Lunch With Sumiko: Creative Technology’s Sim Wong Hoo is back, with Super X-Fi getting rave reviews

Creative's Sim Wong Hoo is back, and his Super X-Fi audio technology has been slaying the naysayers

In 2007, Creative Technology's Mr Sim Wong Hoo decided to run a marathon on a whim. He has since run more than 50 marathons including a dozen ultramarathons. Running, he says, clears his mind and gives him breakthrough ideas. His latest Super X-Fi technology has won rave reviews for allowing headphones to produce sounds in all their 3D wonder. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

At 63, Sim Wong Hoo is looking better than ever before.

He's slimmer and fitter than when he was in his 40s and the poster boy of Singapore's tech scene. He still has a full head of hair with just a few streaks of grey, and his stride is purposeful.

How have you been able to keep looking young, I ask the founder, chairman and CEO of Creative Technology.

He laughs and says: "You want to know the secret?"

I nod. What's the secret?

"You want to know the secret?" he teases again.

Yes, what's the secret, I say.

"Don't get married."

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The likeable, personable founder, chairman and CEO of Creative Technology has had a couple of bad years but things have been looking bright since the launch of his Super X-Fi technology, which brings a surround experience to headsets.

He chortles and is clearly delighted he has shocked me with his answer.

I laugh and take it as a cue to probe further into the private life of Singapore's most famous bachelor businessman.

For years, there had been rumours he had dated a certain Chinese-language TV newscaster. I ask if there's any truth to that story.

"Goodness," he says. Are people still saying that, he asks.

I tell him it's an unsolved mystery.

"Even now?"

Well, her face and name pop up when your name is googled.

"Google - will be there forever lah," he says. "The whole world knows who Sim Wong Hoo's girlfriend is except me."

So you've had girlfriends then?

He says he wants to "protect the innocent" but "of course I've had girlfriends". The newscaster wasn't one of them though.

He shares how, at the peak of the gossip, even his siblings quizzed him about it. They surrounded him at a weekend gathering and told him: "We want a confession."

He protested he had never heard of the newscaster, much less met her. "Still never met her," he adds. "I don't know how the thing started."

Truth is, he is still happily single and lives alone.

But he has two big loves in his life right now, which are probably what is keeping him youthful.

One is running. He discovered it in 2007 and has since done more than 50 marathons, including a dozen ultramarathons.

Our lunch in December takes place soon after the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon (his 11th) which he completed in just under seven hours - "it was very hot and I was not trained".

He regards the StanChart race as training for the Hong Kong 100, a 103km run that kicked off yesterday and which racers must complete in 30 hours. That, in turn, will be his training for the 100km TransLantau in March, which is "more teruk".

He's in fact wearing a TransLantau 2017 finisher jersey at our lunch, paired with running pants and Altra sneakers.

Running has trimmed his weight from 84kg to 77kg. He loves it for the challenge and how it clears the mind. "A lot of times, it's when I'm running that I have breakthrough ideas."

One such idea is Super X-Fi, his other great passion right now.

This is a revolutionary audio technology that Creative has spent the last 20 years developing - to the tune of US$100 million (S$136 million), he says - and which is finally bearing fruit.

Super X-Fi allows headphone users to experience sound in expansive, three-dimensional detail, like in real life.

The headphone audio industry has been trying to achieve this "holy grail" for a long time, he says.

Right now, no matter how good a pair of headphones is, the sound is forced and "claustrophobic", as Mr Sim puts it.

There have been attempts at creating 3D audio on headsets but all have been "crap".

His Super X-Fi technology involves an artificial intelligence engine that customises the user's audio experience based on how he perceives sound in the real world.

Creative showed a prototype of it at the prestigious Consumer Electronics Show (CES) last January. It won rave reviews with audio sites using words like "glorious" and "magical" to describe it. It also got a Best of CES award.

In September last year, it created a Super X-Fi enabled dongle called the SXFI Amp that connects to headphones, and has since added more products.

