During the onset of the Asian financial crisis in 1997 Mr Heng Chye Yam bought over a business making moulds for cutting paper products such as carpark coupons. Little did he know that the process of creating moulds for these ubiquitous coupons would be so complicated – or that they would become such meaningful mementos for his grandchildren two decades later.
At one end of mould-maker Metalwood’s factory, a machine armed with lasers take aim at a sheet of plywood. Its movements are precise, creating a tiny incomplete circular groove on the sheet before repeating the process again and again.
The entire process of making a carpark coupon mould takes hours, as workers have to painstakingly cut grooves using a laser machine, then knock knives into the mould to cut the 80-odd tabs on each coupon.
A worker at Metalwood preparing and bending reels of knives to be fitted into lasercut grooves on a mould. Photo Source: National Library Board
Introduced in 1982, the colour-coded coupons were a routine part of life for many Singaporeans. Motorists would punch out tabs to indicate the date and time their vehicles were parked, then leave the coupon on the dashboard. But few motorists are aware of how much effort goes into making the small tabs, said Mr Heng Chye Yam, the owner of Metalwood.
“I believe anybody using carpark coupons would not have bothered much about how the tabs were cut,” mused Mr Heng. “You would never realise how much work went into it, until you saw the complex process of making a die-cut mould.”
Mr Heng took over Metalwood Pte Ltd in October 1997 at age 42, after a printing company decided to hive off its die-cut mould subsidiary. Sensing an opportunity, the businessman decided to buy the company. With his training as a software engineer and experience as a businessman, he thought that he had the right skills to grow the business.
But in September 1997, the Asian financial crisis struck, plunging the region into a deep recession, as currencies tumbled. Many companies were hit and jobs were lost.
“Everybody was quite jittery about whether the business would materialise. But there is always opportunity in crisis, and what may seem like a bad event may turn out to have positive consequences, as the Chinese saying sai weng shi ma (塞翁失马 – meaning “blessing in disguise”) goes,” recalled Mr Heng.
While Singapore also fell into recession, it was less affected by the crisis than some of its neighbours such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand.
With Mr Heng’s expertise, Metalwood was able to secure contracts not just from Singapore companies, but also overseas from countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India and Vietnam, which required high-precision mould designs and reliable quality.
At its peak, Metalwood was making between 300 and 400 different moulds a month. Products ranged from chequebooks to high-end cosmetics packaging, cigarette boxes, McDonalds’ Happy Meal boxes, and even trapezium-shaped boxes for inkjet cartridges. Making moulds for these three-dimensional boxes was an even more intricate process compared to the one for carpark coupons.
However, new challenges arose after the Asian financial crisis. Singapore’s rising costs and relatively small market prompted many of Metalwood’s peers to move overseas to countries such as Malaysia and Vietnam, where labour and land was cheap and demand was greater.
Mr Heng chose to remain. “If I also moved the business overseas, then my Singapore employees would lose their jobs since they cannot relocate easily,” he reasoned. “So I decided that as long as there are enough sales to sustain the company, I would keep it going here.”
Mr Heng Chye Yam (right in light blue shirt) sharing a moment with one of his workers. Photo Source: National Library Board
Now, Metalwood is believed to be just one of several mould-makers that are left in Singapore. Its staff has dwindled to 20 from 36 at its peak before the 2008 subprime crisis. Mr Heng semi-retired in 2010 so that he and his wife, Jennifer, could spend more time with his two grandchildren. He also took up a position as a director of a listed company, and paid more attention to his investments, while mentoring young and aspiring entrepreneurs.
Mr Heng with his grandson, Ethan. He wants to spend more time with his family after running the business for nearly 20 years. Photo Source: National Library Board
“It’s a way of making up for lost time,” reflected Mr Heng, recalling how the pressures of running Metalwood had taken away precious time with his son and daughter during their childhood.
His grandson Ethan, 4, has been to his factory, and was fascinated by the various moulds there. He found carpark coupons a novelty, since about seven in 10 public off-street carparks now operate under the electronic parking system. And young Ethan is unlikely to use a carpark coupon when he is old enough to drive, given that the government announced plans in February 2017 to phase out coupons altogether. His two year-old granddaughter Esther has not yet been to the factory.
“I’m quite thrilled to tell my grandkids that in the old days before we had the ERP technology, these were the coupons Singaporeans used and I was a part of it because I made the moulds,” said Mr Heng, who also started the company Triple Helix to provide Life Sciences training programmes in secondary schools just as the biomedical and microbiology industries were starting up in 2000.
Like motorists using the carpark coupon, Mr Heng has punched in his time at the business, preferring to spend more time with his family. Photo Source: National Library Board
Mr Heng hopes the moulds will be a real-life lesson to his grandchildren about harnessing technology to improve people’s lives.
“I hope they have a positive attitude towards change and opportunities, so that they can look at a process and see how they can improve it to make life easier for everybody.”
Written by: Grace Ng
This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign