The story of how a Czech shoe company became a beloved Singapore label
Bata is a name Singaporeans have been familiar with for more than eight decades, since the first shoes imported from Czechoslovakia were offered in a Yap Heng store in 1926.
As in many other countries worldwide, the name has become associated with footwear, while its Czech connection has been obscured or lost.
The fascinating story of the first and, so far, only Czech who created a truly global brand and a multinational company is one that bears witness to the inception of trade and investment ties between the Central European country and Singapore.
Mr Tomas Bata was a man who - in the words of a Straits Times reporter in 1931 - "was a village cobbler's son and in his time peddled boots and shoes from door to door", and who became "an industrial peril to England and America, and the boot and shoe king of the world".
By the time of the publication of the article, Mr Bata, at 55, was commanding the world's greatest boot and shoe company, with 17,000 employees, 2,000 retail shops and an output of 135,000 pairs of shoes a day.
One of the retail shops was located in Singapore and it opened on Feb 11, 1931, in the Capitol Building in North Bridge Road.
The newspaper advertisement of the store opening brought a message of a mass production that enabled the company to sell shoes "at ridiculously low prices" and adopt the slogan of "Quality higher than the Price".
If one takes newspaper ads at face value, the new Bata store must have been an immediate success.
In less than a month from the opening, one could read that "within a few weeks, practically all stocks were sold out. Proof positive that never before has Singapore known such revolutionary prices for shoes".
The company then announced it appreciated "the unfamiliar sizes and styles existing here and, therefore, the huge European factory has produced 'special' sizes and styles" for the Singapore branch.
Regardless of how many shoes were sold in Singapore, the renown of Mr Bata as a great entrepreneur had reached the Crown Colony before he arrived in person in January 1932.
He set out for the journey to the Middle East, India and South-east Asia in one of his company's fleet of planes and his travels were well followed by the press.
The Batavia correspondent of The Straits Times brought the news of Mr Bata's departure from Europe on Dec 17, 1931, floating the idea that his visit to Singapore was in connection with the establishment of a factory and the purchase of a rubber estate.
"It has been the principle of the Bata firm to produce in the country in which it sells," the report stated.
The advent of the Czech would-be investor raised no small expectations: Representatives of several firms had been sent to Siam, Burma and India to meet him prior to his arrival in Singapore.
Other companies dispatched cables to places Mr Bata was likely to visit with instructions that he be approached concerning possible supplies for his building of a factory in Singapore.
SHOE KING IN SINGAPORE
However, when the "Shoe King" landed in Singapore on Jan 19, 1932, there were only two people at the Seletar Air Base to meet him -
his company manager for then Malaya and a reporter from The Straits Times.
"At every place in the East I have been, I have seen thousands of people walking about without shoes," said Mr Bata to the reporter. "I have been told the reason is that they cannot afford to buy them.
I am going to encourage the wearing of rubber shoes, and manufacture and sell them at as low a price as possible."
In the car on his way to the city, Mr Bata corrected the paper's previous reports: "I am here to buy rubber and sell shoes. Before I make any definite decision about a factory, I must study the country and its condition."
He then confirmed that he intended to build a factory in India. "But Singapore? I have made no definite decision yet."
A day later, having spent hours with local businessmen, Mr Bata commented favourably on the business conditions, saying that Singapore was far more advanced than he had thought.
He then acknowledged that he had begun to realise different shoes were needed in different climates and for different classes of workers. India, on the one hand, and Malaya plus the Dutch East Indies, on the other, did not seem to him as one market any more, implying the possibility of starting production in South-east Asia.
This was the time when British Malaya imported about 67,000 pairs of shoes in six months, of which 15,000 were from Britain, 4,500 from the United States and 23,000 from continental Europe. The quantity grew by more than a quarter from the previous year "due in large measure to the activities of a large Czecho-Slovak firm which was establishing a chain of stores throughout the Far East", the American Trade Commissionaire in Singapore reported .
Before Mr Bata returned home from his Asian journey, newspapers informed readers about his intention to launch a scheduled air connection between Czechoslovakia and South-east Asia, to serve his business interests and for an air mail service.
Had this idea come true, Czechoslovakia would have been only the third European country - after the Netherlands and Britain - to enjoy regular commercial flights to Singapore.
It is hard to ascertain to what extent the tragic death of Mr Bata on July 12, 1932, caused the audacious plan to remain unfulfilled. The great proponent and promoter of flying lost his life in a plane crash after taking off for
a business trip within Europe, but the aviation sector of the company continued to thrive, together with the whole Bata enterprise, under the leadership of Mr Jan A. Bata, the founder's half-brother and successor.
