Psst, I'm a Sim Lim kid

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Sim Lim Square will always be special to me - it was where geeks like me did their first IT shopping

I walk through the mall's automated sliding doors and arrive at a big and bright atrium. Like a trained soldier ready to do battle, I pause to scan the area - sideways and upwards - to quickly work out my entry route, my game plan.

My first movement is to head for the OCBC ATM near the lifts, calculating how much cash I would need for today's transaction. No credit cards in this warzone, I remind myself. This is Sim Lim Square, after all.

I look nervously around at who's around me as the cash comes out of the machine and I remember to opt not to display my account balance on the screen. I put the money in my wallet, walk straight to the escalators and go up.

As usual, I keep going until I'm at least on the third floor of the mall. Too many shops on the first two floors have that slightly menacing vibe - goods displayed in locked glass cabinets, mean-looking men on bar stools talking in Hokkien and laughing.

Once I am on the third floor, I relax slightly. It's another crowded Saturday afternoon and the place is filled with geeks and gamers. Many of them are men shopping alone like me - on the hunt for something specific, but browsing indeterminately for something unnecessary and expensive.

In my case, "something specific" is an optical interconnect cable that is more than 2.5m long. It has to be optical because the analog interconnects in the base station for my wireless headphones are already being used for listening to music, yet I want to use the headphones also for watching TV.

And the length has to be more than 2.5m because that is how far the headphones are from the plasma television, and an increasingly severe home decor OCD as I enter my 40s has prevented me from shifting one or both the items even one inch closer to each other.

A cursory tour of the third floor yields nothing so I look up the open atrium at the upper floors, wondering how high I will have to go. The sixth floor looks literally shady - its dimly lit corridors the result of many dodgy-looking shops there seeming to stay closed all the time.

On the fourth floor, I clock the rise of a new kind of shop that specialises in only cheap, "non-branded" printer ink cartridges. "Something specific" for my next visit, I think to myself.

Eventually I find the cable at its predictably reasonable price. As I pay up, I notice the shop - run by a middle-aged couple - also sells critically acclaimed audio and speaker cables, and at cheaper prices than some of the shops in The Adelphi.

I make a mental note of the brands and makes on sale as I ride the escalators down. It's been another rewarding afternoon spent at Sim Lim, the gift that keeps on giving!

Okay, I know I'm being overly dramatic, but in a certain sense, it's been true for a whole generation of Singaporeans who grew up with the mall that opened in 1987.

The 1980s were, after all, an exciting time that saw the birth of the personal computer. In fact, the initial MS-DOS era featuring brands such as Commodore and Atari is now being celebrated in a raft of new American television series such as Halt And Catch Fire.

My family wasn't wealthy enough to afford an Apple, so we bought a Pineapple, and then a Lingo (the Japanese word for "apple") - knock-offs made in Taiwan and Singapore respectively.

Funan Centre and Sim Lim Square were completed just as IBM "XT" personal computers were starting to take over the world in the second half of the decade. Funan developed into a pricier mall where one would buy branded, pre-assembled PCs off the shelf.

Sim Lim, on the other hand, was another matter altogether. It was where geeks like me went to build their own computers. My first "IBM clone" was a 386, with a motherboard, memory chip and graphics card combo that I decided on after scouring the mall for days looking for the best deal.

Over the years, I would go back to Sim Lim again and again to upgrade my PC - first to a 486, and then to a Pentium. Often people would buy a standard Acer or Compaq and negotiate madly - playing as many as four or five Sim Lim shops against one another - just to swop the standard parts for much souped-up versions.

And after we excitedly unpacked and hooked up our new machines at home, we would go straight back to Sim Lim - sometimes even on the same day - to buy new games to play on them.

Everyone has his own gaming memories but mine revolved around titles such as Civilisation and SimCity where one could play God or build empires. Whatever you wanted, a cut-price copy was waiting there in Sim Lim, sold in ridiculously thick packs of 15 or 20 floppy disks which you brought home and wasted an entire afternoon installing into your PC while listening to the new Sandy Lam album on repeat.

Later, as technology giants unveiled game consoles such as the Sony Play- Station and portables such as the Nintendo DS, we found even more reasons to go back to Sim Lim. There we always found game discs that magically surmounted any code restricting their distribution here, or even better, consoles that were altered to play discs from any region.

Like many malls of their time, the shops in Sim Lim are arranged in two concentric circles, with shops in the "outer ring" being more secluded. It became a singular joy just to walk these "back-alleys" in Sim Lim, never knowing what new legally questionable device lay in wait just around the corner.

Of course, Sim Lim today is a much cleaned-up place and most of the software and hardware pirates are gone. Sadly, it is somewhat misunderstood, given the persistent negative publicity from the shoddy practices of some of its errant tenants.

But I would argue that it has contributed immeasurably to the economic advancement of Singapore, as the nation prepares to celebrate its 50th birthday next year.

For how many of us corporate executives today would be so practised at using Microsoft Word and Powerpoint, or manipulating spreadsheets in Lotus 1-2-3 or Excel, if not for Sim Lim Square?

Where did we, as poor students or young working adults, buy our initial copies of Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator, on which we built our much sought-after skills as graphic designers or animators today?

There are many places where I can do my IT shopping now, but only one venue - warts and all - that has a very special place in my geeky, quad-core, Intel-powered heart.

ignatius@sph.com.sg