51 Arab Street, Singapore 199748
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Quality Textiles and Relationships


Name of business:

Mahaco Impex

Business location:

51 Arab Street, Singapore 199748

Business type:





Mahaco Impex is a family business founded by Mr Maha Singh Sandhu in the 1980s. The shop has gone through ups-and-downs and is currently run by second-generation owner Mr Gurmail Singh. He reflects on how the business has adapted to meet the changing needs of customers, but he continues to prioritise and maintain the good relationships with his customers and suppliers.

The 1980s was a time when trading companies would almost certainly tag “import and export” to their business name, a reflection of the thriving wholesale sector during that period. Mahaco Impex Silk Shop was among those companies, selling silk in bulk to clients from countries like Indonesia and Myanmar. Today, it has changed with the times, and has become a retailer in fabric, ready-made clothing and household accessories. Even so, it stays true to its identity as a silk shop on Arab Street that sells high quality fabrics and provides excellent customer service. Today, Mr Gurmail Singh, the son of the shop’s founder, works hard to keep his father’s legacy alive.

The story of the Singhs’ experiences in Singapore spans three generations. It can be traced back to Mr Gurmail’s grandfather. Migrating from Punjabi, he put down his roots in Singapore, and ran his own private taxi business. Years later, he arranged for Mr Maha, his son, to work in a textile shop across the street where Mahaco sits today. Mr Maha would help his employer with routine tasks, such as running the shop and delivering rolls of fabrics on a bicycle. As he worked, Mr Maha learnt about the textile industry and accumulated years of experience under his belt. When his employer retired, Mr Maha decided to start his own textile business. He launched the fabric wholesale business single-handedly. Mr Maha began by selling netting to florists and bridal shops from the back of his motorbike, before gradually expanding to silk. The business flourished and Mahaco Impex moved into the current shophouse where it has been for more than 30 years. Mr Maha ran the shop together with his wife, Mdm Jusbin, and the business expanded into three other shops in Kampong Gelam. Though they had to close two of the shops due to the pandemic, the ones they held on were Mahaco Impex and Jasco Fabrics. The latter shop is named after Mdm Jusbin, and sells a wide array of clothing, such as batik shirts, silk and cashmere shawls, and cushion covers.

Mr Gurmail joined the family business in 2000 after completing his national service and has been running the shop with his parents since. Learning the tricks of the trade from his parents, he is very familiar with the different products in his shop, as well as the preferences of his customers. He says visitors, especially those from Europe, prefer buying fabrics for furnishings like curtains and bedspreads. In terms of Asian customers, South Korean, Chinese, and Japanese tourists prefer ready-made products, while Indonesians would buy fabrics to make their own clothing.

As he manages the business, one thing that Mr Gurmail always bears in mind is to maintain good relationships with people. He is always friendly to customers, patiently offering his knowledge when they need help understanding the different types of fabrics. “You please your customers, your customers will help you. That’s how my mom had been teaching me since I joined here lah. I think that’s the best way to promote ourselves,” Mr Gurmail shares. His words ring true, with a myriad of reviews on Tripadvisor, with customers commending the great customer service and eager to visit again. Mr Gurmail happily recounts, “Many of my customers tell me, ‘My friend recommended me’. You serve them, then they recommend another friend, one recommends one, another recommends two, then two recommend three. Then it snowballs.” He is also very conscious of the need to maintain strong relationships with suppliers. Mahaco Impex gets its supply of silks and other textiles from its long-time suppliers in Thailand, South Korea, Japan, Italy, Ireland and China. Through these partners, Mahaco Impex can acquire beautiful and high-quality fabrics, such as Thai silk with Indian embroideries, Chinese brocade, and Irish linen. Mr Gurmail notes that he cannot find any new suppliers that are better than his current suppliers, and highly regards the importance of sustaining his long-term partnerships with them.

Being in Arab Street for so long, Mr Gurmail has watched the district evolve over the years. In its heyday, the Arab Street of the 1980s and 1990s was a bustling wholesale textile centre. Fabric shops like Mahaco Impex enjoyed booming trade due to a strong demand for fabrics. The turning point came when China expanded its textile market around the year 2000. The scale of Chinese textile manufacturing and products, coupled with aggressive pricing, gave local wholesalers a difficult time. To survive, textile shops shifted their focus to retail sales directly to end consumers. Likewise, Mahaco Impex switched to readymade clothing and increased its repertoire to sell other products such as cottons, shawls, pashminas, and bedspreads. Their willingness to adapt allowed the business to continue operating during the 2000s. Yet another challenge came when COVID-19 pandemic hit, causing the number of walk-in customers to drop drastically. Mr Gurmail tried to boost sales by bringing the business online. However, he decided that e-commerce was not the most suitable channel to sell silk after receiving slow responses. “Some things are not really meant to be online,” Mr Gurmail notes, as he reflects on his attempt to digitise. In the fabric business, customers would always want to feel the material before making the purchase, given that silk is relatively more expensive. While the shop managed to tide over the worst of the pandemic, Mr Gurmail is hopeful that business from regular local customers will pick up pace and tourists will return as the borders reopen.

Despite the challenging business environment, Mr Gurmail enjoys running Macaho Impex very much. He explains, “You get to meet all kinds of people every day. We have the nicest people, we have the meanest people. We meet all kinds.” Such interactions, whether positive or negative, never fail to add colour to his day-to-day life. He also likes his neighbours, developing close bonds over the years. “I’ve been saying, we’ve been here for 30 over years, like, it’s a long-term relationship.” Having stayed for so long, he hopes that he can continue to operate Mahaco Impex in Kampong Gelam. No matter how the future will unfold, one thing Mr Gurmail knows for sure is that under his watch, he wants Mahaco Impex to become “the best silk shop in Singapore.”

Interviewed by Liew Yi Ling and Jacquelline Choo on 17 May 2022.