Among other things, Mr Jan A. Bata took over his relative's maxim, "The air is our ocean", and followed his steps to Asia on a round-the- world business journey that brought him to Singapore too.
He registered at Raffles Hotel in February 1937 as a "shoemaker".
No more rumours were published about a new factory by the time of Mr Jan A. Bata's visit; there was one newly operational in Klang, Selangor, which opened in 1936.
SHOEMAKER TAKES OVER
The "shoemaker", however, made headlines with his address at the Rotary Club on the danger that suppliers of rubber may face from the synthetic material produced in Germany and Russia for half of the current price of the natural stuff. He also mentioned that out of the 40 million to 50 million pairs of shoes produced annually by Bata worldwide, about 300,000 were exported to Malaya.
This would mean that the company's export increased six times within five years.
The year of Mr Jan A. Bata's visit to Singapore and his return to the company's Czech headquarters via China, Hawaii and North America was to remain a period of the utmost success and freedom of the Bata global organisation for many years to come. Soon after, all development and decisions were to be forced in a direction moulded by policies, economic losses, occupation and war.
BATA FACTORY IN SINGAPORE
When Czechoslovakia was obliged to cede its border regions to Germany by the Munich Agreement of 1938, equipment from Bata plants in those areas was hastily dismounted , removed and dispatched overseas, together with complete crews ready to start production in various countries.
A set of machines sent away just before Hitler's forces completed the occupation of the country reached Singapore.
The plans discussed and speculated about in 1932 finally materialised: The Bata factory was built and put into operation in the city's Prince Edward Road.
Journalists were shown the new facility on the last day of January 1940. They saw "Chinese trained by Czecho-Slovak technicians at work on an endless belt unit comprising 35 machines and capable of producing at least 1,000 pairs of shoes a day. Work that takes an hour by hand is done in a few minutes by the machines, the most modern of their kind, observed a reporter, adding that the splendid factory organisation, which includes a special printing department, is a small replica of the system that has made the name of Bata world famous".
In the words of another reporter, "the system that made Zlin, the headquarters of Tomas Bata's shoe factory, the greatest shoe-manufacturing city in the world has been translated - with some modifications - to Singapore."
Alas, it was not long before the war that thwarted the late Mr Bata's plans in his home country reached Singapore.
The Czech community of the Bata company joined the Straits Settlement Volunteer Force in their heroic defence against the Japanese onslaught, but the total destruction of the Crown Colony did not spare the Bata factory either.
Bata resumed business in Singapore just a couple of months after the war in January 1946 and developed sales, services and production in the country again.
By that time, however, the Czech connection had been loosened as the company headquarters had moved to Canada. The following expropriation of all Bata assets in Czechoslovakia by the ascending revolutionary regime severed the ties between Bata company and Bata family and their homeland for four long decades.
They were decades of growth and development of Bata under the direction of Mr Tomas J. Bata, the founder's son, in many countries other than Czechoslovakia.
After a long separation, Mr Tomas J. Bata finally came back to his father's home town of Zlin in December 1989, to an enthusiastic and emotional welcome that became symbolic of the fall of the communist rule in Czechoslovakia.
The network of Bata shops was restored throughout the country soon after and the Bata company took over a shoe factory in the Zlin region, close to the place where it all had started one century earlier. The plant produces hand-sewn shoes that are exported, among other destinations, to Singapore.
The Bata of today is headquartered in Lausanne, Switzerland, and led by Mr Thomas G. Bata, the grandson of the founder. The company serves one million customers each day, selling about 270 million pairs of shoes in more than 70 countries.
Singapore is the seat of its Asia-Pacific business unit.
•The writer is the Ambassador of the Czech Republic to Indonesia, Brunei, Singapore and Timor Leste, and resides in Jakarta. This is an edited excerpt from a new book, 50 Years Of Singapore-Europe Relations Celebrating Singapore's Connections With Europe, published by the World Scientific Press.
Mr Tomas Bata was a man who - in the words of a Straits Times reporter in 1931 - "was a village cobbler's son and in his time peddled boots and shoes from door to door", and who became "an industrial peril to England and America, and the boot and shoe king of the world". By the time of the publication of the article, Mr Bata, at 55, was commanding the world's greatest boot and shoe company, with 17,000 employees, 2,000 retail shops, and an output of 135,000 pairs of shoes a day.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 08, 2015, with the headline 'Stepping into Bata's shoes'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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