhood memories?

My entire childhood was awesome. I spent quite a lot of time in a rural situation – like the diplomatic way of saying I balik kampung. I ventured into the jungle a lot, which was interesting.

We had a lot of picnics, barbecues, playing at the waterfalls – all were memorable. Going back to Bario is always fun.

We’re very fortunate in Sarawak to have the rural air service.  I was already a frequent flyer at a very young age. Back then and now, we have to fly to Bario.

I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. I remember collecting stones to build the first road in Bario.

I have many cousins, uncles, and aunts and they give the freedom to move about because it’s a safe place. I go back at least once a year, if not more often.

Kelabit food tops eat list, among them Thai som tam, green papaya salad, and any type of barbecue.

I don’t have an icon I look up to – more reading and seeing inspiring individuals.


Natural transition

Garnet’s transition from environmental technologist to environmental leader in the HSSEQ department was quite natural.

As part of HSSEQ back in the day, she was also exposed to the HSSEQ Control Framework roll-out, which gave her an insight into health, security, personal safety, emergency response, and road safety.

Last year, she recruited her Operational Safety Section head. The selection was based on competence, experience, and behaviour (capability and relationship, among others).

It turned out that the successful candidate was a woman.

Garnet has also participated in several Shell Prestige events for young engineers which she hopes has inspired the latter to enter the workforce with Shell.

SMDS in Bintulu was started in 1993 and is the world’s first commercial gas-to-liquids (GTL) plant of its kind.

It can convert about three million cubic metres of natural gas into some 14,700 barrels of ultra-pure GTL products per day.

Shell MDS produces a wide range of high-quality waxes, speciality chemicals, and transport fuels, which are marketed to over 50 countries around the world.

GTL products are virtually free from sulphur and aromatics, and highly biodegradable.