SINGAPORE - Creative Technology chairman and chief executive Sim Wong Hoo, one of Singapore’s most famous tech entrepreneurs, died on Wednesday. He was 67.
Mr Sim founded the home-grown business in 1981, and had led the company since its inception. In a bourse filing on Thursday, Creative said Mr Sim “passed away peacefully”, without giving further details.
Under his leadership, Creative became famous for its Sound Blaster sound cards and digital entertainment products. It became the first Singaporean company to list shares on the Nasdaq in 1992.
Mr Sim, who was single, grew up in a kampung in Bukit Panjang, the youngest of 12 children in his family.
He studied at Bukit Panjang Government High School and graduated from Ngee Ann Polytechnic, where he read electrical and electronic engineering, in 1975. He then set up Creative in 1981 as a computer shop in Chinatown with his schoolmate, Mr Ng Kai Wa, who is now a board member.
Creative’s Sound Blaster card, launched in 1989, was a game changer in allowing PCs to generate quality sound. It had sold 400 million units as at 2019.
By 2000, Mr Sim, then aged 45, had become the youngest billionaire in Singapore. He was the first person to receive the Singapore Business Awards’ Businessman of the Year accolade twice.
Mr Sim had also gone to war with Apple co-founder Steve Jobs over their companies’ portable music players. He sued the iPod maker in 2006 for patent infringements and walked away with a US$100 million (S$134 million) settlement.
Creative had launched its Nomad MP3 player in 1999, two years before Apple unveiled the iPod. It later also rolled out other music players like the Nomad Jukebox Zen, which doubled as a portable storage device for other media such as photos and videos.
However, its products ultimately lost out as Apple’s music player gained popularity.
With competition and industry changes, Creative’s fortunes took a dive and Mr Sim’s name also dropped off the headlines.
Creative shares that were traded on the Singapore Exchange, where it has been listed since 1994, dropped from a high of $64 in March 2000 to around $1 in 2017. The company voluntarily delisted its shares from the Nasdaq stock exchange in 2007.
It made a comeback in 2019 with Super X-Fi, an audio technology that it spent 20 years developing to the tune of US$100 million. The tech allows headphone users to experience sound in expansive, three-dimensional detail, like in real life.
Among those who had been wowed by Creative’s products were Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, who wrote on Thursday that Mr Sim’s inventions had helped him to enjoy classical music through the years. They include a pair of Super X-Fi headphones that Mr Heng has in his home.
“Sim Wong Hoo made it in an era when Singapore was not known for innovation or entrepreneurship,” wrote DPM Heng. “He dedicated his life to pushing new frontiers and developing innovative products. His success served as inspiration for Singapore start-ups that followed.”
At Mr Sim’s wake in Choa Chu Kang on Thursday evening, more than 70 people turned up to pay their respects, including family, friends and employees of Creative.
Mr Leow Siew Kiat, who had worked at Creative for 12 years, recalled Mr Sim as a caring and generous leader who created a homely company culture. In the firm’s early years, Mr Sim would put together a bag of hongbao of varying amounts during Chinese New Year and ask employees to draw one, he said. Mr Sim would also have durian feasts with his employees.
University of the Arts Singapore vice-chancellor Kwok Kian Woon remembered Mr Sim’s lifelong love for music, which he said was reflected in Mr Sim’s creation of the Sound Blaster card that brought high fidelity audio – and music – to PCs. Mr Sim had loved composing music and playing instruments such as the harmonica and the accordion, said Professor Kwok, who had known Mr Sim for more than two decades and had bonded with him over the arts.
“Wong Hoo was the most exceptional man. What others thought would be well impossible, he would think it possible,” said Prof Kwok, 66. “He was full of imagination and his creativity was constantly evolving and flowering. His death was something we all did not expect and many of us will miss him.”
Creative’s board has appointed lead independent non-executive director Lee Kheng Nam as the company’s acting chairman and Mr Ng, an independent non-executive director, as acting vice-chairman.
It also appointed Mr Song Siow Hui, president of the company’s Creative Labs business unit, as interim chief executive officer.
Mr Song, who had worked with Mr Sim for more than 30 years, said his death was a sad and sudden development.
“We feel a great loss especially since Mr Sim and I recently had extensive discussions on the direction of the company. During those discussions, Mr Sim was full of fresh vision. Even on the night before, he had a long discussion with the engineering team and was scheduled to meet the online sales team the next day.
“The best thing to do now is to ensure the continued smooth running of the company, and also to execute and realise the vision and strategy that Mr Sim had for the company,” he said.
When The Straits Times visited Creative’s office on Thursday, staff said Mr Sim’s death came as a shock. One person said the CEO was seen at work just this week.
Entrepreneur Michael Ang, 68, who worked with Mr Sim in 1996 and 1997, said the Creative boss was enthusiastic about all things technology and charting the way forward for his company.
“We often talked about semiconductor technology... he was very advanced and knew the technology so well and was able to (help the company) leapfrog in terms of putting the underlying tech into his products, making them better and cheaper,” said Mr Ang, who was the managing director of Fujitsu Microelectronics Asia when Creative became its first big client for its application-specific integrated circuits.
Former foreign minister George Yeo, a non-executive director on Creative’s board, said he was deeply saddened to lose an old friend.
“Still remember the evening he presented me and (then) President Ong Teng Cheong with a Nomad MP3 player storing 12 songs. He was always bubbling with ideas. Never left a meeting with him without new inspirations,” Mr Yeo wrote in a Facebook post.
Home-grown gaming hardware company Razer’s chief executive, Mr Tan Min-Liang, said on Facebook that he often met Mr Sim to discuss things like audio technology and design.
“Will miss him – the technology world and Singapore has lost a legend,” he wrote.
Correction note: This article has been edited to reflect that Mr Sim graduated from Ngee Ann Polytechnic in 1975.