At Vulcan Post, we’ve done a fair bit of coverage on young Singaporean entrepreneurs making a difference with their startups. However, in the flurry of these younger ones, we tend to forget those who have been making a mark on Singaporean lives even before some of us were born.
Here are 10 Singaporean entrepreneurs who have thrived over the years, and are still doing really well with their businesses.
1. Lim Hock Chee, Sheng Siong
The popular supermarket was founded by the Lim brothers – Lim Hock Eng, Lim Hock Chee and Lim Hock Leng, in 1985.
When the government decided to shut down the pig farming sector in 1985, which included the Lim family’s farm, they were left with an excess stock of meat. Lim Hock Chee saw an opportunity at a Savewell provision store in Ang Mo Kio which did not sell pork. And subsequently, he set up a pork counter there.
However, the owner of the provision store chain ran into financial issues and needed to put up the other outlets for sale. In spite of his lack of business experience, Lim borrowed S$30,000 from his father and bought over the store from its owner. He then started running the first Sheng Shiong store along with his two brothers, six sisters and staff to much success.
They opened the second outlet in Bedok in 1987, third in Woodlands in 1995, with the latter store featuring a fresh produce section that became popular among customers.
To date, Sheng Siong’s outlets number 40 islandwide.
2. Anastasia Liew, Bengawan Solo
Founder Anastasia Liew came to Singapore from Indonesia in 1970, and by 1975, she was baking and selling cakes and Kueh Lapis to family and friends. At the peak of its popularity, she was even supplying her creations to supermarkets and shops!
However, since she was operating without a valid food manufacturing license, Liew was instructed by the Ministry of Health in 1979 to shut down the business. Despite that, the demand still persisted, and Liew opened her first store in Marine Terrace a few months later, naming it “Bengawan Solo” after a popular Indonesian folk song.
After mainstream fanfare was boosted by a glowing newspaper review, she eventually opened a second outlet at Centrepoint shopping centre on Orchard Road in 1983.
To date, Liew’s confectionaries continue gaining popularity, and there are about 40 Bengawan Solo outlets around the island to date.
3. Sim Chye Hock Ron, OSIM
Widely-known for its massage chair, OSIM’s founder Sim Chye Hock Ron had to start working even before he turned 9 to help out his family who weren’t doing well financially.
After many years of working and gaining experience, Sim started his company in 1980 specialising in trading household goods. Due to a recession in 1985, however, he had to shut it down.
Seeing an emerging trend in the healthcare sector, Lim started a new company in 1987, named Health Check & Care, and its first shop was located at People’s Park.
Sim expanded his operations to other Asian countries such as Thailand in 1990, Malaysia in 1992, Indonesia and Beijing in 1993 and Shanghai in 1994. In that same year 1994, Sim’s company was renamed to OSIM, the name it’s now famous for.
Sim then continued his desire to make OSIM an international brand by venturing into the United States in 1997, and Dubai in 1999.
Over time, OSIM not only increased its market distribution avenues, but its inventory as well. The company now sells massage chairs, neck pillows, slimming belts, blood pressure monitors as well as air & water purifiers.
OSIM currently has 856 outlets in 31 different countries, with 18 of them located in Singapore.
4. Low Cheong Kee & Low Cheong Yew – Home-fix
Local hardware store Home-Fix was founded by brothers Low Cheong Kee and Low Cheong Yew in 1993. The Low brothers’ family used to sell charcoal and firewood, when their grandfather opened the store during the early 1960’s.
During the 1970s, their parents realised that due to the rise of HDBs, plumbing tools, rather than charcoal and firewood, were in demand. This prompted them to add tools into their inventory of their renamed store – Tian Seng Hardware And Paints Enterprise.
In 1993, Low Cheong Kee opened his first Home-Fix DIY store at Siglap Centre, adding power tools and other gadgets into his inventory list.
The older Low, who was managing the first Home-Fix store at that time, received information from his friend, a owner of a game shop at Siglap, about his expansion to Tanglin Mall in Orchard. The news then inspired Low to open another outlet at that very place.
Soon enough, the younger Low quit his job in the insurance industry and joined his brother in opening Home-Fix’s second outlet.
However, the brothers’ big break came when Sten Lunden, former IKEA Singapore managing director, invited them to set up shop at the furniture giant’s Alexandra outlet.
Lunden had seen their store in Tanglin Mall and liked its concept, deciding that he wanted them to open a shop at IKEA. The opportunity provided by IKEA proved to be beneficial, and the brothers credit their success to it.
Home-Fix DIY has now become the go-to store for many Singaporeans, with 20 local outlets and 9 more in Malaysia.
5. Sim Wong Hoo – Creative Technology
Creative Technology was founded by Sim Wong Hoo in 1981. He was later joined by two more co-founders Ng Kai Wa and Chay Kwong Soon. Their goal was to manufacture and distribute products for personal computers (PC); products that had been funded by Sim’s personal savings.
The company started out in a small store at a shopping mall, selling computers and providing computer training services, namely, for the Apple II computer system. Being inspired by the Apple computer, Creative decided to create its own as well.
In 1984, Creative released their first computer, the Cubic 99, made to be compatible with both the Apple and CP/M operating systems. Two years later, another computer, the Cubic CT was unveiled. It featured a Chinese-language operating system that could translate documents to and from English and Chinese.
However, these didn’t do very well. After a few unsuccessful projects, the company shifted to working on a sound-card technology that led to the creation of Sound Blaster sound cards. And with their launch in 1989, Creative set the “de-facto standard for PC audio“.
The company expanded its product list by releasing its first portable MP3 player, the Nomad, in 1999. It also created a line of popular webcams that eventually led to the development of digital cameras in the 2000s.
