Melding tradition and evolution in pewter is an ongoing process at 134-year-old Royal Selangor, a name synonymous with craftsmanship. The Malaysian company ventured across the Causeway in 1968 and was producing pewterware in Paya Lebar until the early 1990s, when the strong Singapore dollar forced it to close the factory.
But the brand has continued to serve customers there through dealers and showrooms, bringing them creative products shaped by changing lifestyles and tastes. On April 25, representatives from that solid network, business partners, friends and the media gathered to celebrate Royal Selangor Singapore’s golden jubilee at Shangri-La Hotel in the city state.
It was an evening to renew bonds, recap joint projects and retrace Royal Selangor Singapore’s 50-year journey, which began when a team of eight young artisans led by Yong Poh Shin — son of Yong Peng Kai, owner of Selangor Pewter in Kuala Lumpur — hopped on a southbound train, raring to penetrate a new market.
Poh Shin, now 80, and chairman of the Singapore setup, hosted the low-key event together with Chen Tien Yue, executive director of Royal Selangor Marketing.
Poh Shin had a free hand to hire staff from the get-go but there was no pewter manufacturing in Singapore then. Using heavy-industry workers was out because pewter is a soft material and “you cannot use a heavy hand on it”.
While visiting a sheltered workshop, Poh Shin was impressed by the skills of its physically-challenged workers. So he approached a friend dealing with artificial limbs for help to recruit some of them.
“We started with 20 workers and paid them the market rate. They were good — all they did was concentrate on their work,” he says.
Over the years, as industries started investing in Singapore, leading to a labour shortage and a lot of job-hopping, he realised he had done the right thing. “We had zero [staff] turnover.”
But there was competition from other brands and Poh Shin engaged Orient Crafts to distribute his products. In the early 1970s, he took over the distribution duties, placing Royal Selangor’s tankards, tea sets and gift items in retail stores in busy malls. Business boomed. “At our peak, we had 110 [special] workers and 10 able-bodied ones to do the heavy work,” he says.
Among the latter was Saleh Hassan, 76, one of the pioneers from KL and a special guest at the anniversary celebration. When he first joined the company in Malaysia in 1962, Saleh’s job was to buff pewter. He quickly picked up the other production processes, such as casting, soldering and spinning as well as how to repair and maintain the machines used. In Paya Lebar, he became the foreman in charge of operations and training new employees. Over time, he learnt how to handle the computerised engraving machines.
“It was not very difficult setting up here because we already had the experience. We brought the tools we needed, so everything was in place,” Saleh says.
The tougher part was communicating with his physically-impaired co-workers, many of whom could not hear or speak. “We had no knowledge of sign language, but one by one, we learnt to communicate with them. It was like when I started in KL — I was the only Malay there and could not speak Chinese or English.”
Job satisfaction kept Saleh with the company for 52 years until his retirement in 2012. “I was happy to have a job. I never thought of going to another place because of the Royal Selangor family. Mr Yong and his mother, they are very kind. They help you and talk to you. Even his father — he went to my house in the kampung in his BMW. I feel you cannot get this kind of employer elsewhere. When people are kind to you, you work and there’s no problem.”
Another old-timer at the celebration was Wong Suet Mei, 67, brought from KL to show guests how pewter is engraved. It is a skill she has been honing from the time she joined the company at the age of 15.
Computers have taken over the task at the factory but Wong has her hands full demonstrating how it is done, especially on promotional tours with the company. “I go to Japan twice a year and engrave the names of customers on the pewter items,” she says.
Looking back on his years of putting down roots in Singapore and steering the company, Poh Shin seems proudest of his team of special workers. The initial apprehension of hiring a blind woman — “we had little experience of working with the handicapped” — gave way to surprise when she turned in a perfectly-filed beer mug handle because of her sensitive hands. “It gave us a lot of pleasure to [see] the less-privileged workers having gainful jobs,” he says.
This article first appeared on May 13, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.