To Survive and Sustain
Name of business:
V. S. S. Varusai Mohamed & Sons
721 North Bridge Road, Singapore 198689
V. S. S. Varusai Mohamed & Sons is a family-run business selling Muslim pilgrimage necessities such as ceremonial dresses, perfume oils, and tasbih (prayer beads). Established by his father in 1924, Mr Haji V. Syed Mohamed now runs the business together with his daughter.
In 2021, V. S. S. Varusai Mohamed & Sons had to say goodbye to its long-time home due to rental issues and move to a new location along North Bridge Road. Like most goodbyes, it was difficult for Mr Haji V. Syed Mohamed and his family to let go of the place that his father had poured his heart and soul into. Mr Mohamed’s father had originally brought his socks and textiles business from Myanmar (then known as Burma) to Singapore, setting up shop in Kampong Gelam. It was after doing his own Hajj pilgrimage that he decided to rebrand the business into a one-stop-shop selling everything from attar, which are natural perfume oils, to ihram, the ceremonial clothing worn on pilgrimages. The fact that they are the only brand in Singapore to have a patented Hajj belt is evidence of their reputation. Although moving from their original location was an emotional parting, the family accepts that “at the end of the day, we must also find a place that we can use to survive and sustain (the business).”
Mr Mohamed still makes most of the important decisions, but his children take care of the day-to-day operations. “My role in the business cannot be defined or constructed into one…I do everything!”, says his daughter, Ms Fauzia Rani. That is the nature of a family business; “no specific role, because in the family business you cannot say ‘I only do that, I only do this’.” These were the principles instilled in her from young, since helping out at the shop from her secondary school days. As her father gets older, she is slowly taking over the mantle, handling things such as overseas business trips, which he previously managed.
As in other family businesses, disagreements are bound to arise. As someone in her mid-30s, Ms Fauzia has more knowledge of the current market and has ideas to modernise the business. On the flip side, Mr Mohamed is more traditional in his beliefs, and maintains his view that the shop should be run in a conservative manner. While this has been a point of contention between the two, Ms Fauzia values the wisdom and experience that his father has from running the business for over 30 years; “I always feel that for them, for the parents who have been in the business for so long, for them it’s like a child. It’s like a baby.”
Over the years, each family member has sacrificed something to ensure that the business can adapt to the changing times. In recent years, the rise of e-commerce platforms and digitalisation has accelerated the need to make changes to ensure that sustainability of the business. For instance, the introduction of digital payment methods came as a huge shock to Mr Mohamed. Not being able to see or confirm the exchange made him anxious, particularly when dealing with large amounts of money. But just as Ms Fauzia had to accommodate her father’s views in some instances, Mr Mohamed has accepted the changes she has made for the sake of the business, even if they were out of his comfort zone. Slowly but surely, he has adapted to the change. “Now, he will tell customers, ‘ok, ok, no need to pay cash, you just PayNow better’,” laughs Ms Fauzia.
Aside from the Malay-Muslim community, people from different ethnicities and religions would visit the shop. Mr Mohamed recounts a Hindu customer who came to buy jasmine oil to put on his murti (statue of a deity). Despite the specialised nature of the shop, the open-mindedness of his customers reflects the environment of Kampong Gelam as a place where people of all backgrounds and businesses come together.
Ms Fauzia and her family are closely linked with the Kampong Gelam community and see other shop owners as part of the family. In fact, when they need advice, they would not hesitate to ask their neighbours at Jamal Kazura Aromatics; “I call him Uncle, ‘How did you do this or why is this smell so pungent?’ They are willing to help. There is no like, ‘I cannot be telling you this, this is my business secret, ah!’ There is no such thing!” But with the changing landscape, Ms Fauzia fears the erosion of Kampong Gelam’s cultural identity, which is intrinsic to many businesses in the area, including V. S. S. Varusai Mohamed & Sons.
Ms Fauzia does not plan to ask her children take over the business, but she hopes that the shop will at least be remembered for its contributions to the community. As a family business that has been running for nearly 100 years, she hopes that the resilience of V. S. S. Varusai Mohamed & Sons can inspire other heritage business owners out there.
“I just hope that people who run family businesses will not give up easily. It takes a lot of grit and strength to run a family business, because you always have to maintain a status quo. There is this thing you have to maintain. You have to protect the board name, protect what they have been doing for all these years, so it takes a lot of perseverance. So, to all those youngsters and those aspiring to take over their family businesses, keep going for it, one day, you’ll surely make it.”
Interviewed by Fistri Abdul Rahim and Ng Jun Xiang on 4 June 2022.