Gladstone LNG: An aboriginal twist of things

With Brenton Hawtin, the boss at GLNG.

On October 26, 2017, a few months after I joined Bintulu Port as the new Group CEO, I was happy to be back in Gladstone, Queensland, Australia. The purpose of the visit was to see the Gladstone LNG Project, which was by then in full operations, and to study the export and marine operations there, which had some special challenges.

Even though Bintulu port has established a reputation for herself as one of the largest LNG exporting locations in the world, being located next to one of the world’s biggest LNG complex in one location, there are always new things to learn.

When I was the MD/CEO of the Malaysia LNG Group of companies from 2007 to 2010, I never imagined that one day I would be on the other side of the fence, so to speak, and being responsible for managing the port that was handling the export of the LNG molecules being produced in bulk by the MLNG Group of Companies at Tanjong Kidurong, Bintulu.

Fast forward 10 years later, I found myself at the helm of Bintulu Port Holdings Bhd group of companies. Life is such, you will never know where the road will take you, the sojourners that we are all are.

It is said that life is a circle and you have to know when to move on. For me, the leads or lines that make up the circle have taken me on some interesting paths and passageways. One such narrative is the subject of this essay.

Coming back to Gladstone, Queensland, Australia, I was there for the first time in 2011 as part of the Petronas Senior Management delegation to attend the ground-breaking ceremony of the Gladstone LNG Project.

Back then, there was nothing on Curtis Island, where the project was to be constructed. Curtis Island is located just offshore the town of Gladstone.

The ground-breaking ceremony was to be officiated by the then Prime Minister of Australia as well as the Premier of Queensland, both of whom were ladies.

Today, there are three major LNG projects on the island (GLNG, QLNG, APLNG) producing LNG from the coal seam gas (CBM) which is piped some 240km from the mainland to the island and exported from Curtis Island to the world market.

Panoramic view of the GLNG plant.

As alluded to earlier, I was back in Gladstone in a different capacity, that is as operator of one the busiest LNG ports in the world, Bintulu Port. Coincidentally, it was just days apart between the trip to Gladstone and the very significant milestones achieved at Bintulu Port where we chalked the 10,000th shipload milestone for LNG export from Bintulu in the month of October 2017.

For me personally, it was eerily a full circle of sorts. But I don’t believe in coincidences. The 10,000th loading and cargo export was a proud moment for everyone: Bintulu Port, Petronas, the JV Partners, Malaysia and Sarawak.

On the early morning of the day of the earth-breaking ceremony on Curtis Island, everyone was being transported on a large flat bottomed specially built vessel, from the mainland to the island.

On board were the VVIPs, the Prime Minister of Australia (Julia Eileen Gillard) and the Premier of Queensland (Anna Maria Bligh). Awesome women power on display at one location on an auspicious day somewhere in the outbacks of Queensland — that was the governing thought going through my mind observing the entourage that morning.

The others on board were the top management of the various companies involved in the project, including of course, Petronas. Datuk Wan Zulkiflee and Datuk Annuar Ahmad were the two top executives representing Petronas for the occasion. My role was just to make up the delegation in my humble capacity as the head of Petronas’ Group Corporate Affairs portfolio.

Having all these high-powered individuals in one spot, almost captive in a sense, was a perfect opportunity to get their full attention. And sure enough, that was what exactly happened. Or as planned.

The project sponsors, led by Santos and Petronas, had arranged to leverage on the opportunity to use the time during the short boat trip from the mainland to Curtis Island as a perfect opportunity to do a briefing on the project update for all those who were on board. In particular, the two powerful ladies, the Prime Minister of Australia and the Premier of Queensland.

As expected, full attention was given to the presentation on the project which highlighted the project sponsors, the capacity of the project, the technical details and challenges, and so on. Pretty routine stuff for those in the business.

Of course, the customary safety briefing preceded everything, as it is the norm in an industry which is both high risk and capital intensive. No room for error allowed. Unpreparedness is a mortal sin.

After the “business as usual” and “official briefing”, a surprised and unplanned itinerary was the opportunity given to one of the aboriginal chiefs to say a few words. Kind of a token opportunity to say something to represent the local community.

This turn of events immediately caught my attention and I listened intently to what the chief was saying. After all, part of my remit was to cover the subject of stakeholders’ management and community relations.

The aborigines’ traditional rights of access to, and use of, the land on Curtis Island were important issues to work on and, without doubt, they were indeed very key stakeholders to the many LNG projects set up on the island.

The chief, whom I later learnt to be an aborigine by the name Malcom “Macu” Walker, started with an earth-shaking statement when he said, “In life, we must walk with respect!” And then he went on to explain that Curtis Island is an aboriginal land and has been their traditional hunting and fishing grounds for ages.

He narrated his own experience and that of his people in visiting the island, camping there, fishing and hunting and doing all kinds of activities, before finally finishing his speech.

After he was done, there was some polite applause and for a fleeting moment I could feel the awkwardness of the moment, a tone that did not quite fit the moment as far as the formal intent of the event was concerned.

To my mind, the aboriginal chief was in fact scolding the Prime Minister, and the Premier, and virtually everyone on the boat that day. And more to the point, he was reminding all and sundry to respect the rights and to acknowledge the traditional ownership of the island we were heading to that morning.

After his speech, he went back to his seat and soon after the session ended. That was when I quietly made my way to the aboriginal chief as everyone was busy chatting while having some refreshments after the briefing session.

