Derek Eng Jia Yih (right) receiving the Young Tunneller of the Year award from International Tunneling and Underground Space Association president Eric Leca in Singapore last year.
Derek Eng Jia Yih all smiles with his certificate of appreciation. Pic by Nurul Shafina Jemenon

THE desire to become an engineer did not come naturally, not until the later stage of his life when he needed to choose the course to pursue in university.

Since both of his parents were in the medical field, he had wanted to attend medical school to become a doctor.

“When I was a teenager, I loved watching medical dramas such as ER and Grey’s Anatomy, but as I slowly entered adulthood, my affinity grew for a mega-structures such as bridges, skycrapers, highways, tunnels and airports,” said Young Tunneller of the Year 2016 award winner Derek Eng Jia Yih.

“I was thinking how awesome and impactful it was, to be part of the teams designing and constructing these structures for the people and nation.

“I still remember the first time I flew on a plane as a child. I would always try to peek into the cockpit to check out the sophisticated navigation system and I never failed to get goosebumps every time.

“At the end of the day, engineering caught my attention because of its bright career prospects and the opportunities that it can offer down the road — not just the excitement and the ‘wow’ factor.”

The 30-year-old chap triumphed above five promising young professionals from other countries at the International Tunneling Awards organised by the International Tunnelling and Underground Space Association in Singapore last year.

In this Young Tunneler of the year category, finalists were judged for their success in bringing market innovative ideas or initiatives, challenging normal practices, or leading technically complex operations.

Trained as a civil engineer, Eng obtained his Bachelor in Civil Engineering from Universiti Sains Malaysia in 2010.

“An engineering degree can lead you down many interesting paths and be the springboard towards many great opportunities. It trains you to think outside the box, be analytical and logical.

“Personally, I reckon that there are three key attractions of getting involved in engineering.

“Firstly, it gives you a platform to innovate products and services that matter, to improve the quality of everyday life.

“Secondly, engineers have the chance to create a better world by developing more conducive townships for people to live in, providing clean water to every household, constructing state-of-the-art infrastructures to increase connectivity, designing modern airplanes that give comfort while flying and creating cutting edge surgical machines to save lives.

“And, thirdly, I also think that engineers can unlock the door to sustainable green technology and reduce reliance on petroleum-based energy, thus changing the future of new generations on how clean energy should be harnessed,” said Eng.

Employed by MMC Gamuda KVMRT (T) Bhd for the past six years, he is the assistant manager at the Tunnel Department.

He said there are a few defining moments during his service, some of which are transformational.

“I was the tunnel engineer working 12-hour shifts for six days a week. It was all about completing the tunnel drive construction, going through the process of tendering and implementation of a project. Throughout the period of tunnelling, there were many challenges,” he added.

Eng was not only an outstanding tunnel engineer, but also an enthusiastic and dedicated mentor.

Listening to him share his journey, it was apparent that it was Eng’s huge passion and genuine love for dropouts and academically underperforming Malaysian teenagers which had led him to set up and run Malaysia’s first Tunelling Training Academy (TTA) for young Malaysians irrespective of race and religion.

Together with his team, they trained Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM) electricians, TBM mechanics and soon they are going to train TBM operators.

To date, TTA has trained and provided jobs for more than 300 vocational students, specialising in tunnel segments erecting, compressed air works, and shotcreting (wet-mix and dry-mix versions) among others.

They have recently developed new modules for Assistant TBM Operator, TBM Mechanic and TBM Electrician.

While Eng led by example, he is also dedicated to the more widespread growth of the tunneling profession.

He took the time to take part in the School Outreach Programme — Career Aspiration Initiative, a programme fully endorsed and supported by the Ministry of Education to ultimately inspire the school leavers to consider taking up engineering as a career.

He visited numerous schools, vocational institutions and universities around Malaysia to share knowledge on tunneling and discuss the bright career prospects in the field.

His involvement in the field of mechanised tunneling for several years has allowed him to be among the most visible proponents of the technical developments for Variable Density (VD) TBM, jointly and built by MMC Gamuda KVMRT and Herrenknecht AG to overcome the daunting challenges in highly karstic limestone (an area in which erosion has produced fissures, sinkholes, underground streams, and caverns) in Kuala Lumpur.


Currently pursuing his Master in Business Administration (MBA) at University of Malaya, Eng said Malaysia as a developing country holds great potential in the engineering sector as there is a lot of space to construct more buildings and structures.

Obviously, he said, some types of engineering have yet to mature here, such as aerospace engineering, nuclear, biomedicine and biotechnology simply because there are no full-fledged manufacturing plants for aeroplanes and research centres.

“Most design and manufacturing for Airbus aircrafts, for instance, are done in Germany, France and the UK, but I believe it is just a matter of time that they will be coming to our shores.

“So, future engineers should have the right mindset by getting their hands dirty when they leave university.

“They cannot expect to just sit in the office and face their computers. A strong engineer must have a good combination of design and construction or manufacturing technical knowledge.

“One can’t lead and tell others what needs to be done or design something that really matters without experiencing the real work themselves,” he said.

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