Mustafa: Singapore’s 400,000 sq. ft. store, and must-read story of Mustaq Ahmad--By Siraj Syed

Mustafa: Singapore’s 400,000 sq. ft. store, and must-read story of Mustaq Ahmad--By Siraj Syed

It’s officially called Mohamed Mustafa & Samsuddin (MMS) Co. Pvt. Ltd., however nobody, but nobody, calls it anything other than "Mustafa". Haji Mohamed Mustafa was the name of the father, and Samsuddin was the uncle, of a man called Mustaq Ahmad. Both were co-founders, with young Mustaq, and are both no more. 65 year-old Mustaq (never mind the phonetically incorrect spelling), the only child of his mother, is the Managing Director of the Singapore retail behemoth, the man who has been running it, for over 40 years. Ahmad is also a Director of the Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and a member of the Malay Chamber of Commerce.

 

 

 

Now, get a load of this. The company has a total staff of 1,862, who work in shifts, because most departments are open for 24 hours (since 2003). Mustafa’s annual sales volume is above S$725 million, and guess what? It doesn’t seem too high, when you see the swelling and jostling crowds, of both locals (mostly NRIs) and tourists, touching 15,000 a day. At this rate, a turnover of S$ 1bn is very much on the cards, before the decade is out.

 

The huge complex sprawls across Serangoon Road (known as Plaza) and Syed Alwi Road (Centre), broadly part of what has been designated as Little India, 1° above the equator. Singapore levies a 7% GST on all purchases, but tourists are later refunded just under 6% of this levy, making goods cheaper for foreigners, compared to locals. And Indians just love it. In 2011, Forbes Asia ranked Mustaq as the 37th richest man in Singapore, with a net worth estimated at US$240 million (S$300 million, at that time).

 

 

 

One company would not be able to manage so many areas of operation--MMS’s associate companies include Mustafa's Pte Ltd, Mustafa Air Travel Pte Ltd (provides visa services too), Mustafa Foreign Exchange, Kebabs & Curries (roof-top restaurant, opened in 2011), Handi Restaurant and Mustafa Café. A 130-room hotel, spanning some of the higher floors in the Centre, although heavily booked, was proving unviable, so it shut its doors some years ago.

 

At the store, they stock over 300,000 items, and the departments include supermarket, pharmacy, cosmetics, DVDs, footwear, luggage, garments, cloth, jewellery, TV, home appliances, a government franchised post office, and a teleshop (mobile and cordless phones). How much is that, in terms of land area? 400,000 sq. ft. of retail space, covering six stories, and additional parking levels

 

Outside Singapore, Mustaq set up businesses in Chennai (Goldmart, 8,000 sq ft.), SriLanka (also gold) and Cambodia (supermarkets). The gold store in SriLanka did not work out, but the one in Chennai still operates. Recently, Mustaq toyed with the idea of venturing into Malaysia, but thought the better of it. Cambodia had two Mustafa outlets, both in Phnom Penh, one of which has wound up recently.

 

I first met Mustaq in 1996, shortly after the company had opened its new centre, adjacent to the Serangoon Plaza, which had already been operational for a decade. Tired of waiting for Ali, a purchase supervisor in the groceries section of the store, who had been gone a good 15 minutes, I was grumbling about absent staff to no one in particular, when a diminutive, undistinguished man noticed my plight, walked up to me and asked if he could help. I had no clue about who he was, and asked him as much. Initially, he was unwilling to reveal his name, but later identified himself as Mustaq Ahmad. The Mustaq Ahmad? Indeed. In person! That was when I was based in Singapore, recruited from Mumbai and relocated, to set-up ESPN TVs Hindi satellite service, originating from a facility in the Lorong Chuan area of the island state.

 

Twenty years later, last month, I was ushered into his cabin, in the administrative department of the company, on the third level of a building right behind one of the structures in his complex, and right opposite his purchase department. It was 3.40 pm, and the appointment was at 3.30. I had reached at 3.29, but was made to wait for 11 minutes. Not much, by any measure, considering who I was meeting, but I soon discovered the real reason for this short wait. I had called Mustaq earlier in the day on his mobile phone, and fixed up this time, which suited us both.

 

When I entered the office, I was asked by the reception staff who I was, and whether I had an ‘appointment’ (merely doing their duty). I gave my name, handed over the nrizone.com visiting card (they call such cards ‘name cards’ in Singapore) and confirmed that I did indeed have an ‘appointment’. Formalities duly completed, I waited for the green signal to walk in. When finally called inside, I found Mustaq chiding me for the ‘appointment’ bit.

 

“I thought I had fixed up a business appointment with somebody, or my staff had fixed it for me, but could not recall anything about it, so was checking it out. There was no such record. You and I know each other for decades, and there has never been the need for cards between us, so I did not identify you with the card you sent in. Then I read it again, and realised who this visitor was. You should have come right in. Sorry to keep you waiting. Some tea?” He was fasting, as he always does, all through Ramadan, so I was reluctant to say yes. “Makes me feel bad. I am not fasting, and you are offering me tea!” “That’s okay”, he remarked,” Travellers are exempted from fasting anyway.” Tea it was. And then, a little hesitatingly, he opened-up.

 

Mustaq had just completed 65 years of age a couple of days ago, and I wished him a belated happy birthday. Then, over the next hour or so, I took him on a rocky trip down memory lane, a trip that began some sixty years ago, in 1956-57.

 

After a bumpy ride from his village in Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh, to Calcutta (now Kolkata), he found himself aboard a ship! Just over five years old, Mustaq Ahmad, the only child of his father, who had lost his mother less than a year ago, was bound for Singapore, where Mohamed Mustafa was an itinerant street-vendor. Mustaq was under the impression that the two-member family were moving into a new house, far away from Indian shores. Reality was much harsher.

 

All through the taxi ride, from the port to Campbell Road, whenever he saw a block of houses, he kept asking excitedly, “Abba (Pa), is this our new house?” None of them was. After they reached Campbell Street, he soon found out that his father did not have a house at all. They slept in a space adjacent to their stall, which wasn’t even a regular shop. The fact of the matter hit him hard, as he hit the floor, when night fell.

 

The little boy sorely missed the boundless love and warmth of his mother, in a land nearly 5,000 kms away, and still does. “I was around five when she died, and six decades later, I have never found that kind of love again in my life. I cannot tell you how much I miss her.” His eyes are glistening. I stop. Mine are moist too. Discretion dictates ‘strategic time out’.

 

Known to be reclusive and unassuming, Mustaq Ahmad had so much more to say and share. This is Part I of the story. We’ll say it all, share it all, in this exclusive, fascinating, incredible and heart-tugging NRI life-story, serialised on nrizone.com.

 

Do keep logging in, and reading, regularly. Part II will soon follow.

 

 

Siraj Syed is the Consulting Editor of nrizone.com. See profile. 


 

 

 

Views expressed and claims made in the articles on this site are the contributors' own, and nrizone does not necessarily agree with them, or endorse them, in any way.
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