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Sun is setting on KELONGS

Too expensive to keep afloat, many owners are calling it a day
By Hedy Khoo
February 10, 2007
The Electric New Paper

HIS weather-beaten face is furrowed from long hours in the sun. His hands are leathery and calloused from years of hauling nets and fishing lines, repairing planks and hammering nails.

After all the back-breaking work, he gets to sleep only an average of five hours a night.

And all this to stay in a money-losing business.

Despite the drawbacks, Mr Ng Chow Meng, 55, a kelong owner and fish farmer, is unwilling to let go.

'This is a very tough life, but after so many years, it is the sentimental value of this place that keeps me going each day,' he said in Mandarin.

The kelong business is dying, and needs fish farming to survive. And even that may not save it.

But it's not easy for Singapore's few remaining kelong owners to give up.

'I won't be a rich man, but happiness is not measured by money alone,' said Mr Chow Chan Yuen, 62, who sank $120,000 of his CPF into buying a kelong and fish farm after retiring as a mechanic.

'I love my life at sea. Plus, I don't have a boss to order me around. I can spend days at sea without stepping on the shore. As long as I can earn enough to sustain myself, I will not give up.'

But Mr Chow, whose family lives on land, gives himself just three years, before he abandons the kelong and holds on to only the fish farm next to it.


There are only 15 kelongs left in Singapore waters. Since the '80s, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority has not issued licences for kelongs as they are not commercially viable.

It is instead encouraging the fishermen to take up fish farming, as a more sustainable approach to fish supply for Singapore, said Mr Chin Yew Meng, the AVA's deputy director of food supply.

There are 99 fish farms, 12 of them alongside kelongs.


A kelong is an offshore structure which uses wooden stakes to lead and trap fish, and it is costly to build and maintain.

Mr Ng spent $100,000 to buy his kelong in the Johor Straits, near Kranji, in 1985. Since then, he estimates he has poured almost half a million dollars into maintaining it.

The kelong's long wooden poles, made from wood from the nibong tree, each costs $55. The cost of driving each poles into the seabed can be three times the cost of the pole itself.

A kelong requires an average of 1,000 nibong poles. The wooden planks that make up the bulk of the structure cost about $120 each to replace. And then there are the wire mesh, cages and nets.

According to Mr Ng Hua Heng, 41, who provides maintenance and building services to kelongs, just replacing old poles can cost $20,000 to $30,000 each year.

Fish farms are cheaper to maintain because they do not require the expensive nibong poles, but they are more labour intensive.

'I used to have eight workers, but I had to let them go in 1998,' said MrNg Chow Meng. 'Business had turned bad and the labour cost was too high. I had to spend up to $20,000 a month on salary, meals, diesel costs and maintenance of boats.'

Now he runs both his kelong and fish farm alone.

Mr Kat Ah Sing, 76, who survived a fire on his kelong last year, with estimated losses of $40,000, said he has no savings.

He earns only about $1,000 a month from his kelong, with a similar amount from his fish farm, and said there's almost nothing left after deducting expenses.

Mr Chow and Mr Ng Chow Meng gave similar figures.

'In the '70s, my average earnings could hit $8,000 a month,' Mr Kat said. 'My nets were filled easily with a variety of big fish. But since the late '80s, my catch has dwindled.

'Now, it is almost impossible to catch any big fish. All I can get is small fish suitable to be used as feed for the farm. If I get fingerlings of more marketable fish, I keep them in the holding nets of my fish farm and wait till they get bigger to sell.'

He added: 'I am looking for someone to buy my kelong and fish farm. I know I will be very bored when I have to return to living on land, and I can't bear to give up, but I am getting old.

I have no-one to hand the business over to.'

Mr Ng Chow Meng also said that from 1989, his catch started to decline both in quality and quantity.

In 1994, he built a fish farm next to his kelong, but it was still tough.

So, in 1996, he also started rearing imported crabs, which can be sold after 20 days.

Now he retains his kelong mostly to catch small fish to use as feed for his crabs. He thinks this is better than buying the feed. But still, he figures he can sustain his kelong for another five years at most.

'The kelong is draining away the money I earn from the crab rearing,' said MrNg.

'I have no money to set aside for my retirement.

'I live one day at a time. I only hope that my three children have enough filial piety to provide for my old age.'

Could tourism be a way out?

Unfortunately not. Tourists are not allowed on kelongs because of safety concerns.

Kelongs are built for commercial fishing, and not for holiday-making, the AVA said.

The sunset may look glorious from a kelong. But sadly, this has become a sunset industry.

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