The songkok maker
As Ramadan approaches, Shahul Hameed Malim will gear up for his busiest days of the year. The Hari Raya season is a peak sales period for the Malay headdress – called songkok – that his family produces.
Their company, ABM Zulaikha Sdn Bhd, is the biggest producer of songkok in the country. But there is not a single person making songkok in their factory.
“We used to have 10 workers here, but there’s not enough space. So, we changed our method of operations. The workers now work from their homes, and we also outsource the work,” says Shahul who uses his factory space for warehousing instead.
In the 1980s, they moved their songkok operations to Mak Mandin, Seberang Perai’s earliest industrial zone, set up in the 1960s. It is now an enclave of medium-sized factories like ABM Zulaikha.
Before that, Shahul’s father had a shop on Beach Street in George Town. Then, the company was called Hj Aboobacker Marican & Sons, and Shahul’s father was the biggest importer of velvet in his time. There was a small space in their shop to sell songkok.
“All songkok are made of velvet, but the quality of the material varies. My father taught me about velvet and how to work with it. All the songkok makers used to buy their velvet from us. Some still do,” says Shahul, who renamed their company ABM Zulaikha after his father passed away.
ABM are his father’s initials and Zulaikha is his mother’s name. Out of 10 siblings, Shahul and his two brothers have carried on their family trade.
“These days, it’s harder to get workers who are keen to acquire the skills required to make the traditional headdress. Everyone wants to make fast money, but it takes time to master the skills to make a songkok.”
“There is an art, seni, to making songkok. It’s about making it with your heart. If you only use your head but not heart, you can’t make a songkok. It’s the right intuition that will make a fine songkok,” says Shahul as he demonstrated the steps to making a songkok.
Even though they have modern machines now, each songkok produced is still finished with hand-sewn hem. Shahul pays housewives 50sen a songkok for their fine stitching.
“Songkok making is an art,” he reiterates. “We tried out a machine, but we rejected three out of 10 songkok it hemmed. The work was just not fine enough.”
But Shahul does not always adhere to the old ways. Songkok used to be lined with old newspapers, and before that with old mengkuang matting. At ABM Zulaikha, they have innovated by using straw boards. “I was uneasy about using old newspaper as lining. We wear songkok to pray in the mosque, and we don’t know where these newspapers have been or what’s written on them.”
With this innovation, they have also been able to make songkok that are more pliable, so wearers can experiment with different styles. Some people prefer the Sultan style, which sits lower and flatter on one’s head, some like their songkok Gunung style, which sits taller on the head. Some like their songkok flat on their forehead but at an angle.
Shahul says what’s most important is wearing the songkok proudly because it’s part of the Malay heritage. Songkok is worn for religious activities and formal events. It’s integral to the Malay man’s attire of baju melayu.
Shahul is also exploring new markets. He has participated in programmes run by government agencies, such as Penang Regional Development Authority (Perda), for entrepreneurs and has gone to various expos to promote his product.
Says the enterprising songkok maker: “We went to Shanghai to an expo on Muslim products and the plan is to someday expand our songkok market to China.”