Farewell, Serangoon Plaza - the palace of yore

Farewell, Serangoon Plaza - the palace of yore
Shelves and racks standing empty at the Serangoon Plaza store last Friday as Mustafa, which has occupied the building since 1985 and now leases 65,000 sq ft of space on three floors, moved its merchandise next door to Mustafa Centre. Serangoon Plaza is set to be demolished next month.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

For the past 23 years, the Serangoon Plaza branch of Singapore's famed Mustafa shopping centre has been Mr P. Mohamed Rafeek's workplace.

"This was the biggest building in the area in the eighties and nineties. It was almost like a palace," the 44-year-old said wistfully.

At night, as cars choke the main thoroughfare of Serangoon Road and spill over into neighbouring streets, fluorescent lights at the 24-hour shopping emporium flash across the road.

The green retro-styled signage, bearing the names of owners Mohamed Mustafa & Samsuddin Co, harks back to those halcyon times, beckoning travellers and sleepless Singaporeans to rove through aisles overflowing with clothes, household electronics and other trinkets.

But Mr Rafeek has now been displaced from his palace of yore.

Come next month, the five-storey Serangoon Plaza will be demolished.

In its place will rise a gleaming, new 19-storey building - Centrium Square, a mixed development property consisting of medical suites, retail stores and offices that will be completed in the third quarter of 2019.

Since early this month, the retail supervisor has been working at the Mustafa Centre building, where he gingerly squeezes his way past racks that have been crammed with even more dry-fit shirts and sports shoes - because of stock that has been moved over from the Serangoon Plaza branch.

"It's a bit more packed here, but I'm passionate about the job. If the store moves, I will follow," said Mr Rafeek, who has seen Mustafa's staff strength grow from a few hundred in the early 1990s to about 1,700 now.

As the deadline for moving out looms, Mustafa, which has occupied the building since 1985 and now leases 65,000 sq ft of space on three floors - about 70 per cent of the total retail space in the building - has been clearing its shelves out and moving all merchandise next door to Mustafa Centre.

The other tenants, including offices and travel agencies, are also moving out of the building.

Mustafa retail supervisor P. Mohamed Rafeek (left) with his colleagues from the sportswear section at the Serangoon Plaza store in 1996. Beside him is Mr Abdul Rahman, 47, now a supervisor at the supermarket section in Mustafa Centre. The other two men are no longer with the retail giant.Photo: Courtesy of P.Mohamed Rafeek

Mustafa's total retail space will be reduced by about a quarter, with the remaining store at Mustafa Centre building - owned by the company - having over 200,000 sq ft.

Some older stocks at the Serangoon Plaza branch have been cleared out, but most will be moved to the bigger building, which opened in 1995.

Mr Magendran, 37, an assistant supervisor at Mustafa's electronics department, said that goods that cannot find space in Mustafa Centre can be kept in its Kallang warehouse.

This will help to alleviate the space crunch.

A Mustafa spokesman said that all of its staff are staying put, and that it has no plans to secure more retail space for now.

Tributes to Serangoon Plaza, which housed Mustafa's flagship store, have poured in after the announcement of its demolition date last week.

Some, like operations manager Koh Wee Liang, 39, came with cameras to document a landmark that has been a favoured night-time haunt.

Others, like administrative worker Leslie Lauw, 59, would miss the easy navigation of the more spacious branch - "unlike Mustafa Centre, which is a huge congested maze".

But most, like IT engineer Kulashree Phegade, 31, are glad the iconic Mustafa and its wide range of offerings are still around.

"As long as it has the goods I need, like Indian groceries and electronics, I will come back to Mustafa," she said.


The easy navigation of Mustafa’s more spacious Serangoon Plaza branch will be missed by some of its customers.Photo: The Straits Times

Questions still remain when it comes to the retail giant's plans for the future.

Mr Magendran said it would have to find a way to contend with the weekend crowds now that all retail operations have moved to Mustafa Centre.

Ms Sarah Lim, a senior retail lecturer at Singapore Polytechnic, does not think that Mustafa's customer base will be adversely affected by the closure of its branch.

But it may find itself in a dilemma when it comes to deciding whether to reduce its sales range for the sake of crowd control.

"(Cutting down on goods) may not be what the customer really wants.

People grumble, but they find a sense of familiarity in its packed layout and how it is brimming with goods.

"It's a psychological attachment that benefits Mustafa, though, of course, safety and security are compromised," said Ms Lim.

Retiree Chee Wai Khan, 60, who shops at Mustafa a few times a month, is unconcerned about the branch closure.

"They don't bother you when you shop. There's not much difference in both places."


Among those who remember the old-world offerings of Serangoon Plaza, however, a tinge of nostalgia remains.

First built in the 1960s as President Shopping Centre before being bought by Feature Development, a unit of Tong Eng Group, in 1984, it boasted Singing Palace, a theatre restaurant on the second level that played host to popular Taiwanese songbird Yao Su Rong in the 1970s.

Writer Boey Kim Cheng, 51, who frequented the area in his childhood in the early 1970s, recalled how the President Shopping Centre's "clean, white and unfussy shape gave it a slightly dignified, even majestic, air, a dramatic contrast to the surrounding streets which teemed with hawkers and vendors".

He added: "It's sad that it is going to join the already long list of vanished sights in Singapore. It will no doubt add to the growing sense of absence and dislocation among older generations."


This article was first published on Jan 15, 2017.
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