From a Fascination with Aeronautics to the Production of Lightweight Aluminium Boats

By Marcus Dip Silas

August 2022 FEATURE
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Boat built for Fish Farm.

As a student, Derek Neoh was not keen on studying and homework. “But I had a strict father,” Neoh says, “and he always emphasised the importance of education.” Neoh’s father, seeing that his son was smart, told him to simply select a university anywhere and his education would be fully funded.

So, Neoh looked to the States and applied for an engineering program at the University College of Los Angeles. “Getting to America was a dream of my youth and that is why I chose to study in California.” America was the promised land to Neoh. He had grown up listening to American music artists and watching American movies. He was inspired by the likes of John Wayne and idealised the “hero” image that America often portrayed of itself, especially in the fight against communism in Vietnam in the '70s. Even though Neoh often played truant in secondary school, he had a sharp mind and was interested in aerospace. He received an offer for mechanical engineering from UCLA and decided to use that as a stepping stone towards working in aeronautics one day.

When he graduated from his programme, Neoh applied for entry positions at several premier aeronautical companies, only to be denied on the grounds of non-residence. He recounts, “Only U.S. citizens and residents could work in aerospace at the time, and I was quite disappointed.” Nevertheless, Neoh decided to stay in the U.S. and work towards acquiring permanent residence.

He was able to get the coveted Green Card, and began establishing his career in Silicon Valley as an engineer. “Life as an engineer in the early days of Silicon Valley was good. Houses were plentiful and affordable, and I very much intended to settle down in America.”

However, 10 years into his new life in the U.S., Neoh’s father expressed his desire for his son to come home. Wanting to fulfil his father’s wish, Neoh weighed his options and decided that he could always return to America if he did not like it in Malaysia. He returned to Penang in the mid-80s and helped his father run the family business.

Steadily, a year turned into two and then into four; and before he could realise it, Neoh had already been back in Penang for 10 years. “There’s something about Penang; its charm and sense of nostalgia are persuasive.” Neoh began settling into a comfortable life in Penang with no intentions to return to the U.S.

As a student and then a working professional in America, Neoh had become enthused with “The Great American Outdoors”. He had learned how to ski, went trekking and hiking in national parks with friends and picked up fishing as a treasured pastime. He brought his newfound love for nature back to Malaysia and constantly sought out new fishing spots. “Malaysia has the advantage of having many jungles and the rivers and lakes in remote areas are perfect for fishing.” Neoh says. Yet he faced a great obstacle in pursuing his hobby – he needed a boat to get to the remote areas to fish.

As he surveyed the market, he saw that the conventional boats used for fishing were very heavy and hard to transport, especially through the thick shrubbery in the jungles. Neoh began searching for an alternative with three criteria in mind: he needed a boat that was lightweight, easy to carry and it had to be loadable on top of his truck or be hauled behind it. A lightweight boat meant he would need less fuel to power it and it would also save fuel costs in the long run. He had known about aluminium boats from his time in the U.S. because of his first love – aeronautics.

While living in America, he had learned that aluminium boats were manufactured by aeronautical companies who had been building planes from durable metal since the days of World War 2. He had even witnessed such boats being used in the kampungs by local villagers on his fishing expeditions, left behind by British navy men from the '40s. He saw this as an opportunity to solve a problem for hobby fishing enthusiasts by importing and selling aluminium boats.

As an engineer, Derek recognised the functionality of aluminium. Its broad usability made it a proven material. Also, there was plenty of aluminium around and it cost a lot less than many other metals. Aluminium is malleable and ductile, an ironsmith’s dream because it is easy to fabricate. It can be welded, riveted or glued, is lightweight, strong and does not break or puncture in the way fibreglass hulls do when they hit something hard or sharp. Fibreglass was the luxury material and choice of many people for boats because of its use in expensive yachts and shiny and smooth appearance. Yet, fibreglass is a major pollutant and is harmful to humans.

Aluminium boat fabricated by Etamax.

Aluminium on the other hand is durable and can be recycled at the end of its lifecycle. Neoh also knew from his experience as an engineer that the aluminium used for light and portable boats was a marine alloy, and not the same aluminium in typical household-use. The marine alloy is corrosion-proof and does not oxidise or produce a white-powdery film overtime. This means that a boat built with marine alloy aluminium would have a long-lasting sheen and not deteriorate in its appearance over time.

10 years after he first returned to Malaysia, Neoh imported his first aluminium boat into Malaysia via a reseller in Singapore. “It was not sustainable to bring them in this way because of all the taxes imposed by Malaysian customs.” He then turned to importing the boats as parts directly from a manufacturer in Australia, and then assembling them locally. “I poured in my own money as capital but I am thankful that the market was small and it was not a capital-intensive venture,” Neoh says.

Initially, he marketed the product to fishing enthusiasts but soon came to realise that the biggest buyer of boats in Malaysia was the government. “We pivoted to government contracts and sales because we saw how useful they were for search and rescue operations especially during flash floods.” Over the years, Neoh began shifting production to Malaysia by importing raw aluminium sheets, plasma cutting, de-curling, and fabricating them in presses at a local facility. Today, Neoh’s aluminium boats have a stellar reputation for their durable and strength.

“Nowadays, we are also selling boats by the dozens to charitable organisations.” Neoh says. Recently, a local philanthropist had ordered several boats to be donated to voluntary firefighters and first responders to be used during the flood crisis.

Army boat.

Now in his sixties, Neoh no longer ventures out to rural areas in search of fishing spots. Those days were reserved for his youth and it is getting harder to rough it out in the wild at his age. Neoh reminisces about the life he has lived and the many privileges he has had in his life. He realises that even though he never quite accomplished his dream of working in the aerospace industry, boat building shares many principles with aeronautical engineering.

Ultimately he is grateful that he has had the opportunity to build boats in Malaysia and is proud that his boats are largely used for relief and humanitarian work. In a way, he achieved his dream, even if it looks a little different than how he envisioned it.

Marcus Dip Silas

is an interculturalist and the author of Founders' Grit, a compilation biography celebrating the accomplishments and achievements of Penang tech and manufacturing entrepreneurs.