The South African who runs an Irish pub in Singapore and 'scolds' in Hokkien
Muddy Murphy's may have a reputation as an "expat" joint, but CEO Bjorn Seegers says their fish head curry proves otherwise. Also, beer, he says, is universal.
The Singlish phrases you're likely to hear in and around the kitchen, or behind the bar of Muddy Murphy's – one of Singapore's oldest traditional pubs – are “Aiyah, can one lah!” or "Jialat!".
It shouldn't come as a surprise, except when it comes straight from the mouth of Muddy Murphy Holdings' Chief Executive Officer Bjorn Seegers. The South African-Dutch speaks impeccable Singlish with an accent so authentic, one would assume he’s a born and bred Singaporean if they didn’t know any better.
Let’s just say once I mastered the art of scolding and being scolded by people in fluent Hokkien, Malay, Tamil and Thai, the rest was easy.
“I have always believed in breaking barriers with language,” Seegers told CNA Lifestyle. “I learnt my local African language in school when South Africa was still tense with racism. I was one in two Caucasians in a class of 40 Africans.
“Likewise, I made lifelong friends in Singapore who showed me the ropes,” he explained when asked how he picked up our local lingo and accent. “The rest as they say, 'I gao dim ready',” he quipped.
EARNING HIS STRIPES
One could say Seegers was more than “gao dim ready” for an F&B life in Singapore when he first moved here in 2006.
He started off as a commis chef in South Africa – the first rung of the kitchen ladder where he did food preparation work and basic cooking under the supervision of a chef de partie, rotating through sections such as sauce, vegetables, fish and butchery roughly every six months.
He then became a night bartender and worked his way up to bar manager at The Flying Pig Downtown in Amsterdam, followed by a stint as chef de partie and sous chef at Doorn Roche, Ciel Bleu & Hasje Claes for three years.
Seegers was working at the Chef de Bar at Club Med Bintan, when the owner of Prince Of Wales Backpacker in Singapore spoke to him about needing an F&B consultant to help with the struggling business. “We turned it around in six months,” he revealed.
A MUDDY MURPHY'S START
As CEO – a role he assumed in 2013 – Seegers oversees all the businesses under the Muddy Murphy Holdings umbrella which includes Singapore’s oldest English pub The Penny Black at Boat Quay and The Manhattan Pizza Co. (which is in the midst of finding a new location).
beGIN – the newest addition to the family – officially opened just last week, directly above The Penny Black. It's the company's first creative bar concept serving a seasonal menu of contemporary British Indian small plates.
Under Seegers' leadership, Muddy Murphy’s and The Penny Black won multiple business awards, including Top 5 SME Of The Year in its industry class, and Best Pub Of The Year amongst others.
But the corporate role has made Seeger miss "the cooking very much”. So, from time to time, the head chef lets him whip up something in the kitchen, or what Seeger refers to as "letting me ride the bicycle around the block".
"I appreciate that,” he said, adding that he is most often at The Penny Black and beGIN outside of his working hours. "I share the love, otherwise my colleagues, from the cleaner to the general manager, are very quick to give me a polite dress-down.
STRIKING A DELICATE BALANCE
The initial, and perhaps, interminable success of Muddy Murphy’s, according to Seegers, is achieved by tuning in to the needs of local and foreign clientele, whilst retaining an essentially Irish atmosphere. Some would argue that Muddy Murphy’s solely caters to the expat community in Singapore, but Seegers begged to differ.
“The concept is more catered to expats as a home away from home. However, I believe we honour the concept of ‘pub’ or ‘public house’, which, in its essence, is a place of meeting, joy and sharing, as well as a little bit of debauchery from time to time,” he said.
“But how geared are we to locals you may ask? We have sio bak (roast pork), salted egg fish skin and crispy sotong (squid) on the bar food menu. We also have Penang's Sin Nam Huat roast chicken, massaman fish head curry, and of course, some traditional Indian curry. So, all in all, I sincerely believe we are all things to everybody.”
“Oh, and beer is universal” he quipped.
Seegers believed that there are many points as to why Muddy Murphy’s resonates with Singaporeans, and not just the expat or tourist community.
“We have always had strong support from a segment of the local market,” he said. “Like the western consumer, the Singaporean consumer appreciates our product quality, staff quality and ambience quality. We have so far stood the test of time. I have always maintained our doors to be open to all cultures and creeds,” he continued.
Muddy Murphy Holdings have long held on to the mantra of “bringing truly authentic foreign pub experiences into Singapore”. But with Singaporeans being so well travelled these days, what does that truly mean?
“Those who have been consumers in the UK and Ireland would have immersed themselves in those cultures,” he explained. “They will know what to expect from the concept. If we can’t meet that expectation, we lose them.”
How foreign is a brand like Muddy Murphy's then? “After 23 years, I think it should be proudly Singaporean,” he said. “We have 80 employees throughout the company and only two are Caucasians – myself and one other. When one makes an intentional effort to connect with people on all levels in sincerity, you have something special and colleagues become friends.”
As for the immaculate Singlish? It has served Seegers well, helping him assimilate into Singaporean life which he loves, and working in his favour with both his staff and customers.
“Let’s just say once I mastered the art of scolding and being scolded by people in fluent Hokkien, Malay, Tamil and Thai, the rest was easy and thereafter, work was a joy,” he said with a laugh.