It Changed My Life

The story behind the famous Adam Road nasi lemak

He had hoped to be a pilot but gave it up to run his father's stall

Abdul Malik Hassan had but one ambition when growing up: To be an airline pilot.

His family was not well-off and because he was the eldest of five children, he had to jump through a few hoops - peddle banana fritters as a kid, moonlight as a banquet waiter and bartender in his teens, work full-time and study part-time as an adult - before he finally got his degree, a requirement for a flying job, at age 33 in 2004.

The mechanical engineering graduate from Nanyang Technological University immediately applied to be a pilot with Singapore Airlines. When the company called him for a second interview, he was beside himself with joy.

But his father, who ran a nasi lemak stall, looked miserable when told the news.

Mr Abdul Malik, 43, recalls: "I asked him why he was not happy for me. He gestured at his stall and said, 'If you go and pilot aeroplanes, who is going to pilot my stall?'"

Those words caused him sleepless nights. It was Mr Hassan Abdul Kadir's wish to involve his brood in the business, and he was banking on his eldest son to rally everybody together.

As he could not bring himself to let his father down, Mr Abdul Malik agreed - but he wanted carte blanche to run the business.

Among other things, he streamlined processes and tweaked the menu and recipes. Already a popular stall then, Selera Rasa - at Adam Road Hawker Centre - became an even bigger draw.

Among many other accolades, it bagged The Straits Times Readers' Choice award for favourite nasi lemak in 2008. The Sultan of Brunei requests it for breakfast each time he visits Singapore. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong served it to Indonesian President Joko Widodo at the Istana when the latter visited last November. Mr Lee posted a picture on his Facebook account.

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Mr Hassan died four years ago, but he would have been pleased to know that his eldest son carried out his wishes, and more.

Not only has Mr Abdul Malik managed to get all his siblings on board, he is all set to expand the business.

Earlier this month, he inked a deal with the folks behind Pezzo Pizza - which grew the pizza chain in Singapore from two to about 25 outlets in two years - and plonked in about half a million dollars to invest in a central kitchen and open multiple Selera Rasa outlets all over Singapore.

The amiable and self-effacing man spent his early years in a kampung in Siglap.

His father initially made a living selling French loaves, riding on a bicycle in Telok Kurau.

"But one day, my grandmother told him she would make nasi lemak for him to sell, too. That's how it all started," says Mr Abdul Malik whose 86-year-old paternal grandmother is half-Japanese.

"Her father was a Japanese soldier who married a Malay woman. When he died, her mother gave her and her two sisters to another Malay family," he says. "Her sambal recipe includes some special Japanese seafood ingredients. That's why it is so special."

His father gave up peddling after he found a job in the laundry department of the Hyatt Hotel. But he continued making nasi lemak to sell to his colleagues at the hotel, where he worked for 20 years.

That was how the Sultan of Brunei became a fan. Hyatt Singapore is a property of the government-owned Brunei Investment Agency.

"According to my father, the Sultan came into the laundry department one day and saw the packets of nasi lemak. He asked what it was, and my father gave him one to try," he says.

The Sultan told Mr Hassan he should open a stall and that was exactly what he did in 1998.

The notion of taking over his father's stall one day never crossed Mr Abdul Malik's mind.

"I just wanted to become a pilot," says the former student of Opera Estate Boys' Primary and Bukit View Secondary where he was head prefect.

A dutiful son and conscientious student, he never got up to any mischief growing up.

"My grandmother was a cleaner for Opera Estate Boys' Primary School. I would wake up at 5.30am, go with her to school, help her sweep the compound and then attend classes at 7.30am," he recalls.

Afternoons were spent lugging a basket and peddling nasi lemak and other snacks in the Siglap area.

In his teens, he worked weekends and a couple of weekday evenings as a banquet waiter to help his folks, who found feeding and educating five children a struggle.

He tried getting help for himself and his siblings, but the community groups he approached kept referring him elsewhere. "I realised then that it was easier to work for things myself instead of asking for help."

That was exactly what he did.