Since then, Creative Technology has released enhancement devices for popular products such as the Xbox 360, Playstation 3, as well as gaming headsets, headphones and product accessories.
6. Leung Yun Chee – Axe Oil
Axe Oil’s founder, Leung Yun Chee, first came to Singapore from China in 1927, where he later met German physician, Dr. Schmeidler in 1978. From him, Leung obtained a recipe for a medicated oil to cure all sorts of ailments.
Using that recipe, he set out creating a business, but was met with competing brands from China and Hong Kong.
Hence Leung thus decided to market his product more creatively. With a team of illustrators and graphic designers, he was able to bring his vision of his logo – the axe, to life.
Leung also produced pamphlets describing the benefits of the oil, and distributed them all over Singapore. With the help of his pamphlets, Axe Oil’s sales increased.
However, Axe Oil’s breakthrough came when World War 2 broke out, and the Japanese ceased trade from abroad. This resulted in Leung’s product being the go-to medicated oil in times of need.
The brand’s first successful venture into the foreign market was with Saudi Arabia when the oil was adopted by pilgrims on their way to hajj. The trips were made by sea, and the cramped and uncomfortable conditions caused travelers to suffer from headaches, giddiness and insect bites.
With the use of the oil, the pilgrims were able to treat their conditions and soon came to rely on it. With the business propelled forward, Axe Oil was eventually able to establish itself.
The brand has expanded to Asian countries like Vietnam and Philippines, as well as non-Asian countries such as Australia, United States and even Greece.
7. Tjioe Ji Nan & Andrew Tjioe – Tung Lok Group
Managing over 40 prominent restaurants in Singapore and Asia, Tung Lok was founded by father-and-son duo Tjioe Ji Nan and Andrew Tjioe, who is currently running the company.
The older Tjioe initially operated Oceanic, a textile business that unfortunately, did not fare well due to the failing industry. Hence, he decided to open the Charming Garden restaurant at Orchard Inn serving Hunanese cuisine in 1980.
The restaurant’s success led both Tjioes to establish Tung Lok in 1984 at Liang Court after the building’s owner wanted a more refined restaurant similar to Hong Kong’s Sun Tung Lok Restaurant.
Tung Lok continued growing their restaurants in Singapore, starting in 1988 when it took over the Grand Pavilion at the Chinese Swimming Club.
The Tjioes expand Tung Lok overseas with their first outlet in Indonesia in 1993. They subsequently opened more stores in Indonesia and Beijing. And to date, the restaurant has outlets all over Asia in Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan.
Bonus information: Singer Nathan Hartono is the grandson of Tung Lok Group’s founder.
8. Nina Hwang – Bibi & Baba
Specialising in producing school uniforms in Singapore, Bibi & Baba was founded by Madam Nina Hwang in 1947.
The shop, then named Majestic, started out as a children’s dress shop. Later on, it started producing school uniforms when the Singapore American School tasked them with the job.
Since then, Bibi & Baba has gained much recognition, and even supplied their creations to major retailers like Marks & Spencer, Macy’s and GAP. The company also snagged the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a dress for Princess Diana, an outfit she wore doing her 1983 Australian tour.
Despite being in the business for many years, Bibi & Baba still remains a small operation, and has only one store located at the second floor of Far East Shopping Centre.
9. Madam Ong – Fragrance
We all know Bee Cheng Hiang when it comes to bak kwa. However, there is another local Bak Kwa brand that has also been the favourite of many Singaporeans.
Fragrance Bak Kwa was founded by Madam Ong in 1969, when she opened up her first stall in Singapore.
Initially named Fu Gui Xiang, it was later renamed Fragrance in 1990. Madam Ong’s bak kwa is popularly known for containing interesting ingredients such as ginseng, as well as offering different types of bak kwa like those made from crocodile meat. Fragrance also sells heart and pig-shaped bak kwa, for those who prefer their meat a bit fancier.
Fragrance currently has 40 outlets based in Singapore with 5 more situated in Malaysia.
10. Kwan Pen Seng – Kwanpen
Kwan started out in the leather industry restoring leather handbags for British officers’ wives and businessmen. His experience and skills led him to create Kwanpen in 1938, manufacturing crocodile leather bags in his home workshop.
The brand saw an eventual expansion during the 1970s when more work came in from well-known western handbag labels. Kwanpen’s first store opened at Orchard Road in 1976 and since then, Kwan has grown the brand globally.
Kwanpen has also collaborated with Ashley Isham for the 2013 Audi Fashion Festival in Singapore, which saw them providing bags for the runway.
The first international outlet was in Hong Kong in 1999, with more later being set up in the United Kingdom and South Korea.
Although Kwanpen only has 3 outlets in Singapore, they are one of the few businesses with stores in Europe, Southeast Asia and Western Asia (Turkey and Qatar).
The brand’s iconic collections consist of the Raffles handbag, Droplet, Signature and Classic collection.
Let’s Not Forget Our First-Generation Entrepreneurs
These entrepreneurs have created products that we have now incorporated into our daily lives. As a result, we sometimes forget that all of them started from the bottom, just like the younger entrepreneurs today.
Their circumstances were different from ours today, and they did not have any modern technology to propel them. Yet they were able to make it out of the tunnel successfully.
They have also been a boon to Singapore’s economy, creating brands famous both locally and internationally. And in today’s thriving economy, their empires still stand strong.
It’s time we thank them for their efforts, as well as acknowledge and remember them. Because without them, we wouldn’t be as comfortable as we are now, would we?
How many did you already know from the list? Let us know in the comment section below!