Staying affordable with a family recipe (The Straits Times)


It is a family recipe featuring only peanuts from Shandong that has not changed since the 1940s.

Blood may be thicker than water, but at Lam Soon, cooking oil is thicker, too – Knife cooking oil, to be precise.

Mr Whang Shang Ying, 54, is executive director of Lam Soon, which his grandfather Ng Keng Soon set up as a small cannery in 1929.

The late Mr Ng traded in copra, or dried coconut, and began making a cooking oil – a mix of coconut and peanut oil. The trademark for Knife was registered in 1948.

“Knife is very specifically Singaporean and Malaysian,” said Mr Whang. Knife has a market share of more than 80 per cent in Singapore and more than 60 per cent across Malaysia, he said.

He added that “we sell a little bit in Thailand, Vietnam” but they do not represent significant markets.

Although Knife cooking oil has been made in Petaling Jaya in Malaysia since 1993, Mr Whang said that Lam Soon’s pride was once a soap and oil factory in Singapore’s Jalan Jurong Kechil, which the late Dr Goh Keng Swee opened in 1963.

The factory is now defunct, but Mr Whang said the shift to Malaysian manufacturing was not unexpected as “we were already straddling two markets when Singapore separated itself from Malaysia”.

The chemical composition of Knife makes it ideal for Chinese stir-fried dishes, he said. He said Lam Soon has other cooking oil lines, such as Duck and Buruh, intended for Malay and Indian deep-fried cuisine, as well as Naturel, which markets olive oil and other health-conscious options.

It is not that Knife has avoided concessions to an evolving customer base. For example, a couple of years ago, Knife rolled out a rice bran cooking oil – its first peanut-free product. It also started selling a canola version in 2009. “At the same time, they’re all recognisably Knife,” said Mr Whang, who is committed to preserving the brand’s tradition as its selling point.

As part of its strategy to stay in every Chinese kitchen and every grocery store in the country, he said Knife must stay affordable. The retail price for a two-litre bottle is now $8.25, compared with “about $5 or $6” when he joined the family firm in 1994. “Even today, for such a strong brand, we believe our products should be for the masses.”

Lam Soon was one of the first brands to capitalise on television, by sponsoring Chinese drama serial Justice Bao in the 1970s. Knife’s bright red logo flashed on screens during the opening and closing credits and commercial breaks. And despite its age, it is not a logo Mr Whang will be abandoning any time soon. “You cannot force new products under an old brand,” he said. “You cannot ask a grandfather to wear hip-hop clothes.”

Annabeth Leow