At this year's CES earlier this month, Super X-Fi bagged 13 Best of CES awards. Creative is now looking to allow audio firms to use it in their headphones.

His technology is akin to black and white TV switching to colour TV, he says. He adds: "With Creative or no Creative, that will happen. I think Creative is ahead right now."

Super X-Fi has breathed new life into the company he started as a computer shop in Chinatown in 1981.

Its Sound Blaster sound card, launched in 1989, was a game changer in allowing PCs to generate quality sound. It has sold 400 million units.

But with competition and industry changes, Creative's fortunes took a dive in recent times and his name also dropped off the headlines.

With Super X-Fi, market interest and confidence have rebounded.

Following its CES showing last year, its share price hit highs of $9.77 after years of languishing under $2. It closed at $5.21 last Friday.

Lunch is at Creative's headquarters which is housed over five floors in the International Business Park complex in Jurong.

The main lobby area is well lit but doesn't have the design-conscious vibe you now expect of tech companies. It feels more like a homely, if high-end, SME.

It is our first meeting and Mr Sim turns out to be likeable. He is down to earth and personable, and has an easy laugh and manner.

He's waiting at the reception and leads me to a sound room. Like journalists who have visited Creative over the past year, I'm given a briefing and demonstration of Super X-Fi by him and his team.

My face and ears are first mapped by an app, then some audio thing is rather alarmingly zinged through my ears via headphones, to test how I perceive sound.

It's all bewildering to me and I'm no audiophile, but the reviewers are right - the sound you get is impressive.

After 70 minutes, we head to the boardroom for lunch. A spread of dishes from Taiwanese restaurant chain Din Tai Fung - fried rice, xiao long bao, pork cutlet - awaits.

It's more for me than him because it emerges he has little interest in food. He picks restaurants based on how easy it is to park his car and prefers eateries that are empty.

He says cheerfully that he's an "outlier" and a "contrarian".

"Everything people do, I don't do. They like good food, I don't like good food."

This doesn't sound right, so he clarifies: "Not that I don't like good food, but to me eating is just a chore. If only there's a pill I can swallow and, you know, solve my hunger."

He revels in being unorthodox and shares other examples of his maverick ways.

In 1999, he was cracking his head for a crazy idea to usher in the new millennium.

"You can go to a tall building, throw one million dollars and let people go crazy, but that will cause accidents, so no good. Or you can do charity, which I did already...

"I wanted to do something people cannot do."

With the clock ticking away, he decided to write a book and get it delivered to bookshops by Dec 31. Problem was, he had six weeks before that deadline.

He did it, penning a 270-page tome called Chaotic Thoughts From The Old Millennium which he dedicated to "the younger generation, the hope of the new millennium".

He passes me a copy.

Design-wise, it looks like a textbook and so is not very appealing. But when I went back and read it, the content is well written, engaging and inspiring.

The book comprises short chapters on random topics.

There are bits on his widowed mother and their farm in Bukit Panjang, his student days at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Creative's early years and assorted brain-teasers, magic tricks and a parable or two.

His craze for running also came about in an unusual way, he lets on.

Back in 2007, he was out with his former classmates one Friday when a friend - Ng Kai Wa, who was Creative's co-founder and now a board member - mentioned he was doing a marathon the following Sunday.

"I was very envious. Aiyah, wish I could be like him," Mr Sim recalls thinking. " I was not into athletics... I was not fit. Plump."

On a whim, he decided he would run the marathon too. His secretary managed to register him and the following week, he trained by walking to and from his Bukit Timah house to Creative in Jurong.

That Sunday, he completed the race in a credible six hours 40 minutes, walking half the way.

The following week, he called Mr Ng and said they should try an 84.4km ultramarathon next.

"He said, 'You're crazy. That's in March.' I said, 'Why not? Let's go and try.' He said, 'You go, I go.' I said, 'OK, let's go.' So my second marathon was an ultramarathon."

After his first marathon, he had another crazy idea: He would do an "age-km" run every birthday.

