The Dropout Boatrepreneur

Who would have known of all the days and years I’ve lived, I would one day meet and interview Tuan Haji (Dr) Abdullah bin Muda at the hidden Kampung Duyung Besar in Kuala Terengganu; the sensible, friendly and witty boat-making champ.

Life was starting to lose its meaning when every day felt like it was just another day in a battlefield for Haji Abdullah but he braved on to work as a fisherman after quitting school due to extreme poverty. Deep down, he believed that in every hardship, there’s a light at the end of every tunnel.

As humble as he can be; Tuan Haji (Dr) Abdullah bin Muda.

In 1956, his career in boat-making began when he started working part time with Ismail Omar, also known as Ayah Hitam who was a famous boatmaker during that time. Ayah Hitam took Haji Abdullah under his wing and taught him to build his first ‘perahu sekuci’. Pupilage under tok guru along with lessons from Haji Chick Tahir, who was also a renowned boat builder back then, helped Haji Abdullah shape and hone his skills. Then it wasn’t long before turning 22 when he accepted an offer from RIDA Training Centre (presently known as Malaysian Society for Engineering and Technology or MSET) to further his learning in boat manufacturing. Upon completion, life set sail almost immediately with his very own and first boat-making enterprise in Pulau Duyong.

In the interview, I discovered that the 78-year-old Haji Abdullah has spent a major part of his life, 53 years to be exact, to build more than 100 boats including sailing ships which were sold worldwide to affluent customers in US dollars, and at a premium. His boats were so good that it attracted clients come from seafaring nations and as far as Denmark, England, France, Canada and Australia, just to name a few. In light of his successful trade, local government agencies stepped forward to credit due recognition to him for preserving the nation’s niche boat-making culture and heritage.

When asked how much time does it take to build an average-sized boat, “Small to average boats usually take up about ten to twelve months. I’ll make sure I keep the quality and standard of the boats consistently. For the bigger ones, it can take up to about one to two years.”

And what about the most expensive he’s ever built?

“If you asked me, it has got to be The Warisan Duyung GM1, it was the most expensive sailing yacht ever built which costs over RM4 million, a prelude to Giatmara’s involvement in shipbuilding.”

According to him, construction of the yacht started sometime in 2006 and it took four long years to complete it.

As humble as it can get

“Being orang kampung and not knowing much about business, one of my former clients, Michel Barash from Canada liked what I built for him so much that he made me a suit as well as business cards for me to grow my business,” adding that, “People from all around the world happen to know about my ships when they saw the yachts I’ve built for my customers when they go sailing. My accomplishments were spread by word of mouth,” says Terengganu’s favourite boatrepreneur.

Life as a boatmaker wasn’t always smooth sailing though. From economy crises to the epidemics like the bird flu, Haji Abdullah has seen it all and survived even when it almost wreck his entire ship enterprise, but that’s another story altogether. For now, we’re just captivated by his impeccable boat-making  capabilities, one that is rich with values, humble in its roots and just can’t get any better than sailing from a penniless school dropout to an internationally recognised boat-maker.

Tuan Haji Abdullah, salut!