I introduced myself to him and said I was from Petronas, the Malaysian national oil company, which is one of the project sponsors and that Petronas is a big company and has experience in the kind of projects that were being planned on his island.

Then I said to him, “Sir, that was a very good speech that you made just now. And I want to tell you that I understand exactly what you were saying.”

I wanted to start a conversation with him. He looked at me askance as if there was no sense of recognition, at first. So, I said to him, “You know, I am also a native or aboriginal just like you. And what you said resonated with me. I feel about what you were saying!”

A touch of Borneo to mark the visit!

That kind of got his attention but still he wasn’t too sure whether this Malaysian guy was indeed a native or aborigine, as he claimed. So, he shot some inquisitive questions in my direction, “Are you sure, do you fish and hunt, like me?” he challenged.

As soon as he asked the question, I immediately saw that a door was slowly opening, “In fact I do sir, I really like fishing and hunting. I used to live in a village and hunting and fishing were what we did most of the time!”

That got his attention, but I still felt that there were still some shades of scepticism in him. Maybe, it’s the coat and tie I was wearing? Modern attire doesn’t look quite native, maybe?

So, to drive my point home, a case of striking while the iron is still hot, I quickly added, “And I understand, sir, that the Aborigines or native Australians take a special grub or worm whenever they are out in the bush?”

“It’s a kind of delicacy for them! You know, we have the same thing as well, we love our sago worms which are fat and juicy grubs and simply delicious,” I enthused.

That final statement from me was what ‘sealed the deal’ between us that day. There was then an instant recognition that somehow, we were indeed connected, like two souls united in beliefs and experience and sharing a common view of nature and the environment.

Post the ground-breaking ceremony, I told Santos that I would be glad to host a delegation of Aborigines chieftains and community leaders in Malaysia if Santos could make the necessary arrangements. And that was how Malcom “Macu” Walker and his friends, the elders in the native Australian community in Gladstone made a trip to Kuala Lumpur and Bintulu.

I arranged a complete programme for them, telling them how Petronas undertakes its projects and how Petronas has a long and strong track record working closely with local communities in areas wherever they operate. The messaging was, Petronas would do the same and follow the same philosophy in Gladstone.

Needless to say, Malcom “Macu” Walker and I became good friends thereafter. In fact, we became brothers and his mother on being told by Macu about this brother in Malaysia, gave me an Aborigines name called “Kianga” which meant “Sweet Water”!

Coincidentally, ‘Kianga’ is the translation of the Kelabit word “Pa’ Maein’ or sweet water. We kept in touch with each other over time despite the vast distance between us. I was supposed to visit him in Queensland one day where we would do the “bush walkabout” — living in the wild for a while, learning and experiencing the Aborigines way of life.

We have had deep conversations about life, and I was especially interested about the conception of the universe and of God. He told me the God the One Supreme Being is called Junganamen in Aborigines.

He also told me stories about how the elders in the tribe could travel across time or do time travelling! He mentioned one specific incident which he experienced when he went back to visit the relatives in the bush.

A Group photo for the album.

There he met his uncle which was a surprise as he never expected him to be there and he lived far away, maybe a 100km away. So, he asked his uncle when did he come to the village?

The elder said “I just came!” Macu could not believe it as his uncle lived so far away. But the uncle was dead serious and meant what he said. That story and the stories of the fat porcupines during certain part of the year piqued my curiosity.

We agreed to follow up on these threads of conversation. Alas, it was not meant to be. I missed the chance to learn time travelling! And to sample the fat porcupine.

One day on a Sunday morning in October 2016, I got a frantic call from one George Walker informing me that my brother Macu had died. I was shocked, I never expected a call from overseas, let alone one about Macu’s untimely departure.

George had somehow found my number in Macu’s mobile, and he said that he had to inform me of his demise. You see, George is Macu’s son of whom I never knew about, let alone have met.

While choking with emotion on the phone, he said Macu spoke fondly of me all the time and told him of his wonderful visit to Kuala Lumpur and Bintulu many years back, and how I have treated him with respect.

As I said earlier, Macu and a few other aboriginal chiefs were my guests, or rather I hosted them on behalf of Petronas, on their working visit to Malaysia.

He never forgot the simple courtesy and small hospitality that were extended to him.

They, who lived on, or rather owned, Curtis Island where the Gladstone LNG plant is now located, were great souls. That much I can say.

I will never forget you my brother Macu. I just wish we had made that trek into the bush, your bush, that we were planning to do and had gone hunting for the porcupines (fat ones, you said!) that you mentioned were aplenty in your neck of the woods or shall I say your bush.

Remember the idea started after I told you for us to, “One day, let’s go truly native (just loin clothes and all) for a week or so and do a walkabout in the bush. Just the two of us, plus your elders; and we’ll sit around a campfire listening to tales of your people and at night with only the clear Aussie sky and the stars above us!”

I was really hoping for that bush walkabout to happen, especially since Macu also told me that the elders spoke a strange and special tongue — the same language of the ancient Israelites. Well, one never knows. This world is full of mystery. We have hardly scratched the surface of true knowledge.

Perhaps, one day I’ll do it for Macu and also for my sake, and in his remembrance, and I know that he’ll be watching from his own star somewhere up there in the sky and saying, “there goes my brother Kianga, the jungle boy from Borneo.”

Maybe, I’d meet Macu’s uncle who does the “time travel” thing and he’ll teach me how to “walk” from a hundred kilometres away in the deep bush to his nephew’s home in just one part of an evening!

So long brother Macu, you were indeed someone special. From a faceless stakeholder to a real friend.

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