S'pore's last full-time songkok maker

SINGAPORE - In a small shop on the ground floor of Tanjong Katong Complex, the last full-time songkok maker in Singapore is still working tirelessly to keep a dying trade alive.

Mr Abdul Wahab Abdullah, 53, has been making and selling the traditional Malay head dress for 31 years, first at the old Geylang Serai market and now at his current location.

"We decided to move to Tanjong Katong Complex in 2003 because the old market was going to close," he said in Malay.

Having started when he was just a boy, Mr Abdul Wahab is now an expert in the art of songkok-making.

"I started learning how to make the songkok by hand from my late father when I was seven," the father of three said.

"When I was 22, I decided to open my own shop at the old Geylang Serai market."

In those days, business was tough because there was more competition.

"Now there is only me and one shop in the Arab Street area," he added with a smile.

The owner of the Arab Street shop, Mr Baharuddin Sulaiman, 79, has stopped sewing due to his failing eyesight and instead depends on two workers, The Straits Times reported in May.

Meanwhile, in his shop, which is about the size of an HDB bedroom, Mr Abdul Wahab is able to hand-stitch a songkok from scratch in about 1½ hours if he isn't disturbed.

Ramadan, the fasting month leading to Hari Raya Puasa, is when his business is brisk.

"On a normal month, I usually sell 20 to 30 songkoks, but during the fasting month, I can sell 200 to 300 songkoks," he said.

Skills required

"The hardest part is joining the top piece of the songkok with the sides.

"A skilled craftsmen will make sure the top and the sides are sewn together smoothly, but in the hands of a less skilled craftsman, the songkok will not turn out nice," he said.

While an off-the-shelf songkok might cost half as much as his premium custom-made ones, they would not fit as well, he said.

A handmade songkok using the best material costs $50 each.

"This means that I would be using the best suede available, called JB Martin. It is the smoothest and the longest-lasting suede available right now.

"One roll of JB Martin, which has about 40m of suede, costs $4,000 to $5,000 and we only use this brand," he said.

Apart from songkoks, his shop sells other traditional Malay items like chapals, a traditional Malay footwear, and kain songket, a traditional Malay batik sarong worn by the men.

Mr Abdul Wahab worries that the art of songkok-making may vanish with him.

But a few people have approached him to teach them the craft, he said.

"But so far, none of them has shown up. I think it’s because they don’t have the time to really learn the trade."

He hopes that the older of his two sons – both have learnt the craft from him – will take over when he eventually retires.

His son, Mr Zulfadli Abdul Wahab, 30, a financial adviser, said he is open to carrying on the family trade.

"I will seriously consider taking over the business. It would be a shame if no one takes over and there is no one left who is able to custom-make a songkok," he said.

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