A cut above the rest: Toa Payoh barber gains popularity after Defence Minister's praise

With one picture, this humble barber was propelled into the spotlight.

But then it is not every day that you cut the hair of Singapore's Defence Minister.

On Dec 27, Dr Ng Eng Hen posted on his Facebook page about his haircut at Toa Payoh's Bugs Bunny Barber and the man behind the clippers, Mr Abdul Kadir Samin, 62.

In his post, Dr Ng praised Mr Abdul Kadir for a haircut that, at $8, was good and cheap.

"I knew that he took a picture of me while I was cutting his hair," said Mr Abdul Kadir.

"I didn't expect him to post it on Facebook, much less the attention it got."

Mr Abdul Kadir has been fielding requests from various media outlets and was inundated with calls from family and friends.

"I'm a bit embarrassed by all the attention," he added sheepishly.

With more than 40 years' worth of haircuts under its belt, Bugs Bunny Barber is an institution in the area.

It has been at Block 94, Toa Payoh Lorong 4 since 1971.

Although the shop has had a number of facelifts over the years, the interior has a tinge of the retro, with a bright orange and white colour scheme.

The furniture is unmistakably from an era gone by, though still fully functional.

It does not have the gentleman's club feel that some modern barbers have, but there is a friendly and cosy atmosphere.


Bugs Bunny is more than a place for haircuts. For regulars of a certain age, it is a hangout.

The shop name was not a deliberate choice and the cartoon rabbit had been the shop's emblem long before the move to Toa Payoh.

The business used to be called Abu Nawas Barber Shop and it was started by Mr Abdul Latiff Mohammad Fahmi in Paya Lebar in the early 1960s.

"It was just a small shack with four barber chairs," said Mr Abdul Latiff, 78. The neighbourhood kids had a habit of drawing on the walls outside his shop.

"Then one night, one of the kids painted a huge Bugs Bunny on the wall outside my shop," said Mr Abdul Latiff.

"It was very nicely done, so I let it be. Over time, people came to know us as the Bugs Bunny barber shop."

When Mr Abdul Latiff moved his business to Toa Payoh in 1971, the name became official.

Mr Abdul Kadir started working at the shop in 1972, when he was 19.

Through four decades of men's hairstyles, Mr Abdul Kadir has heard many unusual requests.

He said he rarely turns down a customer's hairstyle request.

"As long as they are able to describe the hairstyle to me, I will give it a try," said the father of five and grandfather of one.


In recent years, Singapore has seen the rise of the cheap and fast salons, which have opened up around the area.

"We don't really think about them, we have always been focused on our own business and customers," he said.

The bigger issue for Mr Abdul Kadir is who carries on the Bugs Bunny legacy.

He has worked the majority of his life there and he wants to see the barber shop continue.

But finding someone to take it on is proving difficult.

"There have been a few who try to pick up the trade, but they have never lasted," Mr Abdul Kadir said regretfully.

While he has heard of the recent trend of high-end gentleman's barber shops that look old-school but cost considerably more, he is not bothered by them.

"They cater to different customers," he said.

Will their succession plans be clipped?

It is not a lack of business that could kill off neighbourhood barbers.

Barbers who spoke to The New Paper (TNP) have weathered the threat of the 10-minute quick-cut vendors. The rise of the hipster barbers does not worry them, either. And there is no lack of hair to cut.

The true test will be when it is time to hand the clippers over to a successor - simply because in many cases, there are no successors to be found.

Mr Ali Yusuf, co-owner of Red Panther Barber Stylist at Upper Serangoon Shopping Centre, said he cannot see anyone taking over from him.

He owns the shop with his brother, Mr Ahmad Yusuf, 64.

The children of both Mr Ali and Mr Ahmad have not picked up the family trade. Mr Ali has one son and Mr Ahmad has one daughter. "Young people don't want to pick up this skill," said the 61-year-old.

Red Panther began in the shopping centre in 1982.


The eclectically-decorated shop is a hangout of sorts for the regulars and the decorations are testament to the bond some customers have with the shop.

A row of souvenir licence plates from around the world lines the top of the shop wall. Most are gifts from customers who studied overseas.

Business is brisk for the Panther men. When TNP visited the shop last Thursday, there was a queue of lunchtime customers.

Mr Ali greeted each one like an old friend, trading some light-hearted insults and banter as they settled on the park benches used in the waiting area.

He attracts young customers, but has been unable to attract an apprentice.

While he has trained a few barbers who have since set up their own shops, some simply gave up halfway.

The number of drop-outs led Mr Ali to give up on training. He trained his last apprentice more than 10 years ago. Now, he is concentrating on his clientele.

"As long as my hands are steady and my eyesight is good, I will continue to cut hair," he said.

"When I retire..."

His sentence trailed off, suggesting that he will cross that particular bridge when he gets to it.

The question mark over the continuation of neighbourhood barbers is not unique to Red Panther.

Mr A.K. Kandasamy, the 77-year-old owner of New Star Hair Dressing Saloon in Serangoon Road, faces the same issue.

He has been operating the shop at the same location for 55 years.

None of his children took up the clippers as a career and he was unable to find a new barber when one of his staff retired in the early 2000s.

So six years ago, he resorted to hiring a barber from India.

"I have advertised in the papers and even on television for new hires," said the sprightly septuagenarian.

"But no one took it up... all these young people baulked at the long working hours."

The shop is open from 9am to 9pm, except on Fridays when it is closed.

On a weekend, the shop can service more than 100 customers - a mix of professionals, foreign workers and even Caucasian travellers, thanks to backpacking hostels in the area, said Mr Kandasamy.

When a customer stepped into his shop, he excused himself and quickly busied himself with his work.

His deft hands are a sign of someone who has mastered his craft.

Though Mr Kandasamy may not look like a man nearing 80 - he credits weightlifting in his 20s for his good health - he is aware of his age.

When the inevitable passage of time eventually forces him to put down his clippers, the legacy might end with him.

"I don't know when I will stop (cutting hair), but until that day, I will continue."

This article was first published on Jan 4, 2016.
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