KUALA LUMPUR: The mother was frantic. Just a moment before, her young child – wearing a swim ring float – was happily playing in the pool, but a blink was all it took for the boy to topple over.
The woman could only scream for help as she could not swim. Other adults around the pool screamed along.
Fortunately, tragedy was averted. Tan Jian Yong’s father, a former swimming instructor who happened to be passing by, jumped into the pool and saved the kid.
The incident happened in 2018 in a condominium where Tan, a former swimmer representing the Johor state, lived.
Tan is now the founder and CEO of Happy Fish Swim School, an indoor academy focusing on swimming programmes for babies and toddlers.
First opened in Singapore in 2007, Happy Fish Swim School has waded into the Klang Valley in Selangor where a wave of indoor swimming schools have appeared over the past few years in seemingly unlikely places – commercial shop lots and light industrial zones.
Like Tan, a few founders whom CNA spoke to said they were rattled by the high drowning rate among children in the country.
According to the Department of Statistics, accidental drowning and submersion is the third highest killer of those aged between 0 and 14 at a rate of 2.8 per cent in 2018, after pneumonia and transport accidents.
Their hope is that large bodies of water – including pools at condominiums or hotels – will no longer swallow young lives if children are adept at swimming.
Conventionally, swimming lessons in Malaysia are conducted at readily-available pools in public facilities like sports stadiums, or private premises like condominiums.
Yet most of these pools are outdoor, where the tropical climate poses complications.
Many parents balk at the idea of their little ones exposing themselves to the harsh sunlight or swimming in chilly water. This leaves a small window for swimming lessons that gets even tighter during the rainy season.
But having a roof over the head may not make things easier as well. Kenny Ong, who used to teach at a sheltered sports stadium, pointed out that families frolicking in the public pool were distracting for the class.
“These days, we have another annual season – haze. Children are not allowed to go out. I remember that hit the business of swimming instructors pretty badly. It affected our income for about a month,” Ong, who now runs the Wave Glider Swim School in a light industrial zone in Subang Jaya, said.
For Mark Chua, it is the shoddy cleanliness and maintenance at public pools that get to him the most. The former national swimmer and his sister, Marilyn – who competed in the Olympics – were conducting swimming lessons at a public pool in Shah Alam but were appalled at the dirty toilets and changing rooms.
Following a clash over the cleanliness issues, the siblings had a rude awakening that their business was at the mercy of the pool management. They eventually decided to open Supersharkz Swim School in 2011.
Their first outlet was in a shop lot in Puchong, then another in a light industrial area in Kota Damansara. The environment, cleanliness and maintenance of the indoor facility would be entirely their call – a sense of control that similarly drove Tan and Ong to run their own outfits too.
HIGH COST TO BUILD INDOOR POOL
Building a pool is an expensive endeavour, and it is even more so building an indoor pool that is salt-chlorinated – kinder to the skin than the usual chlorine – and temperature-controlled in premises not meant to support it.
For visibility, Tan opened Happy Fish schools primarily at shop lots and shopping malls. He believed that these foot traffic hotspots meant more people could see the classes in action through its windows, which would spur sign-ups.
There is one problem – the floors of these commercial lots need to be reinforced to support swimming pools.
“The floor load of most shopping malls can only take 5 kilonewton, which means it would only support a very shallow pool of 0.5m,” he said.
All in all, a Happy Fish outlet can cost RM1 million (US$239,000) to build, he said.
For Ong, the weight and size of the pool was why he chose a light industrial lot to build Wave Glider. It is more spacious than a shop lot, and comes with heavy duty flooring.
That said, municipal laws do not allow the floors to be dug, so he built a raised platform that would fit his 1.2m-deep pool. Overall, it cost him about RM400,000 to RM600,000 to set up the academy.
Chua had to learn the costly way to design his pool area. In a previous Supersharkz outlet in Puchong, he had to pay for numerous repairs when the neighbouring lot – a government office – complained of peeling walls.
