Reminisces of Dad, 1952-1960

1952 Singapore was a bustling British Colony when Dad reached its shores to set up home.  It was a great commercial emporium with a busy port where vessels laden with goods from all over the world would habour. It certainly offered good opportunities to anyone who wanted to do business here. There was already a resident population of 1 million on the island, and many more itinerant traders passed through on business.

Dad was of course no stranger to the city.  He had already been coming here over the years from Bangkok and had bought textiles on credit from traders in High Street whom he got to know well. So the trust factor was already built up.  One such big trader who deserves mention was S. Hardial Singh Bajaj of Hardial Singh & Co.  Hardial Singh was the biggest “towkay” of  them all those days, a maverick trader with a reputation to boot. Few could match his scale and appetite for risk-taking. He imported large quantities of textiles by the ship load and raked up big profits at a time when the market was buoyant (after the Korean War), but when the tide turned, as it did in later years, his fortunes changed.

Hardial Singh was the de facto leader of the Sikh business community and the person to go to when anyone needed help. He generously offered Dad his personal guarantee to open the bank account and also gave him unlimited credit to buy goods from him! This was no doubt because of the credibility of Dad, which was already established by his association with reputable businessmen in Bangkok, such as Akbal Singh, Narain Singh and Niranjan Singh.

So Dad had good backing to start business. And in 1952, his younger brother S Balrai Singh had joined him in the business after his marriage in Amritsar in 1950. That gave Dad additional support to grow the business. Uncle Balrai was a soft-spoken, self-effacing man who had a way with customers, whilst Dad focussed mostly on procurement and design, and managing banking facilities.  They complemented each other very well and the partnership proved to be a very durable one, lasting till the very end of their business life.

Dad soon started looking at new lines because the items which worked in Bangkok could not sell as well in Singapore. Fancy lace and embroidered fabrics were in good demand by Malays and Indonesians, but their taste in colours and designs were different from Thais. It took Dad some time to find his footing, but eventually he did. By the end of the decade he was well on his way to building a solid business.

The hub of commercial life in Singapore was Raffles Place (it was in fact known as Commercial Square in the 1820s, but renamed after Sir Stamford Raffles in 1858).  Nunes Building was a prominent 4-storey office building on Malacca Street, with a cubist design in modern Continental style, featuring panel designs on its facade. It was just a stone’s throw from Raffles Place, and adjacent to a row of shophouses where Gujerati traders did roaring business in spices and commodities. I remember in particular the well-known travel agency called T.S. Ganpatram (owned by Sardars), next to Nunes Building.

Dad rented table space in a small office occupied by a charming S. Indian gentleman by the name Mr M.K. Chidambaram.  Chidamabram was, in manner and style, a pukka WOG (“Westernised Oriental Gentleman”). He was dapper in appearance — always wore a suit and bow tie to work — and showed the graces of an urbane Englishman. He was short of hearing on one ear, which made him raise his voice whenever he spoke. In the confines of a small office of 500 sg ft, his booming voice would reverberate in the premises throughout the day! Chidambaram wore many hats. He was the owner of Tamil Murasu, a local Tamil Newspaper, and actively invested in stocks and shares and real estate. He knew how to make money with money, and unsurprisingly was also into money lending in the old-style Chettiar way, counting many British expats as his clients.

Chidambaram was wordly-wise, and would dish out advice to Dad on money matters and living in style. I remember this clearly because Dad would often repeat these stories over the years whenever we spoke about his early days with Chidambaram.

Here are some classic nuggets on life and living from the inimitable Chidambaram:

  1. When he saw Dad eating fried, oil foods such as “mee goreng” (fried noodles) for lunch in the office, Chidambaram, in an admonishing tone, would tell Dad —   “Mr Singh, don’t eat this rubbish  —  you must always eat well.” (Chidambaram himself would walk over to his favourite cafe at Robinsons Department Store at Raffles Place for lunch, where he would have typical British fare of soups, salads and vegetables, as he was a vegetarian);
  2. When Dad was ready to buy his first car, Chidambaram proferred advice in his usual characteristic manner — “Mr Singh, you must always drive a good car, even if its second-hand, and change it every year!” (Chidambaram would change his car every year, such was his chosen lifestyle!).  Dad got persuaded to buy a pre-owned Humber Hawk, and I still have very fond memories of the rides in the comfortable, big British marquee of that period. Dad never drove, so it was Uncle Balrai Singh who took to the wheels, and since both families were living together and it became a common car for both families;
  3. When Dad sought his advice on buying a house, Chidambaram, who owned many properties, suggested to Dad: “Mr Singh, you must always live in a good place, even if you have to borrow from the bank!” (mortgage loans were not common those days and in fact, as will be touched in my next piece, Dad would eschew this advice and buy his first two properties with full cash);

