SINGAPORE, Feb 5 — It started out in the late 1980s as a nondescript building housing distributors of printers and TVs, for example. Today, the mere mention of “Sim Lim Square” conjures up notions among Singaporeans and visitors alike of a treasure trove of the latest IT gadgets and gizmos — some rare and avant garde, others testing the legal boundaries — but lurking with snake-oil salesmen.
Over the years, Sim Lim Square has been making headlines: It is where pirated CDs and illegal set-top media boxes had been flying off the shelves, and it has had its share of unscrupulous merchants. Last week, the mall made news again after ready-made computing machines used to facilitate transactions in Bitcoin and other digital currencies emerged in its shops.
While business owners recall frequent police raids in the 1990s, the most damaging blow to Sim Lim Square’s reputation came in 2014, when the employees of a now-defunct mobile phone shop were convicted of cheating dozens of customers through dodgy sales tactics.
Not all retailers are law-breakers, but it is perhaps this streak of notoriety and the mall’s reputation as a “buyers beware” shopping venue, as well as the stiff competition among merchants kept on their toes with the ever-changing nature of IT products that keeps the place abuzz.
In the six-storey complex located near Rochor Road, there are more than 500 shops squeezed into a 36,000sqm area.
Ms Kristy Song, 37, founder of cafe and audio store Zeppelin and Co on the second storey, said: “Sim Lim Square is a mall with a personality. It is eclectic.”
Ms Song’s father, Mr Song Teck Kee, is one of Sim Lim Square’s original tenants since 1987, when the mall opened for business. Mr Song is the managing director of camera shop Song Brothers on the first floor.
Mr Song said that with Sim Lim Square being a strata-titled mall — which means units are owned by individuals — it gives more leeway to retailers to adjust and change the look of their shops and the goods sold.
“The shop owners here are nimble, in the sense that they are able to adapt quickly to fast-moving trends in electronics, because they are not tied down by bureaucracy or red tape. They don’t necessarily have to declare (to the management) whenever they bring in new goods, so as long as they pay their rent and the goods are legal, the owners of the mall are happy,” he added.
A recent example is how some retailers have begun to cash in on the Bitcoin fad. Last week, it was reported that at least five shops in the mall are selling cryptocurrency mining kits.
Ms Irene Teo, 58, who has been running a business selling do-it-yourself electronic kits for 31 years, said: “When it first started, this place used to be more known for selling audio equipment and electronics like TV consoles and printers. It went through a phase (where there were) pirated CDs and shops selling handphones, but the mall has now become more of a repair hub for laptops and iPhones.”
Making a quick buck
The changing goods and services and the high turnover rate of the shops also contribute to the mall’s image as a place where reliable retailers are hard to find, since they appear to be out making a quick buck.
A worker at Compact Electronics, a store selling goods such as closed-circuit television cameras, said that some tenants are cashing in on the latest quick-sell items. “A lot of these handphone shop owners don’t think about how their business can be sustainable. Handphone models are updated so frequently, so many of their goods become obsolete very quickly.”
The worker, who wants to be known as just Mr Lim, added that in his 10 years working at Sim Lim Square, he has seen dozens of shops close, but a new store will open in those units in a matter of months.
When mobile phones appeared on the market at the turn of the century, Mr Song said that “it was a major turning point for the mall”.
“(This was) when the first models of Nokia and Motorola phones came out,” he said, adding that the Nokia 3310 was popular.
Ms Teo recalled how “shops began popping up, especially on the first and second floor, selling these handphone models”.
The flip side was, Mr Song said, it destroyed the market for point-and-shoot cameras.
“Camera shops began to fold, and along with them audio shops, because earphones were not needed when handphones came with a supplementary headset,” he added.
The mobile phone shops also had a part to play in affecting the mall’s image.
“Handphones were still expensive, and if customers could not afford the goods, retailers would find a way to give it to them at a slightly lower price. This meant sometimes selling goods that came with less warranty features and, of course, some errant retailers even got their hands on fake goods,” Mr Song said.
‘Made popular by raids’
Years later, in 2014, it was a mobile phone shop that cast a spotlight on Sim Lim Square.
First, a news report emerged of shop owner Jover Chew refunding a customer S$1,010 (RM2,988) in coins after the Small Claims Tribunal ordered him to do so. A month later, a video of a Vietnamese tourist kneeling in his shop and begging for a refund went viral. The customer had expected to pay S$950 for an iPhone 6, but was later told he had to pay S$1,500 more in warranty fees.
