In his early teenage years, Zat Low had a “scuffle with the law”, which hindered him from completing his secondary school education.
After serving time as a juvenile, he worked as a tattooist for five years before finally making a career shift, though it didn’t exactly prove to the best decision.
He became a bookmaker (someone who takes bets and pay out winnings) and eventually involved himself into other illegal dealings.
In a recent interview with Vulcan Post, he admitted that he used to live in a “corrupted world” but has since found happiness and positive influence through his ant community and business venture.
Beyond being the founder of Singapore Ant Museum, he is also the admin for Facebook group Singapore Ants, which comprises a community of ant enthusiasts like himself, which currently has 5,200 members (and counting).
How he started collecting ants
Revealing his dark past, Zat shared that there was a time when he attempted suicide and wanted to jump off a building.
In a serendipitous way however, a queen ant actually flew into his mouth and he got into a such a huge shock, which fortunately, thwarted his suicide attempt.
He later flew to Thailand and visited two temples in a bid to get clarity and interestingly enough, he encountered ants in both temples.
“One temple was a mummified monk in a meditating position. I (saw) a queen ant strolling in front of me after walking out of the temple. I searched high and low in that big, white, well-furnished carpark on the top of a mountain, but there weren’t any others except the one I witnessed. The other temple was in a cave where I got bitten by ants on my leg,” recounted Zat.
Those uncanny encounters prompted the start of his new-found hobby of collecting ants back in 2015. He would hunt for ants almost every day, scouring HDB estates and even forests.
According to Zat, he once kept a colossal ant colony that could finish a can of tuna within 15 minutes, and is certain that the colony has over a million ant workers.
“I will control the population of my ant colonies when they get too big by controlling their diet. … From time to time, I do possess a few ant colonies that are worth a few grand, but what I am obsessed with is creating ant habitats for my selective clients that integrate some distinctive or fun elements which have never been built before.”
This includes a mechanical bridge to encourage two different genus of ants to co-exist, and hearing the sound of ants galloping like horses when they forage,
When asked what’s the reaction of family and friends when they first know of his ant hobby, he said that many have sarcastically called him “crazy”. Some even invited him to their places to catch pest ants at their homes.
Even his ex-girlfriend told him to give his desire in turning it into something big — the differences in perspective is what eventually caused them to break up.
However, thanks to the growing ant community and social media, Zat feels that more people have come to accept ant-keeping as a regular hobby.
He added that there’s a lot of misconceptions when it comes to ant-keeping. According to him, ant-keeping helps to cultivate a person’s character.
“Ants can be highly altruistic, but many thought that it’s just the way their genes are encoded to be. The truth is, my experiments tell a different answer about eusociality creatures. (How) could one colony (resort to) cannibalism, while the other did not despite being an identical species?”
“The higher the social behaviours exhibited in a colony, the (more altruistic) the colony would become. That is why giving free test tubes to beginners is a good start and help cultivate positive social behaviours.”
From ant exhibition to permanent ant museum
In 2019, Zat decided to take his ant-keeping to the next level and hosted an ant exhibition, which later evolved to become a permanent ant museum.
Called The Ant Museum, he described it as a “place to learn and observe various native ants’ behaviours”. It houses 50 native ant species, and gives visitors a glimpse into the various species and their behaviour.
Sharing further about the early days, Zat said that before the exhibition came about, he had approached many organisations and pet-related companies, but many rejected his collaboration proposals.
“It’s tough to believe in something that hasn’t been done before, so I can’t blame them. But when the 2019 exhibition was a hit, a few started to execute some of my plans which I (previously) shared with them. I began to feel better after thinking that mimicry is as common in the ant world as it is in humans for survival,” said Zat.
He invested less than S$20,000 for the 2019 exhibition, and slightly more than S$100,000 for the museum.
It wasn’t an easy entrepreneurial journey, and Zat cited “building confidence and trust within the company” as the essential fundamentals.
When they first stared hiring, Zat had the perception that teenagers don’t have the capability to be tour guides, but he was proven wrong as they actually are the “best caliber for their high energy and enthusiasm”.
Covid-19 has also thrown a spanner in the works, especially when the government imposed restrictions in tour group sizes.
Due to such regulations, Zat said that it’s “already a blessing if (revenue) hits four figures in a week”. In contrast, they saw the best revenue figures during exhibition days, hitting a “constant five-figure margin each week”.
“To be frank, Covid-19 has been a great challenge for the museum. I have much higher hopes and more extensive plans for the museum, and I would say I have accomplished only 10 per cent of it to date.”
A “virtual ant museum” next?
Moving forward, he is planning to build a “virtual ant museum” — it is not just a website or screen that you can view and learn about ants.
Explaining the concept, he said that there will be “various fun elements”. For example, when guests “manipulate” the ants to finish a particular amount of food, it will trigger a mechanism that allows the ants to access the next food source.
Guests can also have 24-hour viewing access to an ant colony to better monitor its activities, as well as have access to a variety of food and ant habitats to rear the ant colony at a fee.
Additionally, using a few types of ant species, they can cultivate certain vegetables to prevent the other insects from harming the crops; and when it is ready to harvest, they will process the food as dried ant food for ant keepers.
He is also looking at launching Comical Ant Advertising, a portal that the creative team can tap on to create videos of live ants for their products or any specific messaging that they would like to bring across to targeted audiences.
Ultimately, his dream is to create the best ant museum for Singapore and help put it on the map for tourist attractions. While Covid-19 has been a clear stumbling block, he said that ants have taught him the “beauty of a decentralised system”, in which a project can still succeed even if the individual parts fail.
“Since business is about money-making and akin to a food source for an ant colony, I have to think like ants to overcome the situation,” he added. “When food is scarce, the ants expand the foraging area.”
Bringing this analogy in his business context, although Covid-19 has decimated the probability of any physical visitation, he said that the expansion of a virtual ant museum will help improve business.
“From time to time, people ask me why I’m so persistent in this journey, but they have no idea how difficult it is to convince myself when the odds are not in favour of a realistic state of mind. It is as good as asking a fish to climb the tree or expecting a court judge to be a standup comedian,” he shared.
“In a nutshell, we all need one another to succeed, especially when we have crazy goals. Sometimes, although the people and plans that contributed significantly to your cause during the founding stage seem important, we must let go of such attachment for the right people and strategy to fill in for the bigger picture. I couldn’t say whether the Ant Museum will be around for long, but it will definitely progress and evolve to something greater.”
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Featured Image Credit: Little Day Out / The Singapore Ant Museum via Facebook