Here’s What Swee Lee Music Looks Like With Kuok Meng Ru In Charge
"The very first guitar that I ever bought was from Swee Lee,” shares Kuok Meng Ru with a grin, as he reminisced his longstanding connection with the homegrown multi-brand retailer, which was founded in 1946 just as the rock and roll genre was taking America by storm. “I must have been around 15 years old when I bought it. It was a beautiful American-made Fender Stratocaster, a Highway One model which I still have today.”
The newly-launched Swee Lee Music Malaysian flagship store at Lot 10 in Kuala Lumpur, is an appropriate setting for our interview with the man in question.
Surrounded by endless rows of new and pre-loved guitars with the synth-pop tunes of a live band cranked up in the background, Meng Ru is a picture of contentment, and rightfully so, given how far Swee Lee has come since he acquired it in 2012. From a humble store in Singapore selling guitar and audio gear, Swee Lee Music is nearly unrecognisable from its beginnings today.
Song of Life
Spanning over 5000 sq ft, the brand's concept flagship store in Singapore at The Star Vista also carries a wide range of instruments and sweet array of lifestyle gear from apparel to vinyl records, guaranteed to make the heads of music fans turn and excited for more. In addition, it boasts a cafe called Swee Lee Social Club supported by baristas who know how to brew their coffee.
In similar fashion, the newly refurbished flagship store at Lot 10 in Kuala Lumpur feels less like a shop and more like a laid-back café-cum-music-studio, where like-minded souls gather over a cuppa and shared passion for music.
The third child of Kuok Khoon Hong and the grand-nephew of Robert Kuok, Meng Ru’s nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic and passion for music also led him to co-found BandLab, a cloud-based platform for collaborators to create and share music, with business partner Steve Skillings.
“Through Swee Lee, I’ve had the privilege of interacting with so many great up-and-coming musicians. One of the biggest challenges for them today is that there’s so much music out there, with more coming out every day,” says Meng Ru. “Ultimately, I’d love to see the talent we have here in Southeast Asia have a platform to be showcased, a place to be found and listened to, where they can build up the next generation of musicians.”
A Competitive Streak
With stiff competition emerging not only within the local music retail industry but from all around the world, Meng Ru isn't resting on his laurels.
“I would say that our biggest challenge, or competition, is also one of the best things about this business because it spurs you on; it means that you don’t become too comfortable with where you are,” he says. “It means you have to keep being inspired by what’s around you and keep pushing forward to come up with new consumer experiences instead of kicking back and saying ‘Well, this store is profitable enough, let’s leave it be.’”
Shiny, Happy People
Glancing around at the contented faces of visitors, musicians and artistes milling about the new space in Kuala Lumpur over cups of coffee and live music, it’s hard to disagree with Meng Ru on that. Swee Lee Music isn’t just a store selling guitars—it’s a social experience that connects everyone, musician or listener, via a shared love of great music.
“At the end of the day, every strong idea comes from a user experience first,” he says. “Listening to your customers, hearing their stories and the challenges they face is something I believe any business owner must do. Whether in-store or online, by word of mouth or referral, whatever way you sell a product, it all comes from the heart of someone needing something and you then finding a solution for them that wasn’t there before.”