Chidambaram must have had strong influence on Dad, judging by the transformation in his thinking I witnessed over the years. Perhaps it was a combination of this and the graceful British lifestyle of the colonial era which attracted Dad. Dad developed a preference for things western (our home became a veritable showcase of fine European crystal glassware, chandeliers, tapestries and numerous paintings of fox hunting scenes), and at the same time his sartorial tastes also evolved from simple white pants and shirts to stylish woollen British tweed jackets, fine Egyptian printed cotton and printed Thai silk shirts, which he would often use for social parties and overseas business trips.

Inevitably the bond between the two men became quite close over the years. And the families also developed a close relationship. Dad would make it a point to visit Chidambaram’s family at their large Mountbatten Road bungalow every once in a while. In fact, soon after Chidambaram’s passing, the family decided to sell their bungalow and Dad was asked to buy it.  Dad decided against it because he felt the house was too big for our small family. On hindsight, it would have served us well if he had bought it as land prices in the area appreciated greatly in later years.

In 1959, after having seen the business grow from the office in Malacca Street, Dad decided it was time to take a leap of faith and move to Arab Street, which was already a thriving centre for textiles business catering to Malays and Indonesians. Arab Street was the old settlement of Malay aristocracy and early Arab merchants who came to Kampong Glam during the 19th century. In the later half of the 19th century the area saw many more immigrants and traders from Malaya and Sumatra. From the early 20th century, due to expansion of commercial activities, the area became multi-ethnic, with many more Chinese and Indian settlers.

The opportunity came when Dad was offered shop No. 30 in Arab Street. It was hardly more than 150 sg ft — literally a hole-in-the wall, as I recall.  But it was in a strategic spot near the junction of Arab Street and Beach Road, and offered great exposure to the business. Dad paid a princely sum of $5,000 as “kopi money” (goodwill money) to secure this tiny space! But the premium was justified, I guess, as shops in Arab Street were hard to come by, and this one was small and affordable for a start.

The street level shop brought immediate results. Business picked up fast and sales jumped several notches higher. Soon Dad took over the shop next door — No. 32 Arab Street – again for $5,000! — and the combined area of both was maybe about 300 sg ft.

I remember there was barely table space left for Dad and Uncle Balrai in the shop, amongst bales of textiles, and the only employee then was a UP Babu (known as “Babu Rai”), who would sit on a stool just outside the shop next door because we had no space.  We were really lucky to have very nice Gujerati neighbours, who had a big shop called Rupaco & Co. right next door . They would even allow use of their shop space for packing and unpacking of our goods. As I look back to those days, I wonder how Dad would have managed if these neighbours had not been so accommodating.

So, those were interesting times and I could sense an undercurrent of excitement running through Dad and Uncle Balrai, as they witnessed their business beginning to take off. Goods got sold as quickly as they were imported!

My younger brother Navraj had already arrived five years earlier, and the youngest sibling in the family, Geeta, was born a year later, in 1960, after the big move to Arab Street.

With the business running well, and the family expanding, the golden era for Dad — and Malaya Thai — had just begun!

In 1959 Singapore became a self-governing state when the PAP swept to power under the leadership of the brilliant young lawyer-turned-politician Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

The rise of independent Singapore from then on was very much in parallel to the rapid growth of Malaya Thai Commercial Company in the 1960s.

In September 1963 Singapore joined the Federation of Malaysia and yanked itself from 144 years of British rule. This was also the time when Dad freed himself from years of struggle (since he left Punjab in 1949) and became financially independent.

More good days were in store for Dad as he moved to a bigger shop at 50 Arab Street a few years later.

The exciting story continues in the next instalment.

Sunday, 13th May, 2018

Published by Naffi

Business Builder

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