10 “Bonus” Lessons I Learned While Working At The Thieves Market.

by Patrick Liew on March 21, 2014

I left Sungei Road which was also known as the Thieves Market about 40 years ago.
Since then, the landscape of Singapore has gone through a lot of changes. While there are some legitimate peddlers there in the evening, Sungei Road is not quite like the wild wild flea market days.

The thieves of the past are either too old, are living in taxpayers-sponsored accommodation in Changi Palace, or are on the run. 🙂

I was told that some of the peddlers have their own shops now. A rare few have gone digital, moving their wares to e-commerce sites.

To my knowledge, there is only one old blogger, reminiscing over the good ol’ days. That person -ahem – is me.

I am trying to capture nuggets of  wisdom passed down from one peddler to another for the benefits of my children, nephews and nieces.

Here are ten “bonus” lessons I’ve learned from selling clothing at the Thieves Market.

1. Start success from the top.

Great businesses succeed or fail because of leadership.

In the Thieves Market, we know that opportunities are rare and fleeting. Therefore, we have to exercise leadership.

Great leaders make the right things happen in the right way.

We need to be brave enough to act decisively so as to capitalise on every worthwhile opportunity.

The body rises or rots with the head.

2. Practice leadership as an ongoing journey.

In a highly competitive environment, we were compelled to learn all the time so that we can improve our business model and operation.

In addition, we help our team members set a higher vision and enhance their performance.

As leaders, we aim to change and conquer the market by building what could be called, in street language, a bullet-proof business.

Lead on and on…

3. Build a bulldozer team.

The most effective person cannot be more effective than the most effective team.

In the Thieves Market, we knew that a strong gang would rule the territory.

On the legitimate business side, we believed that a great team was unstoppable and would eventually get its way.

We therefore built a sense of belonging for our stakeholders. In a conducive environment, we catalysed creative and innovative ideas constantly.

Together, we raised the bar in what we saw as a life and death business game (生死的游戏). In our mind, we were always cooking “The next initiative to take our competitor down forever.”

Teamwork works.

4. Don’t tolerate politicking.

In the Thieves market, there was no time for office politics. No time to be “Yes men,” mollycoddle each other, bend with the wind, or backstab one another.

Don’t be mistaken. We argued, debated, and even screamed our views at one another but we didn’t take it personally.

We built a healthy sense of  criticism, dissent and conflict in our operational culture. By doing that, we sharpened each other’s minds and ideas so that we could ensure our survival and success.

Don’t kick the ball into your own goalpost.

5. Fight for every win.

In the Thieves Market, we fought for every customer. We fought for every deal and we fought for every cent.

The fighting spirit kept our fire burning. It drove us to push the envelope and press for excellence in every area of the business.

There are lots of good fight inside you.

6. Change the changes.

Develop fluid intelligence and a highly versatile organisation.

The Thieves Market taught us to be data-oriented and to develop divergent and critical thinking. By being versatile and having more dots in our mind, we could connect them in different ways to achieve desired outcomes.

In the same way, we endeavoured to build qualities of adaptability, tenacity, and agility in our team.

By being flexible, we can change with changing times. We could capitalise on the silver lining in every dark cloud.

7. Kill the ego.

The ego has no place in the Thieves Market. It lived in a make-believe world, so full of itself that it has no space for improvement and growth.

The ego fed on itself and made itself out to be bigger than what it ought to be. To make matter worst, it would look down on others and repel customers from the shop.

In the Thieves Market, the ego could drive an entrepreneur to become overconfident, blinding him to factors that were impacting the business.

The ego could over-stretch the entrepreneur and cause him to over-extend the business. He might have a tendency to underestimate pitfalls, portholes and puddles in the journey. He might even overestimate value of  achievement and success.

By the time the fault lines and cracks were discovered, it might be too late to arrest the situation.

Kill the ego or the ego may kill your business.

8. Up your EQ.

In the Thieves Market, we needed to be not only be street smart but also emotionally wise too.

It began with knowing our strengths and weaknesses, and especially in understanding and managing our emotion. It would help us to control our impulses and outbursts.

Emotional intelligence could also help us develop ability to enhance our passion and energy. With increased vitality, we could be in a better position to fulfill our dream.

It would also help us understand and influence other people’s emotion. We would be able to relate to and lead others in a better way.

Emotional intelligence helped us to find favour with our customers and put us at an advantage over our competitors.

Up your EQ now.

9. Be the best by taking the best from the best.

Some of the best teachers in the  Thieves Market were our competitors. By observing them and even sharing ideas with them, we learned better ways to run our business.

In addition, we also tried to learn from businesses outside of our industry. By “copying” them wisely, we could also take our business to a higher level.

We were never shy to ask for feedback and were also thick skinned enough to ask for support and assistance. As there were no assurance of three bowls of rice the next day, week or month, we would have no issue to eat humble pie and risk being embarrassed to find out a better way to success.

There’s always a better model to “copy” out there.


We ran a research and development centre in our brain all the time. As we continued to learn new lesson and develop better action, we captured it on imaginary lines in our mind.

We challenged ourselves to come out with a better business model, product, service or other areas of the business. We knew that if we improved a little at a time, at some point in the future, we could fly to our dreams.

Think first. Think well. Think fast. Keep thinking…

I hope these lessons will help take you a higher level of achievement and result.


By the way, I have also recorded other reflections.

Visit my Inspiration blog at http://liewinspiration.wordpress.com/

For my opinions on social affairs, please visit my Transformation blog at http://hsrpatrickliew.wordpress.com/

Please read my reflections and continue to teach me.

Life is FUNtastic!


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