Farewell, Serangoon Plaza - the palace of yore

After more than 30 years, Mustafa is moving staff and stock out of the Serangoon Plaza branch to its main store. While some are unaffected, few of its staff are a little sad leaving their workplace.
The easy navigation of Mustafa's more spacious Serangoon Plaza branch will be missed by some of its customers. Serangoon Plaza was first built in the 1960s as President Shopping Centre (above) before being bought by Feature Development in 1984. Shelv
Shelves and racks standing empty at the Serangoon Plaza store last Friday as Mustafa, which has occupied the building since 1985 and now leases 65,000 sq ft of space on three floors, moved its merchandise next door to Mustafa Centre. Serangoon Plaza is set to be demolished next month. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG
Mustafa retail supervisor P. Mohamed Rafeek (left) with his colleagues from the sportswear section at the Serangoon Plaza store in 1996. Beside him is Mr Abdul Rahman, 47, now a supervisor at the supermarket section in Mustafa Centre. The other two m
Mustafa retail supervisor P. Mohamed Rafeek (left) with his colleagues from the sportswear section at the Serangoon Plaza store in 1996. Beside him is Mr Abdul Rahman, 47, now a supervisor at the supermarket section in Mustafa Centre. The other two men are no longer with the retail giant. PHOTO: COURTESY OF P. MOHAMED RAFEEK
The easy navigation of Mustafa's more spacious Serangoon Plaza branch will be missed by some of its customers. Serangoon Plaza was first built in the 1960s as President Shopping Centre (above) before being bought by Feature Development in 1984. Shelv
Serangoon Plaza was first built in the 1960s as President Shopping Centre (above) before being bought by Feature Development in 1984. ST FILE PHOTO
The easy navigation of Mustafa's more spacious Serangoon Plaza branch will be missed by some of its customers. Serangoon Plaza was first built in the 1960s as President Shopping Centre (above) before being bought by Feature Development in 1984. Shelv
The easy navigation of Mustafa's more spacious Serangoon Plaza branch will be missed by some of its customers. ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

For the past 23 years, the Serangoon Plaza branch of Singapore's famed Mustafa shopping centre has been Mr P. Mohamed Rafeek's workplace.

"This was the biggest building in the area in the eighties and nineties. It was almost like a palace," the 44-year-old said wistfully.

At night, as cars choke the main thoroughfare of Serangoon Road and spill over into neighbouring streets, fluorescent lights at the 24-hour shopping emporium flash across the road.

The green retro-styled signage, bearing the names of owners Mohamed Mustafa & Samsuddin Co, harks back to those halcyon times, beckoning travellers and sleepless Singaporeans to rove through aisles overflowing with clothes, household electronics and other trinkets.

But Mr Rafeek has now been displaced from his palace of yore.

  • From hole in the wall to household name

  • Mustafa has become a household name among tourists and Singaporeans alike, but it had humble beginnings as a hole-in-the wall garment shop in 1971.

    The shop, which measured 500 sq ft, was opened in Campbell Lane in Little India by the current managing director, Mr Mustaq Ahmad, with his father Mustafa and uncle Samsuddin.

    Two years later, they rented a second 900 sq ft shop in Serangoon Road and sold electronic items.

    In 1985, the shops were acquired for conservation and Mr Mustaq opened his flagship department store at Serangoon Plaza, leasing 12,000 sq ft of space.

    This was a year after Feature Development's purchase in 1984 of the property, which used to be known as President Shopping Centre.

    In the late 1980s, the anchor tenants were Mustafa and another department store, V.K. Kalyanasundaram and Sons (VKK).

    Wanting to have his own building, Mr Mustaq homed in on some old shophouses along Syed Alwi Road just around the corner. He bought them one by one until he owned the whole row. In their place, he put up Mustafa Centre, which opened in 1995.

    In late 1995, $1 million was pumped in to renovate and expand Mustafa's retail space in Serangoon Plaza to its current size of about 65,000 sq ft as VKK and other small shops gave up their space.

    Mr Kalyanaram, 41, the grandson of VKK's founder V.K. Kalyanasundaram, recalled that the two families were on cordial terms.

