I had a confession to make as soon as I sat down with Kuok Meng Ru. We’re at Swee Lee’s massive new flagship store, located on the ground floor of Star Vista, inside its cosy by-appointment-only VIP room. One-of-a-kind guitars, ranging from $5,000 to $100,000 in price, line the walls of the boutique, looking a lot like an art gallery curated for rock stars.
Bluntly, I went for the jugular, explaining how as soon as my husband steps into a music store, which includes the old Swee Lee, I’d whine and ask, “When can we leave this place?”
The young owner of Singapore’s long-standing music company laughed and said, “That’s why with this new store concept, that’s inviting and inclusive, our joke is that it’s now time for the wife to suggest going to Swee Lee.”
When you think of your typical music retailer in Singapore, you imagine instruments and devices cramped into a tiny outlet, with many musicians fighting for that one single bar stool to test out an amp or guitar. Some places are even afraid of people touching the instruments and it isn’t conducive for customers to do anything else but browse like it’s an online shop.
Therefore, “Swee Lee 4.0”, as Kuok Meng Ru calls it, is a space created for professional musicians and music-loving consumers to come together and not feel intimidated. The new lifestyle store is also three times bigger than the company’s previous outlet, which used to occupy a 1,600-square-foot space only a couple of doors down.
Since the young and musical Kuok, who is also the grand-nephew of Malaysia’s richest man, acquired the 71-year-old distributor of guitars in 2012, he started working on his business plan to turn the sleepy company into a modern enterprise. The sweet new Swee Lee flagship you see today is the first fruit of Kuok’s five-year labour.
“This is the next generation of retail, where it’s not just for showrooming. Some of the things here are movable and part of the intention is to support our vision of being a social environment, where we can easily host workshops, music classes and private events,” Kuok said.
To further the vision, there’s a dedicated communal gathering spot called the Swee Lee Social Club — an in-house café serving top-notch coffee using beans from Common Man Coffee Roasters and a secret menu with new dishes to be announced soon.
Kuok also brought in fashion, apparel and lifestyle goods into the merchandising mix. So for every Gibson or Fender guitar, there is a Converse or Adidas sneaker to be purchased at Swee Lee because guitarists need shoes too.
“Music is related to fashion. People who care about music often care about the way they look and dress. It’s all part of the brand they create for themselves. We also offer watches, books and vinyl, and will be releasing more products moving forward,” Kuok said.
He also told me that although he is passionate about music, he thinks he isn’t talented enough to be a professional musician. The avid guitarist added, “But I have another passion, which is business. And so, having experienced different retail experiences and scenes created overseas, I saw that there were opportunities to bring Swee Lee to the next level and for this flagship in Singapore to be a lifestyle music hub for Southeast Asia.”
Kuok Meng Ru, who currently owns 49 percent of Rolling Stone, recently made headlines again after showing interest to buy the remaining 51 percent of the magazine. Being the inquisitive and sensible journalist that I am, I had to ask why he would want to do that, seeing as we’re in an age when publishing is said to be on its deathbed. He said, “No comment. But hey, at least you tried. If you never try, you’ll never succeed – and that is one of the best pieces of business advice I’ve received.”