He had not been one to celebrate birthdays. "It's a random date, there's no meaning. And I hate birthday cakes. For goodness' sake, don't do birthday cakes. It's unhealthy, it's a waste of money."

Instead, he resolved to do something healthy and more fun.

"I started from my 53rd birthday, so that's 53km. And then 54, I ran 54km." Last year, he ran 63km, which took him 10 hours.

He's a non-conformist in other ways. While talking about Apple - Creative famously got a US$100 million payout from it for a patent breach - I ask if he uses an Apple iPhone.

He fishes out a phone from his pocket and I gasp. It's an old Nokia Asha.

There's a slip of white paper pasted on the back of the phone with rows of printed numbers like C1 10km 5K5 1h50 1150. It's his ultramarathon plan. "C" stands for checkpoint and the rest are timings he must keep to stay in the race.

If he had his way, the Nokia would be the only phone he has. But with Super X-Fi, he needs a smartphone for music and so has a Google Pixel which he keeps on silent mode.

He's not on any social media platforms either. "If you see anything, it's fake, it's not me."

While Creative seems to be regaining its mojo, I wonder how he coped when things were down.

He meets the question head-on but does become a little pensive.

He has kept a low profile in recent years because "there's nothing to say except bad news, right? Company is not performing. So whatever I say, people will not believe until they see the result".

That result is Super X-Fi, which he "just dumped money into" over the years because he kept a long-term view of the company, and believed it could be done.

When it was time to launch it, he hesitated about fronting it, wanting to leave it to Creative's new generation.

"But the team said I should go out and help them do this."

He says he's introverted by nature but had to force himself to put on a different face during Creative's heyday.

When the accolades dried up, it was easy to revert to his true self.

"During those kind of bad years, I'm OK, I'm myself."

In fact, tough times invigorate him more. When Creative was listed on Nasdaq in 1992 - it delisted there in 2007 - and feted, he felt empty.

"I felt hollow. Nothing much to congratulate. So what? It's just a number, a point in life."

The tough years that followed have been energising.

I ask what in his life has given him the most happiness.

"I'm at peace" is his response.

He doesn't believe in wild swings of emotions. "To have happiness, you must have sorrow. When you want to keep at peace, then you don't have a lot of happiness, you also don't have a lot of sorrow."

It puzzles him why some people rave over things like, say, food.

"I've kind of transcended above all these earthly things."

While he was born a Christian, his religion now is "my own".

He doesn't get a salary at Creative but owns 33 per cent of the company. "I did not sell shares. I bought back a lot of shares at high prices, and I'm proud of it."

Money, he maintains, is not important.

It's because you have it, I say.

"No," he replies. "It's not important."

I ask if he has a Crazy Rich Asian lifestyle. Ferrari? He practically snorts. "I think it's a sin to drive something like that."

He drives himself, in a Toyota Camry. The fanciest car he had was a Lexus. He lives in a semi-detached house in Bukit Timah, does not mix around "big shots" and counts running in Gunung Tahan in Malaysia as an exotic holiday.

When I ask what he wants to be remembered for, he shoots back: "Nothing."

"I don't require people to endorse me. I think I've done my job. We created Sound Blaster. It's a big thing already. Normally you've got one shot in your life.''

But he has another shot actually - Super X-Fi.

There are challenges. For one thing, it is difficult to market audio. There is also an educational process in getting people to understand how to use it, which is a hurdle. And now that the product is out, others are ready to pounce on it.

"I tell my teams, 'The cat is out of the bag. The whole world has seen it, they are coming after us, so we have to run like hell.'"

But he is confident because Creative has had a long head start.

We've come to the end of a lengthy and, for me, fascinating lunch. I've done most of the eating and there's a bit of food left.

I ask him for photos of him running in case I need them for this story.

He sends me a WhatsApp of the pictures later and adds: "btw, just had dinner from the lunch leftovers. Still tasty. Sinful to throw them away. So thanks for the dinner and the lunch too."

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