‘I think I’ve done my job’: Creative Technology’s Sim Wong Hoo a generous, feisty, passionate man

Mr Sim Wong Hoo exuded the qualities and compassion of a humble but outspoken leader and could turn feisty when defending his company and products. PHOTO: ST FILE
Guests paying their respects at the wake of Creative Technology founder Sim Wong Hoo at the Garden of Remembrance on Jan 5, 2023. ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

SINGAPORE – I first met the late Mr Sim Wong Hoo when I was a rookie reporter in 2000 and covering the financial results of Creative Technology, the company he founded in 1981.

He was already the poster boy for Singapore technopreneurship but wore his fame lightly. He would personally welcome every journalist walking in through the doors of Creative’s headquarters at International Business Park in Jurong, and demonstrate the firm’s latest products.

News of his sudden death on Wednesday at the age of 67 has evoked grief, with many people expressing gratitude over how he had been an inspiration to them.

Former foreign minister George Yeo, a non-executive director on Creative’s board, said he has lost 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.

I remember him for his passion for music and technology, and how, like a typical engineer, he gushed about tech specification breakthroughs at every press conference of his I attended.

After all, he was Creative’s chief engineer and had been personally involved in the development of many of its products. He obsessed over every detail, often asking to squeeze in yet one more feature to give buyers better bang for their buck. 

In 2000, when Creative released the world’s first portable music player, the Nomad Jukebox MP3, he declared: “Everybody wants one.”

This invention would soon change the way people consume music on the go, pioneering the way thousands of pieces of music could be offered on a handheld device without the user having to fumble with physical media then known as CDs (compact discs) and cassette tapes. 

Mr Sim was the first technopreneur to put Singapore on the world map with his Sound Blaster audio cards, launched in 1989. Since then, more than 400 million units of the product have been sold. These audio cards make multimedia content come alive on a personal computer. They were outselling competitors by a ratio of seven to three through the 1990s due to their affordability and quality. 

The Sound Blaster audio cards, developed by Mr Sim Wong Hoo’s Creative Technology, helped put Singapore on the world map.  PHOTO: ST FILE

Technopreneurs look up to Mr Sim.

Home-grown gaming hardware company Razer’s chief executive Tan Min-Liang said on Facebook that he often met Mr Sim to discuss things like audio technology and design, and their discussions would run for hours. 

“Will miss him – the technology world and Singapore has lost a legend,” Mr Tan wrote.

One of Mr Sim’s first customers, Mr Sam Choo, 63, said he remembers Mr Sim as a passionate and eloquent teacher. 

Mr Choo, who bought the Cubic 88 computer and Sound Blaster sound card from Mr Sim’s computer shop at Pearls Centre in Chinatown, also attended computer lessons conducted by the late entrepreneur at the Comsertrax School of Computer Training.

“He taught the class about hardware. He opened up a hard disk drive and showed us how it worked. He was an excellent teacher,” said Mr Choo, a freelance writer.

People who knew Mr Sim say he exuded the qualities and compassion of a humble but outspoken leader. One of them is civil society activist and former reporter at The Straits Times, Ms Braema Mathi.

Ms Mathi said Mr Sim was key to giving The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund the push it needed when it launched on Oct 1, 2000. On Jan 1, 2001, Mr Sim gave the fund a cheque for $584,000 – matching each dollar that had been raised. A few weeks after his generous gift, more donations came in, hitting a total of $1.3 million, way above the original target of $500,000.

“He didn’t announce to the whole world what he did, but he went about it quietly,” said Ms Mathi, who mooted the idea of the fund. “When the cheque came in, a few of us in the newsroom started to tear up.” 

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But the self-effacing man could turn feisty when it came to defending his company and its products. The genial host would uninvite journalists to press conferences if they did not abide by the conditions he laid down – such as not mentioning his rivals by name. He also did not shy away from taking on those rivals.

In November 2004, when Creative’s next generation Zen MP3 player was second to Apple’s iPod in the portable music player market, Mr Sim declared war on the iPod. “The MP3 war has started and I am the one who has declared war,” he famously said. 

The iPod reportedly outsold Creative’s products by a ratio of 23 to one in the United States.

Mr Sim Wong Hoo showing off the 10 colours of the Zen Micro digital music player in 2004. PHOTO: ST FILE

And in May 2006, Creative sued Apple in California, claiming that the iPod maker had infringed on its patent. Apple counter-sued and their three-month legal tussle ended when Apple paid US$100 million in a settlement.

At the centre of the legal dispute was a patent covering a navigation interface that lets users choose songs to play back by selecting an artist, an album by that artist, or a specific song in that album. The interface is found in devices such as the iPod and iPhone.

But time and technology overtake everyone. As fresh rivals emerged, the man who became the first Singaporean to list his firm on Nasdaq in the United States in 1992, faded into obscurity. The company voluntarily delisted its shares from the Nasdaq stock exchange in 2007. It is known in the United States as Creative Labs.

Little was heard of Mr Sim after that until 2019, when his firm launched Super X-Fi, an audio technology that it had spent 20 years and US$100 million (S$134 million) developing. The tech allows headphone users to experience sound in three-dimensional detail.

The last interview he gave The Straits Times was published on Jan 20, 2019, when he spoke to executive editor Sumiko Tan about not wanting to be remembered for anything as he needed no endorsement.

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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.

“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,” he said in that interview.

I would like to think that he will also be remembered each time users navigate the song playlist on their iPhones.

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