After some investigation, it turned out that the culprit was not the pool, but the un-tiled walls above the pool. The moisture from the water condensation had seeped into the wall, causing the paint to peel.
He eventually shifted the outlet to a nearby semi-industrial lot that he purchased, which allowed him more freedom to renovate the building into a swimming academy.
“The problem in Malaysia is that there is no guideline to build an indoor swimming pool,” said Chua. “Marilyn and I had to take up pool management courses from America and Australia.”
Other operators agree that with the lack of clear guidelines, safety and hygiene measures in the swimming schools often depend on the managements’ own initiatives.
Some schools do go the extra mile. Tee Meng Kui, the managing director of Happy Fish in Malaysia, said all of its schools test pool water quality monthly as is required in Singapore, even though Malaysia does not demand it.
“We are not here to answer to the government. We are here to answer to our customers, the parents,” Tan said.
COMPLIANCE OF LOCAL GOVERNMENT RULES
That being said, swimming academies are not exactly freestyling as there are some municipal regulations to follow.
According to Lee Jen Uyin, a councillor for Subang Jaya City Council, operators who wish to open a swimming school in light industrial lots will have to first apply for planning approval, and plenty of conditions will be imposed “because public safety is our priority”.
“The approval will only be valid for two to three years, after which the operators will have to renew it. If we receive complaints from the neighbours about these academies, or find that they have caused traffic issues or other conflicts that cannot be resolved, the operators would have problems with renewal,” she explained, adding that the business will have to apply for a yearly trade licence as well.
In an email response, the licensing department of the Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ) said the application of business licence for these swimming academies requires, among others, instructors’ teaching certificates, availability of qualified lifeguards, adequate floats for the number of students in a class, and adequate safety signage.
Random checks will be performed by the council on these premises to ensure continuous compliance, according to Tang Fuie Koh, an MBPJ councillor.
Yet, a safe and hygienic swimming academy goes beyond pool cleanliness and instructors’ qualifications, stressed Chua. Background checks on swimming instructors are crucial, for example. He cautioned that child molestation risk is high between swimming instructors and students due to close and frequent body contact.
Staff members should also have first-aid knowledge, he added.
PICKING UP AFTER THE PANDEMIC
As the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the world, Malaysia imposed the movement control order which prohibited sports activities, among other restrictions, to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
Hence, swimming schools like Happy Fish, Supersharkz and Wave Glider had to halt classes for about four months.
While Ong’s Wave Glider later reopened on Jul 1, his student count has dropped by nearly half.
Supersharkz also saw 70 per cent of its clients putting their classes on hold since it recommenced operations on Jul 4.
Tan, on the other hand, shared that the number of new registrations is at a record high for Happy Fish, but he is waiting for further instructions from authorities before opening new classes. The capacity at his schools has to be reduced by 50 per cent since reopening to comply with social distancing rules.
It seems like hardly a good time for these swimming instructors to be running their own business, but Chua opined that it is private swimming schools that have an edge. For one, he has better control over the hygiene, cleanliness and crowd in Supersharkz to minimise the risk of virus transmission.
“In public (pools), we would have to obey the opening hours and SOP (standard operating procedures) of the premise owners. Public locations also have public swimmers, so this increases the risk of contamination. For us, we have a sanitising company that cleans our private centres every fortnight. We wipe down and disinfect every two hours,” he said.
Naturally, these extra disinfection and sanitising measures incur more costs for these swimming schools, which has added salt to the wound of a plunging business while having to fork out for rental payment and other overheads.
To alleviate some of the financial pressure, Happy Fish is looking at diversifying the way it teaches swimming. Tan said he is looking into introducing a “swimming machine” that customers can install at home, to be used for virtual lessons.
None of them are ready to give up on their schools yet. After all, they have already overcome wave after wave of challenges to set up their academies.