Published on: Thursday, March 17, 2022
KOTA KINABALU: In the wee hours of a fine morning in mid-1982, Bacho Pilong, then 17, woke up from the little sleep that he had, overwhelmed by a sense of anticipation of what the day might bring.
He was about to embark on a long journey from his remote hometown on Sebatik Island in the east coast of Sabah, to Austin, Texas, in the United States, to pursue a Chemical Engineering degree under the PETRONAS Education Sponsorship Programme.
From Sebatik, he took a two-hour boat ride to Tawau and flew to Kota Kinabalu en route to Kuala Lumpur where he, along with a group of sponsored students, stayed for a month prior to continuing the journey to Austin.
“I was wondering where Texas was; at that time there was no Google to refer to,” said Bacho, now the PETRONAS Senior Vice President of Project Delivery & Technology (PD&T), and a member of the PETRONAS Executive Leadership Team.
“But I was excited. It was the first time that I ventured out of Sabah, and the first time I flew on an airplane. Flying was such a privilege then,” he said.
Unbeknown to the young Bacho, his setting out of the island where he was born and raised, also marked the start of a journey that would later take him to an extraordinary career, spanning 30 years and counting, in PETRONAS.
Grappling with the English language
His immediate challenge upon reaching Austin in the summer of 1982 was grappling with the English language, the only subject he did not do too well in SPM.
“The first thing they did was conduct a placement test to assess my proficiency. For that test, the lowest score was Level 1 and the highest was Level 5. Malaysian students would normally achieve Level 4. But when the result came, I was at Level 2.
“It came as a shock, but I was clear about what I needed to do – I had to rebound,” he said, adding that he improved by reading story books. His score eventually climbed to Level 4 within a semester.
Bacho adapted well to life in a foreign land, all the while remaining rooted to his Sebatik upbringing. Adaptability proved to be his strength, an attribute that would further develop as he progressed in his career in PETRONAS.
Struggling with unemployment
Another challenge awaited Bacho when he graduated from the University of Texas in 1987 – Malaysia was facing an economic downturn and he found himself with no job upon his return.
He recalled having to decide – to sit idle or do something. Hence, for a few years, he moved from one temporary job to another, including working in the rubber industry and at an oil palm plantation.
When asked how he would draw a parallel to his situation at that time and the challenges facing youths of today, who are studying or graduating in challenging times, Bacho said it was important not to give up.
“Imagine graduating after studying hard to get a degree and suddenly you’ve got no job; what happens to emotions, it’s going to plunge, right? But if I can say one thing, it’s this – never give up, keep the hope alive.”
The intrepid explorer
That hope came to life for Bacho in April 1992 when he received a call from PETRONAS to join the company as a Process Engineer at PETRONAS Carigali Sdn Bhd (PCSB) Sabah Operations.
At that time PETRONAS was in partnership with another oil and gas company in the Samarang field, off Sabah. He later moved to Miri, Sarawak to work on the field’s handover to PETRONAS.
“Back when I first started, there was no structured training. I was basically thrown into the field. The learning was rapid and steep. Although we had a senior officer who coached us, it was very much learning on the go…we learned, made mistakes, and quickly recovered,” he said.
His leadership flair did not go unnoticed. Six years into the job, he was posted to Vietnam to lead the offshore operations of the Ruby field, PETRONAS’ first venture abroad.
He returned to Malaysia in 2004 to lead PCSB Sarawak Operations before seeing another international assignment, this time to the African continent as the President of a joint operating company in Republic of Sudan, and later in South Sudan.
Other leadership feathers in his cap include being appointed Vice President of International Assets, and Senior General Manager of Malaysia Petroleum Management – the exploration and production regulatory arm that functions under the PETRONAS Group.
Prior to being appointed PETRONAS’ Senior Vice President of Project Delivery & Technology in August 2021, Bacho was the Vice President of Malaysia Assets as well as the Chief Executive Officer of PCSB, in June and August 2019, respectively.
Over the years, he has crisscrossed the globe on company assignments, in a whirlwind career that earned him the accolade “the intrepid explorer.”
Pointers to young talents
For young talents who aspire to progress in their career, they should be willing to leave their comfort zones.
“If the path to your dreams seems to be an overwhelmingly big leap, take a baby step; you must make that first small step.