    Mr Kalyanaram, who had helped out in the business when he was a secondary school student, said: "Our family members had no problem buying things from Mustafa if a product was not available in our stores. Nobody said we couldn't do that just because we were competitors. "

    Yuen Sin

Come next month, the five-storey Serangoon Plaza will be demolished. In its place will rise a gleaming, new 19-storey building - Centrium Square, a mixed development property consisting of medical suites, retail stores and offices that will be completed in the third quarter of 2019.

Since early this month, the retail supervisor has been working at the Mustafa Centre building, where he gingerly squeezes his way past racks that have been crammed with even more dry-fit shirts and sports shoes - because of stock that has been moved over from the Serangoon Plaza branch. "It's a bit more packed here, but I'm passionate about the job. If the store moves, I will follow," said Mr Rafeek, who has seen Mustafa's staff strength grow from a few hundred in the early 1990s to about 1,700 now.

As the deadline for moving out looms, Mustafa, which has occupied the building since 1985 and now leases 65,000 sq ft of space on three floors - about 70 per cent of the total retail space in the building - has been clearing its shelves out and moving all merchandise next door to Mustafa Centre.

The other tenants, including offices and travel agencies, are also moving out of the building.

Mustafa's total retail space will be reduced by about a quarter, with the remaining store at Mustafa Centre building - owned by the company - having over 200,000 sq ft.

Some older stocks at the Serangoon Plaza branch have been cleared out, but most will be moved to the bigger building, which opened in 1995.

Mr Magendran, 37, an assistant supervisor at Mustafa's electronics department, said that goods that cannot find space in Mustafa Centre can be kept in its Kallang warehouse. This will help to alleviate the space crunch.

A Mustafa spokesman said that all of its staff are staying put, and that it has no plans to secure more retail space for now.

Tributes to Serangoon Plaza, which housed Mustafa's flagship store, have poured in after the announcement of its demolition date last week. Some, like operations manager Koh Wee Liang, 39, came with cameras to document a landmark that has been a favoured night-time haunt. Others, like administrative worker Leslie Lauw, 59, would miss the easy navigation of the more spacious branch - "unlike Mustafa Centre, which is a huge congested maze".

But most, like IT engineer Kulashree Phegade, 31, are glad the iconic Mustafa and its wide range of offerings are still around. "As long as it has the goods I need, like Indian groceries and electronics, I will come back to Mustafa," she said.

NOT LOSING THAT SPECIAL FEELING

Questions still remain when it comes to the retail giant's plans for the future.

Mr Magendran said it would have to find a way to contend with the weekend crowds now that all retail operations have moved to Mustafa Centre.

Ms Sarah Lim, a senior retail lecturer at Singapore Polytechnic, does not think that Mustafa's customer base will be adversely affected by the closure of its branch.

But it may find itself in a dilemma when it comes to deciding whether to reduce its sales range for the sake of crowd control.

"(Cutting down on goods) may not be what the customer really wants. People grumble, but they find a sense of familiarity in its packed layout and how it is brimming with goods.

"It's a psychological attachment that benefits Mustafa, though, of course, safety and security are compromised," said Ms Lim.

Retiree Chee Wai Khan, 60, who shops at Mustafa a few times a month, is unconcerned about the branch closure. "They don't bother you when you shop. There's not much difference in both places."

PRESIDENTIAL DAYS

Among those who remember the old-world offerings of Serangoon Plaza, however, a tinge of nostalgia remains.

First built in the 1960s as President Shopping Centre before being bought by Feature Development, a unit of Tong Eng Group, in 1984, it boasted Singing Palace, a theatre restaurant on the second level that played host to popular Taiwanese songbird Yao Su Rong in the 1970s.

Writer Boey Kim Cheng, 51, who frequented the area in his childhood in the early 1970s, recalled how the President Shopping Centre's "clean, white and unfussy shape gave it a slightly dignified, even majestic, air, a dramatic contrast to the surrounding streets which teemed with hawkers and vendors". He added: "It's sad that it is going to join the already long list of vanished sights in Singapore. It will no doubt add to the growing sense of absence and dislocation among older generations."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 15, 2017, with the headline 'Farewell, Serangoon Plaza - the palace of yore'. Print Edition | Subscribe