In tale of ‘Rainbow Loom’ maker, racial quota rears its head again

The creator of the colourful rubber bracelets wrote in The Guardian newspaper that he and his brother were forced to head to the US for their education in 1991, despite barely being able to speak any English. — file pic
The creator of the colourful rubber bracelets wrote in The Guardian newspaper that he and his brother were forced to head to the US for their education in 1991, despite barely being able to speak any English. — file pic

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 27 — “Rainbow Loom” creator Ng Cheong Choon’s story of how he came to invent the toy fad begins much like that of former Malaysians who head for greener pastures after being allegedly deprived by racial quotas here.

Writing of his experience in British daily The Guardian, the creator of the colourful rubber bracelets said he and his brother were forced to head to the US for their education in 1991, despite barely being able to speak any English.

“After school, I dreamed of becoming an engineer, but I could not get into my local university, because Malaysia’s race-based quota system limits the number of ethnically Chinese students.

“Like many of my friends, I had to leave Malaysia to go to university,” Ng wrote in his article for The Guardian.

Malaysia practises a system of racial quotas for university placements, with preference given to the Bumiputera community that is largely Malay.

Ng also said his graduation with a master’s in mechanical engineering coincided with the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis that hit Malaysia and other countries in the region hard, prompting him to stay on to start a career in crash safety in the US motor industry.

The genesis of the Rainbow Loom was happenstance, after Ng saw his daughters playing with bracelets made of rubber bands that kept falling apart.

Applying both his childhood memories of skipping ropes made from linked rubber bands and his engineering know-how, Ng then spent six months developing what would eventually become the “Rainbow Loom”.

“We invested our entire family savings of US$10,000 (RM33,500) ) to order tooling and 2,000lb (910kg) of rubber bands from China, and assembled the kits ourselves in our garage,” Ng wrote.

He then attempted to convince toy stores in Michigan to stock the bands, but found no success for months as people simply did not “understand how they worked”.

Ng then had his daughters and niece demonstrate the loom bands in a YouTube video that later spread across the Internet, planting the seeds of what would later become a toy phenomenon.

He received his first order for a dozen loom kits in July 2012, before the same toy store in Georgia came back with a US$10,000 order.

“We thought it was a mistake. The storeowners told us they had never seen anything like it. After that, our sales climbed every month until, in December 2012, we reached US$200,000 wholesale sales a month.”

He then took a three-month sabbatical from his job at Nissan, but never returned.

Ng’s “Rainbow Loom” went on to register over US$40 million in sales last year, a figure he expects to double this year.

Racial quotas are a common refrain in success stories involving Malaysians who leave the country in search of opportunities elsewhere.

In July, US webzines wrote of Penang-born “Mamak” Azalina Eusope’s rags-to-riches tale in which she also said she left the country after failing to enter university here.

Former street vendor Azalina is opening a 15,000 sq ft restaurant in Twitter’s headquarters in the San Francisco Bay Area.

A World Bank report from 2011 concluded that 20 per cent of Malaysian graduates opt to quit the country, with Singapore cited as the preferred destination.

More than two million Malaysians have emigrated since Merdeka.

Last year, a total 308,834 high-skilled Malaysians moved overseas, with 47.2 per cent going to Singapore, 18.2 per cent to Australia, 12.2 per cent to US and the rest to other countries like UK and Canada.