She went from handling passports to moving 500kg crates at Changi Airport

PHOTO: Aisha Abdul Rahman, Changi Airport Group

In this series, AsiaOne speaks to individuals who find themselves changing careers and steering their lives in a new direction, whether by choice or circumstance.

Since the pandemic began, Aisha Abdul Rahman has swapped her heels and makeup for boots and coveralls.

More impressively, instead of handling passports, she now operates heavy machinery — transporting crates that can weigh up to 500kg.

So much has changed for the 41-year-old, who was among those deeply affected by the blow that Covid-19 dealt to the travel and aviation industry since early 2020.

Aisha had been a passenger service agent at Changi Airport for more than 13 years, of which the last four years were with Dnata. She had never entertained the possibility of making a mid-career switch.

But as the Covid-19 situation started to get worse early last year, the security of her job was foremost on her mind.

"In the beginning, it was more about the fear of losing my job," says the mother of five, whose immediate concern was how she was going to provide for her family if she was let go.

Fortunately for Aisha, she was temporarily re-deployed during the circuit breaker period last April to a community centre run by the People's Association, as a customer service staff. While she was assured of a job, Aisha was aware that the front-line position came with a heightened risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

Aisha's mum in particular was worried, especially with five children — the youngest just five years old — at home, along with Aisha's elderly parents who are above the age of 70.

She tried to allay her mother's fears. "I told my mom, we have to believe in whatever that God has planned for us, nobody will know when we will die," says Aisha, who shoved aside her own anxiety and focused on the positives. The six-hour shift meant she had more time to spend with her kids, aged five to 18.

"For people like me, at this age, we are bound by our [financial] commitments. So we can't afford to think, oh I like this job, I don't like this job. It's more like, I have to make sure that I have my pay every month to take care of my family," Aisha reasons.

A few months later, Aisha was contacted by her company again when an opportunity opened up in the cargo department. Aisha was asked if she would be keen to take up the position as a cargo agent — a role which was completely foreign to her.

But Aisha needed only an hour before she decided to make the switch to working back at the airport — a place which had become her second home — albeit in completely new surroundings.

The role at Dnata's cargo warehouse would require her to work 12 hours in an "unglam", mostly outdoor environment. Her daily operations involve checking the daily flight schedules for the type of goods that would be arriving, then unloading and transporting them to their proper storage facilities on the ground.

Aisha at work as a cargo agent. PHOTO:  Changi Airport Group

This was a huge contrast to her days working in air-conditioned comfort at the terminals of Changi Airport, where she could shop during her free time or just "go from terminal to terminal". "Here, I'm stuck and can't go anywhere," says Aisha, who jokes that "that's the reason why I've gained weight also".

Aisha currently works in the cool chain department, where she deals with goods that are temperature-sensitive. These items span a wide range, from flowers to perishables such as fruits and other foodstuffs, as well as pharmaceutical products.

Recounting a funny story, Aisha remembers being shocked when she first heard a puppy's yelp within the warehouse, only to realise that shipments can contain all kinds of cargo. On another occasion, she saw that "mice" was on her checklist of goods, but it turned out to be a misprint.

"As a new staff, I was curious, so I was there just making everyone laugh with my questions," recalls Aisha.

'My hands shook': Operating a forklift for the first time

Now, instead of a well-pressed uniform, Aisha dons a safety vest and on occasion, winter jacket and boots in order to do daily stock-taking in freezer compartments that go down to about -25 degree Celsius.

But that's the easy part.

Aisha's fears almost got the better of her when it came to a crucial part of the job — operating a forklift to load and unload the massive crates. It's no mean feat for someone who is even scared of cycling.

"I don't drive and I even have a phobia of riding a bicycle. You can imagine how my hands shook the first time I sat down [in the forklift]," laughs Aisha.

"I was sweating so much it was as if I did half an hour of aerobics," recalls the self-confessed perfectionist who admits that she's still deathly afraid of dropping a crate.

"[My colleagues] kept telling me it's okay to drop the crate one time, they said everyone has to drop it at least once then they'll learn," muses Aisha, who's thankful that her co-workers have been encouraging so far.

Their welcome put to rest her initial anxiety of entering what she perceived to be a more intimidating, male-dominated environment.

"When I first joined cargo I was shy, I was scared, because I looked at myself and thought, can I do this? Will they look down on me?" says Aisha, who's currently the only full-time female employee in her team.

She shares how she soothed her fears with plenty of self-talk. "I'd tell myself, come on, don't be scared, you have to do it, times are bad, and I had to change my mindset that if this is something that I'm willing to accept, then I should learn as much as I can."

Eight months down the road, the thought that she is now able to operate a forklift still tickles Aisha.

It is an achievement that even her former colleagues didn't think she was capable of.

Aisha with her former colleagues in passenger service. PHOTO: Aisha Abdul Rahman

"Until now, I still have colleagues in passenger service telling me, 'Aisha, this job is not for you, how can you operate a forklift?'" she says.

But she clarifies that their tone is not one of disdain, but rather that "they are worried about me, because they've seen the training videos of all the accidents that could happen".

"'Some more you're the kan cheong type,' they'd say, but I'll just brush them off, like choy, don't say such things," says Aisha, laughing at the memory.

But after spending some time in seemingly two disparate worlds, the customer service veteran has realised that the experience is akin to being on two sides of the same coin.

"On either side, you're still delivering a service, it's just that one is in a slightly more cosy environment than the other," she reflects.

It is clear that Aisha is simply grateful for still having a steady income during this uncertain time, which has not only disrupted her job but her personal life as well.

Things have not been easy at home as her husband has been "stuck in Australia" for two years due to the pandemic.

She would only share that "from early 2019 till now I've not seen him, and we just communicate through the phone".

When Aisha gets off from her 12-hour shift, which ends at either 8pm or 8am, she spends all her extra energy caring for those who need her at home.

"I have a lot of things on my plate, and I have to be both the father and mother in the house. You can just imagine how tough that is," says Aisha, who admits to breaking down once at the beginning when it all got too much.

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"But I tell myself, no, I can't give up because at this point in time, my kids only have me. I can't afford to break down."

While she has settled well into her new role, Aisha doesn't discount the idea of returning to passenger service, if she gets called to do so. "To me, I'm not fussy about my job. If I like my job, I'll do it with all my heart. Sometimes I wish I can toggle between departments so that I won't lose my skills."

But if there's one invaluable lesson that Aisha's experience has taught her, it is the importance of not allowing preconceived notions to colour your perspective, especially when the thought hasn't been tested in reality.

"We should not see ourselves, our gender or our age as a reason to say no, or a reason to disbelieve that we are able to do something we have never done before.

"So before we try it, never say no, never say that it's impossible. Because sometimes what we think in our mind doesn't match up to what we are able to do," says Aisha simply.

candicecai@asiaone.com