Bala Thuraisingam is a Mechanical Engineer, his expertise being in water pumps. Having retired about 3 years ago, Bala continues to do some consulting work and is a member of the Fire Protection Association Australia (FPAA) and also represents the Association, on the technical committee of Australian Standards for Fire Protection Water Pumpsets.
Bala joined U3APP, seeking an alternate activity following his retirement. “So, I took up Scrabble, as it keeps my mind ticking.” Pre Covid, Bala was a regular member of the Friday Film group.
Bala was born in Malaysia, he was 20 years old when he migrated to Australia, having first obtained a place at Monash University. Changes within the political system in Malaysia led to him making the decision to move to Australia.
During his early childhood years, Bala observes that “Malaysia was really good, in the sense that all religions and races were equal.” The Malays, Chinese and Indians had the same opportunities, there was little discrimination. At that time, the population consisted of 60% Malays, 30% Chinese and 5% Indians, plus other nationalities. They had equal opportunities more generally, also in respect to education. However, this all changed when “the crazy man”, Bala laughs, Mahathir Mohamad became Prime Minister in July 1981. Politics, “became entangled with religion.”
When Bala sought to do a Higher Certificate of Education (HCE), he was unable to do this, due to a quota system being applied in respect to different races. 70% of university placements were given to Malays, “everybody else was struggling to obtain a place.”
Students were required to have obtained a credit grade or rating in the Bahasa Malaysia language.
However at school, this was a 2nd language, single lesson per week class, so together with the low quota of acceptance for non–Malaysian students, Bala failed to gain entrance to university, despite “scoring very good grades in all other subjects. It was very upsetting.”
Bala’s parents were from Sri Lanka, so he was in the bottom 5%. His parents were Tamils and “ran away from Sri Lanka”, due to religious discrimination and violence. They migrated to Malaysia, to “escape persecution.” When Bala was unable to obtain entrance to university, an uncle who lived in Malaysia, “put his hand up” and paid for and supported his migration to Australia. Bala was required to complete a matriculation course, which he did through Taylor’s College in Malaysia. He was accepted into Monash University where he completed a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering degree.
On his arrival in Australia, Bala had nowhere to stay, he had obtained his visa, “had everything sorted out”, but no accommodation in the vicinity of Monash University. One of his schoolmates had a brother who lived in Glen Iris and had given him his address. “So, I just landed here at 6am, took a cab to his house and knocked on the door. It was opened by a man in his pyjamas. I introduced myself, ‘come in, come in’, he says. Then he gives me breakfast and drives me to Monash University.” After some “chit chat”, they organised accommodation with a family, later finding him a place to stay with other students.
This experience of being cared for, along with other students, without discrimination, having his meals cooked by the woman providing homestay accommodation, “was so good, she even packed our lunches.” Bala adds, “I had also never heard a horse go up the road carting milk. I used to hear this clip, clip, clop on the road, wondering what was going on here. All these things were so new to me.”
Bala recalls feeling “very lucky, as Gough Whitlam, was Prime Minister at that time and we all got a free education.” University “was fabulous.” It provided a new lifestyle he had not experienced before. “It was wonderful, I failed one year, having too much fun!” But of course, “then I buckled down, and finished the course.”
Bala’s first employment was as an estimator with Ajax Pumps, he worked in marketing for about 8 years. “But I could see myself not going anywhere, so I decided to start my own business.” He and two partners worked from a small office. “We had two phones each, so 6 phones.” Bala recalls with some amusement, juggling the phones and calls, as they built up their connections with the building industry in respect to manufacturing water pumps.
What exactly is a water pump? “Good question!” Bala laughs and explains, “most households don’t require a water pump as the water that comes into your house is already pressurised, right?” Right! “The pressure reduces as you get higher, so once you get to a certain height, you need a pump to boost the pressure. So, you can think about that concept. You may have a pit full of water, but you can’t get the water out. You need a pump.” Bala laughs at the obvious simplicity of this concept. But in a building, you also have wastewater that needs to be gotten rid of, also fire protection as in sprinklers, which are mandatory once the building reaches a certain height.
Bala and his colleagues came up with the idea of “building packages.” These consisted of a pump, a driver, a control panel and also pipe work, put together as a package. “So, it became a 3 meter by 3 meter skid, complete with all the bits and pieces. All the plumber needed to do was to purchase the skid which is then plugged/connected to Water In, Water Out and Power Supply in a pump room. Our aim was to make it plug and play for the customer.”
