THEHOMEGROUND ASIA CONVERSATION WITH: MALCOLM ONG, FOUNDER OF THE FISH FARMER

While most people would consider entering the world of aquaculture a leap of faith into the unknown, it was a homecoming for Mr. Malcolm Ong.

Mr. Ong, 58, grew up just two minutes from the beach, so it’s no surprise he has a strong affinity for the water. He didn’t let his success as the Managing Director of a French software firm deter him from returning to his first love and pursuing his dreams of becoming a fish farmer.

Mr. Ong had initially intended to buy a boat for pleasure, but after meeting traditional fish farmers and becoming one of them, he decided to buy more than a boat.

In 2007, The Fish Farmer was “born” with the goal of feeding Singapore citizens in a natural and sustainable manner. Mr. Ong claims that the fish on his farms are not given any growth supplements. Even the farms are constructed using recycled materials.

Mr. Ong, who has a background in information technology, uses technology to improve the productivity of his traditional farms. Mr. Ong describes his water monitoring systems as “solar-powered and designed for a low energy footprint while still allowing us to tap into the power of cloud computing.”

His four farms, which are located off the coasts of Lim Chu Kang and Changi, can now produce 1,000 tonnes of fish per year. Grey mullet, milk fish, red snapper, barramundi, and sea perch are among the species.

TheHomeGround Asia drops in on Mr Ong at his farm to learn more about aquaculture and how he feeds Singaporeans, one fish at a time.

TheHomeGround Asia (THG): How did your passion for the sea lead you to pursue a career in aquaculture?

Malcolm Ong (MO): When I was a kid, we used to live right next to the beach, about two minutes away. There was a gate that we would open, and I’d be out on the beach playing.

Later on, we could literally see the land being reclaimed. I believe it was in the 1970s, and the sea was suddenly 30 minutes away instead of two minutes.

But I’ve always loved and still love the sea. As a result, as I grew older, I rented a boat and took my family out on the water. That’s when I decided to purchase a boat of my own. You can’t use a boat for the entire year. You can only use it on weekends, and not every weekend, mind you.

People began to ask me about farming after that. They talked about how disappointed they were when the younger generation refused to take over.

I’m a mature person, but in the fish farming industry, I’m considered a young bloke. Many of the people in this industry are much older than I am, but they are still very enthusiastic. That’s when I began to consider farming as a means of addressing some of the environmental issues, and I ended up purchasing the farm but not the boat.

TheHomeGround Asia (THG): You worked in the field of technology. So, how did you successfully combine fish farming and technology to set your fish farm apart from others?

Malcolm Ong (MO): In 1988, I received my bachelor’s degree in engineering. Engineering was a big deal back then, and farming was reserved for the peasants. Nobody ever considered farming, but after nearly 30 years as an engineer, I decided it was time for a change. That’s when I decided to start a fish farm.

One of my Chinese software engineers couldn’t get his head around it. He described me as “weird.” He was a farmer in his home country before moving to Singapore to pursue his dream of becoming an engineer. Here I was an engineer who quit to become a farmer.

While being in an office setting is pleasant, being out in the open is far more enjoyable. I enjoy being outside and in nature. There is a sense of accomplishment. So that’s how and why, after nearly 30 years, I decided to change careers.

TheHomeGround Asia (THG): Farming in today’s world is difficult, especially with the Covid-19 pandemic. How do you deal with issues like manpower, a lack of market, and even a disrupted supply chain?

Malcolm Ong (MO): It was already difficult prior to Covid-19 because no one knows the difference between local and imported fish. As a result, it was extremely difficult. We had to persuade people that locally grown fish is just as good as, if not better than, imported fish.

We began by forming partnerships with supermarkets, restaurants, and even airlines. In fact, the restaurant and airline industries were doing exceptionally well.

Then there was Covid. Because the airlines didn’t fly, I lost more than half of my business right away, and the restaurant industry took a hit as well. I was left with only supermarkets to rely on, and thankfully, we were able to make it through.

We were also forced to look elsewhere due to the pandemic. We did home deliveries and even went online because we had never considered doing business online before.

As a result, we had to learn how to use the internet. To make up for the revenue loss from the restaurants and airlines, we listed our products on Redmart, Amazon, Fairprice online, Shopee, and other platforms. That was a significant challenge for our business.

Now, just as things were beginning to look up because things were becoming more stable, we were confronted with a new set of challenges: sea freight. The supply chains are disrupted, which affects our imports such as feed and equipment. These delays raise costs, particularly transportation costs. The rise in electricity costs has an impact on us because it affects our cooling and ice.

Then there’s the ever-present issue of manpower. It’s difficult to find people to come out here and pull the net and do other things. I hate to say it, but Singaporeans are slackers when it comes to putting in long hours. We require strong individuals to come out and work with us. As a result, finding locals who are willing to help is difficult.

TheHomeGround Asia (THG): Do you have any interesting stories about how you overcame some of the difficulties you’ve encountered?

Malcolm Ong (MO): This is a very amusing story. Giving whole fish to my friends was one of my favorite things to do. And the fewer friends I have, the more fish I give away. They don’t know what to do with the fish, you see. That’s when I realized we should look into value-added services. We now make soups, mala-flavored fish fillets, and teriyaki-flavored fish fillets. To make things easier, we’re also making ready-to-cook and ready-to-eat items. It allows us to reach out to a new market and create value-added products.

My friends will return at that time. With the new products, everything is so simple. Simply place the fillet in a pot of boiling water. You cut open the bag, pour it out, and it’s ready to eat after eight minutes!

TheHomeGround Asia (THG): Typically, people only consume the fillet portion of the fish. The rest of the fish is thrown away, resulting in a significant amount of waste. So, what are your plans for dealing with the waste?

Malcolm Ong (MO): In general, young customers prefer to eat only the fillet, which is the meat part of the fish. The sweetest parts of the fish, however, are the head and cheeks. The meat accounts for only 40% of the fish, with the remaining 60% made up of the head, bone, and tail.

When we started doing value added products, however, we had to throw away 60% of the fish due to customer preferences.

Then there’s the question of what to do with the rest of the fish. We looked into soups as a possibility and made some. We also looked at recipes that used these parts of the fish, such as fish head curry and other dishes.

It’s not just about adding value; it’s also about valorizing or repurposing waste parts that are actually edible.

That’s one of the issues I’m glad we were able to resolve. We are still facing challenges, but the future appears to be bright.

TheHomeGround Asia (THG): What do you think the future holds for The Fish Farmer and the fish farming industry?

Malcolm Ong (MO): We’d like to expand at the Fish Farmer, but we’re also realistic. We want to grow as an industry rather than as a single farm, because I can’t do everything on my own.

As a result, we’re collaborating with the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) and other farmers to try to break down the processes so that each of us can focus on one aspect, and because we’re experts at what we do, we can do it better and faster.

Then, as an industry, we can expand significantly.

TheHomeGround Asia (THG): What are your plans to encourage more young people to get involved in agriculture?

Malcolm Ong (MO): Aquaculture is a fascinating subject. It is about life, both the life of the fish and the life of other living things.

It’s not as straightforward as “a” plus “b” equals “c.” There are a lot of small details that go into making the fish happy, and when the fish are happy, they grow well and, of course, taste good.

It takes a lot of effort. It’s hot outside, and you have to pay close attention to the fish. You may be required to complete tasks late at night or on weekends.

However, if I could simply share my life with others, I might be able to persuade them to join us in the field of fish farming. It’s both rewarding and enjoyable. There is never a dull moment here.

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