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What you didn't know about Royal Selangor

Half a century ago, the present chairman of Royal Selangor Singapore, Yong Poh Shin, and his team of artisans left their homes in Malaysia and boarded the train to Singapore. It was their first overseas endeavour, and the team was brimming with hope.

Since then, they’ve gone from being a mere factory in Paya Lebar Road that was surrounded by attap huts and farms, to the largest pewter company in the world. In between are stories of true grit and valuable business acumen. We chat with Mr Yong during Royal Selangor Singapore’s 50th anniversary celebrations.

 

 

Your father started Royal Selangor. What is one notable memory of him?

My father is old-school. When I left Senior Cambridge, he made me an apprentice in the factory and told the foreman: “You push him. If he doesn’t behave, let me know.” At that time, I was very unhappy, but now I must say I am grateful to him. He said if I do not know how to make pewter, I won’t be able to help (my) employees solve problems.

What was it like working in the factory?

After being an apprentice for a year, I was allowed to run the factory and help with the wholesale business. We had a third-party retail shop selling our goods in Penang, Ipoh, Malacca and Singapore. I had to visit them on a motorbike – rain or shine, I had to get there. Those experiences made me an all-rounder.

Photo: Yong Poh Shin, Yong Poh Kon, Yong Peng Kai (1961)

How did Royal Selangor change the perception of pewter from an everyday material used for utensils to something decorative?

In the old days, pewter was used mainly for beer mugs, flower vases and ashtrays. But we found that Disney was willing to grant licences to reputable companies. Some companies shy away from buying licences, but this was what we did to progress. The first licence we had was from Star Wars. With new titles coming in, and to keep up with the trends, our latest introduction to the market is the Limited Edition Iron Man Infinity War Figurine (below) and Limited Edition Captain America Resolute Figurine.

What were some of the defining moments of your career?

In 1968, we had a surprise visit from Chua Wee Meng of the Singapore Economic Development Board. It took less than 10 minutes for him to observe that pewter manufacturing is a labour-intensive process. He told us, with the British Navy and Royal Australian Airforce pulling out of Singapore, there was a big pool of unemployment, and that he would like us to set up a factory in Singapore with a guaranteed pioneer status for a minimum of five years. My father and I decided to take up the offer.

Royal Selangor was one of the first few companies to hire physically challenged as well as female workers. What spurred this decision?

Yes, because all you need to make pewter is a good pair of hands and good eyesight. We never once questioned our decision.

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