My Southeast Asia Ventures: Why I chose to work in Surabaya though I had job offers in a few countries like the US

Southeast Asia might not be many young Singaporeans’ first choice as a destination for work or study, but some have taken a leap of faith and ventured into the region. TODAY’s Voices section is publishing first-hand accounts of those who have spent time in Singapore’s closest neighbours for a variety of meaningful pursuits.

In this instalment, Mr Roy Jr Gan, 35, recounts his decision to take up a job in Surabaya nine years ago, after graduating in the United States. The city’s proximity to Singapore, and his employer’s interest in his professional development, convinced him to make the move. 


I arrived at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2009 to study chemical engineering and fell in love with the place — the food, the culture, the weather…

It didn’t have everything that Singapore had, but it dawned on me that I just wasn’t a city person.

Most chemical engineers would find work in petrochemicals, which I had little interest in; instead in 2010, I applied for internships at various food and pharmaceutical companies in Singapore and the region.

PT Aneka Coffee Industry — an Indonesian processed coffee manufacturer — was one of the companies that accepted me. For two summers thereafter, I split my time between Singapore and Surabaya.

When I first walked out of the Juanda International Airport, I remarked: “The weather here is just like Perth!” much to the bewilderment of my colleague who met me there.

As we drove toward the factory, I witnessed great natural beauty and an abundance of space.

I graduated in 2013 with a degree in chemical and biological engineering, two majors in mathematics and chemistry, and trepidation as to what to do with them.

If I wanted to work in Singapore, the highest paying option then was in petrochemicals.

Surabaya wasn’t far away either: There were direct flights and I had gotten along well with my mentor, who continues to love his work after nearly 60 years. 

Earlier that year, he had convinced management to extend an offer to me. At the time, I had offers from Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and the US.

However, having spent more than four of the six years with my wife-to-be in long-distance, I was expected to return home.

I was unsure what to do, and the grim realisation that I had bills to pay set in. My future wife was accustomed to Singapore’s high standards of living, and when children congeal, they’ll need a good place to grow up.

Fortunately, the person hiring me in Surabaya convinced me that my professional development wouldn’t be a problem as I would apprentice directly under my mentor.

By the end of our discussion, I not only had answers and fair remuneration, but also knew that the company had good leadership and direction.

I made my choice, convincing our parents that the move was an opportunity for my professional development. Furthermore, Surabaya is modern, with good private schools, and we would come back often to visit.

My would-be father-in-law gave me his blessing — to the dismay of a tearful mother and daughter. I am grateful for the sacrifices that my wife made to support me in my move.

During my first months there, a fatherly director gave me words to live by: “You need to learn to be like the ripe rice plant: When ready to harvest, it bends down and offers its worth in humility. No one will want rice from a straight and posturing plant. This is the Javanese way, remember it.”

From my experience, Singapore and the West value qualities such as correctness, pragmatism and advancement: During team discussions, so long as your argument is solid and the most credible amongst your peers, you win.

However, in East Java, respect is earned by how well you can put yourself in another’s shoes, how to masterfully disagree without giving offence, and your wisdom in conflict resolution.

Word of you gets circulated even before you first meet someone in person, and first impressions last a lifetime. 

Moreover, it was obvious that without a good command of Bahasa Indonesia and Javanese, I would make for an ineffective engineer.

I grappled with the multiplicity of words, such as those for “you”: Anda, Kamu, Sampean… True to its oratory culture, Javanese emphasises speech mannerisms, befitting varying levels of formality. It took me three years before I realised the importance of verbal tone.

As a foreigner, empathy and tact are not just recommendations — they are requirements.

To those who wish to fully immerse, the lithe cross-cultural exchange will teach one to be unpretentious and compassionate while still arriving at efficient and correct conclusions.

My nine years in Surabaya have been transformative, and a decision that I’m glad I took.

If there’s a final word of advice that I may offer, it is to understand the culture you’re to be a part of. In work or play, you’re always a part of a community.



Mr Roy Jr Gan, 35, is assistant vice-president of productions at PT Aneka Coffee Industry, a business-to-business (B2B) processed coffee manufacturing plant in Surabaya, Indonesia. He is currently in his ninth year of work. His wife, Emmalyne, 33, and their two-year-old daughter, Aetheria, both live in Surabaya with him. The family enjoys spending weekends exploring neighbouring cities and Indonesia’s natural wonders.

If you have an experience to share or know someone who wishes to contribute to this series, write to voices [at] with your full name, address and phone number.

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