Where were the pumps and products made? “We actually pushed all Australian products. The pumps were manufactured by Southern Cross, in Toowoomba.” Diesel engines were made locally, also the control panel. “We would coordinate these products. One year after we started this business, we built our own products in our own factory from 1988.”
Over the years, the company named BKB Pumps and Tanks was responsible for fitting out 101 Collins Street with fire pumps, also the Rialto Tower, the Melbourne Casino and more. They also designed flat packs of metal sheeting, enabling the construction of water tanks. A crew would then assemble it on site. The company started out with “3 of us. 5 years later 15, then about 30 workers’’. The company was sold a few years ago (2013) to a Danish Company.
Bala acknowledges that he feels, “very proud, it was a lot of hard work. When I left Ajax the only funds that I had were $8,000 in superannuation. So, I cashed it in, my partner equalled that and that’s how we started, not taking wages for about 6 months. We struggled so much in that first year, I am thinking, this is madness, initially not realising that having cash flow was a big issue, but somehow, we managed.”
Currently, Bala is of the view that building regulations are more lax, “I would not buy an apartment in Melbourne.” Buildings are, “cheaper and cheaper. The pumping systems are not the best … it’s really very sad, it has become self-certification, in a sense. Councils walk away, rubber stamps.” Bala provided further information in respect to current issues within the building industry, which the government and industry are trying to rectify, noting also that products are now made overseas. Southern Cross in Toowoomba closed their factory and now imports their products.
Bala will assist via FPAA to rewrite the standards, the last being written in 2013, despite this being required every four years, staff shortages being one reason for this.
Bala met his wife at a Monash University party, she was a nurse, but is currently working at St Vincent’s Hospital in administration doing coding relating to identification numbers of respective surgeries/procedures for insurance or funding purposes. They have 2 daughters and 3 grandchildren, one daughter has moved to Queensland. “We go and help them out with babysitting, when we can.”
Bala’s youngest daughter is a biomedical statistician, currently in Canada (Calgary), as part of a research team from St Vincent’s Hospital. They are continuing to analyse data on knee surgery, the conclusion seeming to be so far, that “if you can get rid of your problem by doing exercises and maintain your knee rather than surgery, this is preferable.”
Bala’s other interests include golf and darts. He enjoys playing scrabble at U3APP and he and tutor Sunny Acreman have achieved an admirable score of 300. “It is also strategic, because you are looking at where you can slide in and double up and maximise your points. You get their points and yours!” Bala “loves movies” and attended Friday Films prior to Covid. He enjoyed sitting in the big hall, (back then) watching a “very good choice” of movies. He hopes to return when his Friday commitments ease.
Bala has a continuing interest in politics, “I love my politics,” He listens to the radio, ABC/SBS TV, reads the Guardian newspaper, subscribes to Crikey. He refers to himself as being a “swinging voter”, preferring not to have long terms of any particular party, as this encourages corruption.
Subsequent to the violent disputes between the Singhalese and the Tamils in Sri Lanka in 2013, Bala decided to visit Sri Lanka, “just to see for myself how people lived and how they were treated.” What he found was “so sad.” He hired a driver who took him from the south where Singhalese is the main language, to the north, where the majority population speak Tamil. When the driver spoke to the Tamils, “it was very belittling, aggressive, very, you know, upsetting.” Leaving his driver to wait alone for his return, Bala toured the area together with some local, very friendly and helpful Tamils, who took him to interesting places where tourists generally do not visit.
Bala repeats, “it is so sad that people cannot get along. Both Hinduism and Buddhism preach tolerance.” Tamils are Hindus, Singhalese are Buddhists. Whilst in Sri Lanka, “ I found out that it is the religious monks who are very militant, they make a lot of money!” Bala comments with cynical humour.
Bala and his wife are travelling to Canada, to meet up with their daughter. They will also go on a train trip in Alaska. They plan to visit some of Bala’s siblings, who live in America, (Phoenix, Arizona) and will be away for a couple of months.
Bala provided interesting details on current building issues, fire risks and much more than can be recorded in this interview. His wider knowledge, expertise, and aptitude for making concepts into reality is impressive. Bala is appreciative of the opportunities to “keep his mind ticking”, not just in Scrabble! But, by ensuring that past discrimination, religious and political, has not prevented him from attaining and then contributing to these achievements, here in Australia.
Felicity May interviewed Bala Thuraisingam