Raising an animal activist son: Acres founder Louis Ng and his family

Mr Robert Ng, 66, says he has no affinity for animals, unlike his son Louis Ng, founder and executive director of animal welfare group Animal Concerns Research & Education Society (Acres).

As if to illustrate this, the elder Mr Ng, a division manager in an equipment firm, mistakenly recalls in this interview how Louis once kept a "gorilla or chimpanzee" in a cage in their garden.

Louis, 35, clarifies that it was a vervet monkey, a far smaller primate, and it was kept at their Yio Chu Kang house for only a couple of days in 2004 before being sent to a wildlife sanctuary in Zambia. It had been rescued by Acres after it was illegally imported into Singapore to be a "pet".

In fact, Louis, who has an elder sister, has been giving his parents surprises even before that incident. When he was 21, he announced that he was vegetarian and, about a year later, in 2001, he founded Acres while majoring in biology at the National University of Singapore.

His mother, retired civil servant Angela Quek, says: "I had sleepless nights worrying about his future. To me, it's not a normal path for a graduate. But we let him try it out. At least he has university qualification. If he fails in Acres, he can still get another job."

Louis, who also has a master's degree in primate conservation from Oxford Brookes University in Britain, drew a monthly salary of just $500 during Acres' early days. His father says: "I couldn't see a career in Acres. It was a major shock to me."

Louis, who has a nine-month-old daughter with his Britain-born wife Amy, had another surprise in store for Mr Ng recently when he entered politics by joining the People's Action Party.

Mr Ng says: "I never knew he was interested in politics. But by then, I was confident in him. He's very strong in his conviction. The first 10 years at Acres, it was really tough for him. There were a lot of problems, no funds...

"Maybe he has my genes - he's very determined. My wife and I trust both our children. We let them make independent decisions." How did Louis' love of animals start?

Louis: Something just clicked when I was young. I used to go to the Ang Mo Kio library after school and borrow books with animal themes, especially the James Herriot books. I volunteered with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, at a veterinary clinic and at the zoo. I wanted to be a vet.

Ms Quek: I bought him two hamsters when he was about 10. One day, he called me at the office, crying so hard that he couldn't speak properly. I thought he was injured. It turned out one of his hamsters had died. When I came back, I found he had buried it in a field near our flat.

Because my husband and I were both working, we couldn't have bigger pets though he wanted a dog and he brought a stray cat home for a few days.

Louis, why did you become vegetarian?

Louis: When I was 14 years old, I gave up eating my favourite food then - turtle soup - as well as shark's fin and stingray. I watched TV shows about protecting these animals. The stingrays, for example, would come up to interact with human divers. From my perspective as a child then, it looked as if stingrays were my friends. I became fully vegetarian at age 21.

My wife, Amy, is also vegetarian and we're raising our daughter Ella vegetarian. When she's old enough, it's up to her to decide if she wants to continue with it.

Mr Ng: It took me a few months to accept he was vegetarian. We had to look for special food for him - it was a bit troublesome.

Ms Quek: He eats very simply. When he became vegetarian, I would sometimes cook him tau kwa (fried beancurd) or potato with rice. Louis is a very simple man. He doesn't go for branded clothes. He has always lived within his means.

What was Louis like as a child?

Ms Quek: He was a good boy. He didn't give us any trouble or mix with bad company when he was young.

Mr Ng: He was very reserved. We were a bit worried about how quiet he was. We wanted him to mix more with other kids. He used to be too shy to speak. Now, I am proud to hear him speak in public.

Louis, you won an Advocate of the Year award in August. How did you become comfortable with public speaking?

Louis: Most of my university mates didn't even know I was an activist. By necessity, I had to speak up, for example, for our first campaign against chimp photography, where young chimpanzees are permanently taken from their parents for this purpose.

I realised if nobody wanted to speak up about such issues, I would.

Who are you closest to in your family?

Louis: My sister because we spent our childhood together. I spent most of my time with her and two female cousins. I was the youngest. I would lie across a newspaper she was reading to get her to play games such as Monopoly or Cluedo with me. Otherwise, I would be stuck playing Ken, while she and my cousins played with Barbie dolls.

In this way, my sister taught me to be persistent and creative, which helped in my advocacy work. I am also close to both my parents. What is your parenting style like?

Ms Quek: It's more consultative. The door is always open - if you have problems, come and talk to us, we'll support you.

Mr Ng: For example, when Louis started Acres, he didn't have a van to transport rescued animals. I bought him one. When my children were in university, I bought them a second-hand car that they shared.

Louis: They were supportive of any decision I made, whether or not they were against it.

How did you discipline your children when they were younger?

Mr Ng: I would cane them once in a blue moon, on the hand or leg. When I was young, I was quite hot- tempered. Ms Quek: Sometimes it would be because their test results were not good and he wanted them to work harder. I didn't cane my children. I left it to the father. I sometimes tried to protect them by blocking the cane. What are your family values? Ms Quek: I believe in honesty, integrity and compassion. Louis demonstrates these qualities - he's running a charity.

Louis: My dad says in life - you always have to try. It's an important lesson - that failing is an option. In setting up Acres, there were failures. We got a rescue centre only after four years of negotiating. You have to fail to succeed. As a society, we're being held back by a fear of failure. If the parent-child roles were reversed, what would you have done differently?

Louis: Nothing. They have always been supportive.

Mr Ng: I wouldn't have done Acres. Fifteen years ago, society didn't want to support animal rights. When asked for donations, people would say they would rather give funds to help humans. It was a hard road he took. I was never an animal lover. I would have taken a corporate job to support my family.

Ms Quek: I wouldn't have taken risks like Louis did, in setting up Acres.


This article was first published on Nov 9, 2014.
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