By Alvin Ung
Out in the middle of Tasik Temenggor, the placidity of this lake set amid virgin rainforest hides a dark history.
In the sixties and seventies, this area in Northern Perak was infiltrated with communist insurgents who traveled freely to the Thai border. In 1974, the then Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak hatched a plan to build a dam across the upper Perak river – thus creating this massive manmade lake that flushed out the terrorists.
None of the drama of history was present as I sat on bags of fish feed stacked in a green hut floating on the lake. A meter away, Shah Kharuddin, a fish farmer, opened a bag of Cargill Aqua Focus Starter Tilapia. With one fluid movement, he scooped out the pellets and swung his right arm in an arc. The pellets hovered above the six-meter-diameter cage like a fine brown cloud before settling on the smooth surface of the lake.
Suddenly the dark waters before me seethed and writhed with thousands of gaping mouths – hordes of hungry tilapia covering every square inch of water, gobbling every pellet in sight. Every new scoop of fish feed created a crescendo of frenzied splashing.
“It’s so calm to watch the fish feeding,” said Shah, who comes from Manjung, in southwestern Perak, near the Royal Malaysian Navy base where he used to work as a supplier. Since his retirement a few years ago, Shah was approached by the Department of Fisheries (DOF) to join a Synergy Farming program run by Trapia Malaysia.
Under the July 2012 agreement with DOF, Trapia has trained 20 local farmers who pay for the feed and the fish; the government pays for the feed hut and the grow-out cages. Each farmer is then required stay on the farm and raise two cages of fish, from fingerling to harvest, for a four-year period. To ensure transfer of knowledge, the farmers are not permitted to outsource the labor to foreign workers. Their fish, raised according to international standards, are then sold back to Trapia, which exports the products to Boston and beyond.
The Synergy Program has helped to raise the game for local farmers so that they will gain skills for large-scale production – from hatchery to processing. Trapia is one of several players enlisted by the Economic Transformation Programme to boost aquaculture fish production to create 10,000-plus jobs and generate a gross national income of RM1.38 billion by 2020.
“Many small-time farmers in Malaysia raise their produce according to what they learned from their fathers and grandfathers. Their produce do not conform to global standards, and thus cannot be exported,” explained Dr. Fadhlullah Suhaimi Abdul Malek, the NKEA director at PEMANDU. “Aquaculture companies like Trapia are helping to open up a whole new market for our local produce.”
During the training period, the farmers are paid a monthly stipend by the government. To ensure long-term staying power, the farmers receive the rest of their profits at the end of four years.
“The local farmers must be very disciplined in taking care of the livestock,” said Lai Sead Ping, a director and co-founder of Trapia Malaysia. “We are training entrepreneurs to work independently.”
“I’ve never done fish farming before this,” said Shah, who works at the feed hut in the lake from 9.00am to 4.30pm daily, seven days a week. He returns to Manjung to see his family once a fortnight. “I love it here. And I love the fact that there’s no one else out here on the lake.”