Chew and his salesmen were later arrested and prosecuted for cheating offences the following year. They were found to have preyed mainly on foreigners who spoke limited English or were low-wage workers.
Before this infamous case, older tenants at Sim Lim Square said that the mall was already being watched by the police some 30 years ago.
Ms Sharon Chan, 62, who has been running a business selling point-of-sales systems for 27 years there, said: “In the 1990s, the place was known for selling pirated CDs and software, and there were police raids almost every other week. You could say Sim Lim Square was made popular by the raids.”
She recounted: “Whenever a raid happened, people would run out to the centre (at the open-air courtyard) to get a full view of the happenings.”
The mall’s management told TODAY that over the years, especially following Jover Chew’s case, it has taken more steps to clamp down on errant retailers and ensure fairer trade practices.
For example, it created a STARetailer initiative, and retailers who give honest and satisfactory services would be identified by a STARetailer sticker at the front of the shop and a poster displayed in the unit.
Price lists of electronic goods sold at various stores are made available on the first floor.
A representative from the management said: “It is only a handful of four to five bad apples that give the mall a bad name, and these errant retailers have been taken to task.”
Extensive product range and knowledge
Despite what people may think about Sim Lim Square, customers continue to go there because it is a one-stop centre for all their IT needs. Mr Song from Song Brothers said: “This place is basically where all knowledge on electronics products is.”
It also has a pool of fiercely loyal customers such as one Mr Ong, who declined to give his full name. The 53-year-old, who works in the container shipping industry, has been a patron for more than 10 years. He said: “I visit the mall three to five times in a month, most of the time just to window-shop, look at the newest computer games and gadgets, and talk to shop owners about what are the latest items in the market. Over the years, I have built trust and friendship with several of them.”
The casual vibe of the mall makes it attractive to “the average Joes”, Ms Chan reckoned. “Anybody can walk in and get their IT needs met. You don’t have to be dressed in fancy clothes. It is a slightly different crowd from shoppers at the Funan IT Mall (when it was still around) — those tended to be a mix of managerial and office workers.”
Ms Song from Zeppelin and Co believes that is one reason why the mall still stands the test of time. “There’s a beauty and comfort in coming to a place knowing exactly what you are going to get.”
Mr Lim from Compact Electronics sees it from a more practical point of view. He said that shoppers like to go to Sim Lim Square because the merchants are able to tell them more about how gadgets work. “Sometimes, customers come here to sniff out knowledge from us shopkeepers. I can tell that they have already bought the product, but they don’t know how to use it, so they talk to us, pretending that they are interested in buying the product.”
As for shoppers who may not necessarily end up buying things from her, Ms Teo does not mind it. “Many people walk by my shop, asking where to get a certain type of battery, or a spare computer part. I will tell them which store they can go.”
‘Opportunity to network’
On what makes Sim Lim Square appealing to merchants, Mr Song said: “Setting up a shop here is like (automatic) advertising. Since all the similar shops are here, your name gets known just by being in the midst of like-minded business owners.”
Mr Wilson Koh, 25, who recently moved into the mall, said: “With a good spread of businesses here, it gives me the opportunity to network and mix around.”
He opened a digital and lifestyle store with the help of his father, and is considering the option of leasing “floor space” in the shop to smaller brands or companies to display their goods.
“We’re not scared off by the bad press that the mall has received,” Mr Koh said. “We think business here might pick up. Its reputation is on the mend, and there will still be business and traffic, given its prime location in Bugis and being beside Lasalle College of the Arts.”
Ms Song believes that the mall needs more entrepreneurs such as Mr Koh, who will give it a new lease of life. It is also what she is trying to do with her store, which opened in mid-2016 when the mall was still reeling from news reports of errant retailers.
Having “grown up” in Sim Lim Square because her father runs his business there, Ms Song has her own unique sentiment about it: “The shop owners are people-centric and the layout of the mall hasn’t changed since day one. There’s almost a nostalgic charm about this place (like it is) stuck in time.”
Unlike other units on the same floor, Zeppelin and Co features grey concrete walls and has a chic interior design. It caters to a younger millennial crowd by selling “an audio experience”. “Customers are free to walk in and try on a set of earphones, or sip on a latte for as long as they wish,” she added.
On her decision to set up shop there, Ms Song said: “It was an attempt, and a statement of sorts, to break the stereotype and bad reputation of the mall then. Sim Lim Square’s name hit rock bottom in 2014, but it can only go up from there.” — TODAY