To put himself through the Singapore Technological Institute after his O levels, he moonlighted as a waiter and bartender at Zouk. He graduated with an Industrial Technician Certificate in 1991 and found work as a supervisor in a real estate company.

Upon completing his national service in 1994, he attended classes and obtained his diploma in mechanical engineering from Singapore Polytechnic four years later.

As he could not afford to study for his degree full-time at NTU, he financed it by working as a service technican for Hexagon Singapore, a provider of information technologies. By then, he had married a staff nurse and their first child arrived in 1999.

At Hexagon, he rose quickly to become service engineer and then sales manager, and was drawing nearly $6,000 monthly, with a company car, when he got his degree in 2004.

"My wife was expecting our third child when I graduated," says the father of four children, aged between seven and 16.

When his father told him to give up his dream of becoming a pilot, he felt a lot of resentment.

"I was thinking, I worked so hard for a degree, put in so many nights of night school and now you want me to sell nasi lemak?" he recalls. "The naughty part of me told me to go after what I wanted. The good part of me told me my father probably wanted me to do this for good reason."

After agonising over it for a week, he told his father he would accede to his wishes, but only if he called all the shots.

"He said, 'No problem. You now run the show. You do what you think is right and at the end of the month, you pay me what you think I should get.'"

The engineering graduate introduced processes including proper book-keeping, paid his staff CPF and put in place a roster to make more effective use of manpower.

Then came little tweaks to the recipes; such as substituting Thai rice with basmati rice for a better texture and improving the batter and marinade for the fried chicken.

Soon, the stall started getting accolades such as Singapore Street Food Master for best nasi lemak given out by food guide Makansutra in 2006. In 2008, Selera Rasa's business received a massive spike when it bagged The Straits Times Readers' Choice award for favourite nasi lemak.

He remembers that Sunday morning well.

"I told my brother to open the stall's shutter to start business that morning. He opened it half-way, pulled it down again, and kept quiet. I asked him why. He said, 'You open, lah. I don't want to open.' So I did, and was shocked to see a long queue."

He has dished out his nasi lemak during Singapore Day in cities such as London and New York. And that queue has not abated. It is not uncommon to see lines of more than 30 people every lunch time.

Four years ago, his father died from nose cancer, aged 66.

"Before he died, he told me he had a task for me. He wanted me to bring all my brothers and my sister into the business. And then, he said, he wanted me to take them all on a vacation to Australia."

And so Mr Abdul Malik rallied his siblings and their families - 22 people in all - and took them on a trip to Brisbane and Sydney.

"Prior to that, we only went on one vacation together as a family and that was 15 years ago. He really wanted us to bond as a family. He probably also hoped the trip would make it easier for me to get my siblings to join the business."

It took some cajoling, but he succeeded in getting his siblings - who were then holding jobs from air- con technician to service engineer - to come into the fold.

The hardest to persuade was his youngest brother, who had an engineering diploma from Ngee Ann Polytechnic.

"He said, 'The pay you are giving me is equal to what I'm getting now. If I come on board, I do not just want Adam Road.'

"So I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, "I want you to expand so that the whole of Singapore knows about Selera Rasa.' So I promised him I would do that."

Although Selera Rasa opened an outlet in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 5 in 2007, its plan for expansion made headway only last year when a regular customer, Mr Chiang Zhan Xiang, business development director of Butterfly Park & Insect Kingdom in Sentosa and co-founder of Pezzo Pizza, broached the idea of a joint venture.

Negotiations took more than a year; it is an equal partnership.

Says Mr Abdul Malik: "They take care of the outlets, we take care of the central kitchen and the quality of the food. This is perfect because I have never liked the idea of franchising our brand. You cannot control the quality."

There are days when he is wistful, wondering how his life might have turned out if he had taken to the skies.

But the man, who is also featured in filmmaker Eric Khoo's telemovie Wanton Mee - a homage to Singapore food - says he has no regrets.

"Before they came on board, I only saw my siblings once or twice a month. Now I see them every day," he says.

"Sure we bicker, but we have also become so much closer as a family. My father was a very wise man."

kimhoh@sph.com.sg