Microfilm, an archiving material, is made to stand the test of time. Mr Samuel Ong’s quest to preserve the past began decades ago, when he took a leap of faith from making shoes to microfilming. To keep up with technological advances that are threatening the analog-based industry, he said it all boils down to embracing lifelong learning and having an innovative mindset.

When Mr Samuel Ong set up his microfilming firm, Micrographics Data, in the late 1980s, his competitors expected him to fail. “Some gave us three months, some gave us six months. But we’ve survived for 29 years,” Mr Ong, 69, said with a smile.

Mr Ong’s interest in microfilm began when his wife was tasked to look into the archival method when she was working in a bank. Mr Ong became intrigued while helping her with her research.

Mr Samuel Ong began his interest in microfilm while helping his wife with research into the archival material. Image Source: National Library Board

At the time, he had wanted to set up a shoe factory as he had been working in a shoemaking company for some years, a job he had taken on soon after he left school.

“When I left school, there were not many jobs available,” he said. Although it was a supervisory position, he had to learn about the entire business, from materials to sales. He also picked up soft skills, such as managing workers, and soon wanted to start his own business.

He started a shoe factory but closed it to focus on his new microfilm venture. The Ong family sold their condominium to fund their new business.

“It was very, very challenging because you have to tell your children, ‘Dad and Mum have decided to sell the place,’” Mr Ong recalled. He had two young children at the time, one in kindergarten, the other in primary three.

But Mr Ong believed this was the right thing to do. “I like challenges,” he said. “I remember what my father used to say: ‘If you’re a businessman, you’re a businessman. It doesn’t matter what you do. You can be a shoemaker today; you can be something else tomorrow.’ You must be able to adapt.”

His business thrived and in time, he was helping to set standards – literally. In shoemaking, there were industrial standards for products such as military shoes and safety shoes. In microfilming, there were none yet. Mr Ong convinced authorities of the need for standards to ensure the production of good-quality microfilm, in order to level the playing field for firms.

Soon after, he faced a new challenge in the mid-1990s: the rise of digital technology, including the scanning of documents.

“It was completely alien to me. But I had no choice, because if I want to survive in the next level, next stage, I must learn… If I don’t, my business will be completely phased out,” he said.

Unable to afford new digital equipment, Mr Ong decided to build his own from scratch. He stripped down his existing $60,000 machine and asked the vendor who sold the machine to explain each component to him. With help from a friend, he drew up a plan for what he envisioned. Despite being told by engineers that the whole thing was impossible, he persisted and asked them to build one component at a time. Bit by bit, the machine came into being.

“My shoemaking experience helped me a lot, because in those days we had to do it ourselves, we had to be hands-on,” he recalled. “So that’s the same way I approached my microfilming.”

It cost nearly half a million dollars to innovate and develop it. But Mr Ong finally had his own machine: the Archive Writer. The machine converts digital data to microfilm, which lasts 500 years. It has since been exported to countries such as Australia, Britain, Turkey, Brazil, Thailand, Columbia, Switzerland, Greece, Kazakhstan, Serbia and China.

Asked if he is proud of the achievement, Mr Ong said, “I feel humble. You realise that in life, you need to depend on people.” Each step of the way, he had had help: from experts, from his own employees who helped develop and test the machine, and from his family who stood by him.

Yet can microfilming survive in an increasingly digital future? That depends on what the industry does, said Mr Ong. “If we want to encourage people to use film… we must provide them with equipment that is able to ensure that the media is safe for 500 years.”

Digital may have taken over but Mr Ong believes that microfilm will still have a role to play in archiving material. Image Source: National Library Board.

He is optimistic. Digital technology is still evolving and unstable, he said, whereas film is a proven archival medium. Furthermore, digital storage can be costly, as equipment requires energy to run. Mr Ong thinks there can be a compromise: data that does not require constant updating and is not often retrieved can be transferred to analog film.

Film might have a future, but what about Mr Ong’s company? Both his daughter and son now work in the company, helping to run the business — something that was his dream when he first started out three decades ago.

Mr Ong would like to see his company keep evolving. But as someone who moved from shoemaking to microfilming to innovation, he would not be disappointed if his children, too, went on to other things.

“I want them to write their own story,” he said with a smile. “Like I wrote mine.”

This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign.

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