“For me, the first step that I took was going out of Sabah. Maybe I’m fortunate because of the scholarship but within the company, I took many first steps, like moving to Miri, a short flight away from Kota Kinabalu,” he added.
The small move that he made widened his perspectives and opened doors to many other journeys.
“Through these small steps more people will get to know you and your capabilities. You’ll also be able to build your track record and in turn, be given more challenging and important roles…that’s how you grow. That’s the process; there is no other simpler way than that,” he said.
It was also important for young talents to have multiple skill sets and take initiatives to explore their full potential. “Never limit yourself at how far you can progress.”
Leaders develop leaders
On the other hand, Bacho said, those in leadership positions should have a genuine care for people and create pathways “so that your subordinates, the people around you, can move as fast as they can.”
“This is what we call ‘leaders develop leaders.’ When I was in Miri, among the first things that I did was to ask around how many years have people served in the same location. Some of them had worked there for 10 years and I offered them to relocate so that they could progress further,” he added.
Sekolah dewasa – Bacho’s kindergarten
Recounting his life journey, Bacho spoke on how his parents fostered in him a sense of responsibility and accountability, like taking him and his siblings along to toil their land, clear the jungle, plant crops and dig wells for water.
“Despite the lack of formal education, they placed high importance on schooling, on doing well in school, which I did. I was always among the Top 3 in my class.
“One of my greatest gifts to my parents was during the year end when the examination results were out…the joy of coming back with a report card to show to your parents, that was something memorable,” he said.
Bacho also recalled how he often followed his father to attend a sekolah dewasa -- an adult learning class – way before he started his Primary 1.
“I enjoyed tagging along to these classes. It was a basic learning of alphabets and numbers. In a way, as my father was learning, I was also catching up. That sekolah dewasa was my kindergarten basically,” he said.
He stressed on the importance of education and urged the young to develop an interest in science and mathematics.
“I hope that the younger generation, regardless of where you come from – villages, islands and so on – don’t fear mathematics and science.
“These are subjects that anyone can be good at if you really deep dive into it,” said Bacho, who was placed in a science stream class when he moved to a boarding school in Tawau on reaching Form 4.
Build network, talk to people
Bacho also spoke on the importance of building networks, especially among the young generation who grow up in the internet era, as part of their development process.
“Virtual interaction is just not good enough. You must have that physical human interaction. I would encourage young talents to go and attend conferences, meet industry leaders, and get themselves connected. Reach out to experienced people and draw inspiration from them.”
He also urged young talents in the company to help out and reach out to inspire others.
“For instance, go and talk at schools. You don't have to wait until you are in a senior position to do this,” said Bacho, who has been going to schools in Sabah to inspire students.
On what shaped his leadership, Bacho said: “It goes back to the pioneering spirit, it’s in my DNA. All those places that I’ve been assigned to gave me different learnings and insights. When it comes to leadership, I don’t believe that one style fits every circumstance.
“For instance, in South Sudan, when we were in a difficult time, it demanded a commanding leadership. In Kuala Lumpur, working with younger talents demands a different kind of leadership…you have to be alert and observant about what leadership style fits the circumstances,” he added.
In the COVID-19 pandemic era and working within the movement control orders, it called for quick decision-making.
“This is where your experience comes in handy to guide you. The keyword is flexibility – your ability to adapt to changing circumstances and make that leadership call,” he said.
When asked how he would sum up his life journey, from his humble beginnings in Sebatik to holding a senior leadership position in PETRONAS, Bacho said: “PETRONAS is a merit-based organisation. For me, and my observation on reaching this level, anyone can progress to be in a leadership position if you demonstrate track records and embrace the organisation’s shared values.”
“It’s not where you begin that matters,” he said, “It’s where you end.”
“Don’t make your starting point an excuse to say you can’t go far because this is where you started off… don’t let circumstances of where you start dictate where you end.”
Bacho (second from left) with his schoolmates at SMK Wallace Bay, Pulau Sebatik
With fellow PETRONAS scholars from Sabah and Sarawak before departing for the US (front row, first from right)
On-board a supply vessel during his stint in Vietnam
At a conference in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 2003
Bacho (centre, in jacket) with staff members of Sudd Petroleum Operating Company during his posting to South Sudan
Bacho (first row, fourth from left) with 15 local university leaders after the signing of MoUs in November 2021 between PETRONAS and the universities, including Universiti Malaysia Sabah, to catalyse industry-academia knowledge sharing in technical areas