SINGAPORE — Scores of children have been entertained by coin-operated kiddy rides in shopping malls and tourist attractions that mostly cost S$1 for about a two-minute spin. What many people might not be aware of is that a social enterprise here has been the quiet supplier of fun for children over the past 17 years.
Patsfield Services is one of Singapore’s oldest kiddy-ride operators. Its 14-man team is behind the installation, maintenance and servicing of more than 200 kiddy rides — from horse carousels to interactive video rides — found in shopping malls across the island, from Forum The Shopping Mall to Tampines One.
Its founder and director Robert Chew said the workers, most of whom are deaf, “go into the mall quietly, clean and service the rides to make sure they work properly and leave quietly”.
Mr Chew, 60, who is also deaf, said: “These jobs do not need us to talk or have much communication … It suits us well.”
At its peak, the company operated some 250 rides across more than 50 malls, but over the past one year, it has had to adapt to a major competitor entering the market.
Where it used to lease the rides in its stable, in the past year, it has had to invest more than S$1 million to buy unique rides that feature popular licensed characters such as Hello Kitty and SpongeBob SquarePants, as well as the latest interactive video rides.
Still, it has lost some prime locations to its competitor, and lost about a third of its revenue, Mr Chew said.
He had spent three decades running coin-operated machines, with his last 17 years devoted to specialising in kiddy rides.
His foray into this unusual field began when he started working in his late teens as a service technician for the coin-operated weighing machines division at professional kitchen and laundries company, Somerville.
In 1987, Mr Chew bought over the division and started Patsfield.
Together with another partner, he began to focus on kiddy rides in 2000 and started leasing rides from an Australian supplier on the understanding that it would be the company’s sole operator in Singapore.
As his business grew, the father-of-four hired others in the deaf community to enable them to earn a livelihood.
He told TODAY: “I want this to be a safe harbour providing jobs for all of us, and I want this business to continue to grow into an institution that helps in creating jobs for special-needs people, so that they are engaged in a meaningful way and have a means to support their family.”
Then, business took a hit after Patsfield’s Australian supplier was acquired by a new owner and it decided to enter the Singapore market directly instead of leasing its rides to Patsfield.
As it had to return all its rides to the supplier, Patsfield had to source for new quality replacement rides from new suppliers based in Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom.
Also, as a small outfit, it did not have the resources that its competitor has to make glitzy presentations.
Recalling how one mall decided not to renew its contract with Patsfield in favour of the competitor, Mr Chew said: “They told us that the management didn’t know we are a social enterprise and they were impressed by our rival’s presentation … We need to work harder and communicate better.”
Mr Chew’s sister, Madam Carol Chew, who is in her 60s and helps out at the company, said the team is doing what it can to “claw its way back” for now.
It also had to step up and be more efficient. It used to rely on SMS and WhatsApp to communicate maintenance issues, which could be quite disorganised.
Now, the team uses a specially designed internal application to allow staff members to report faulty rides, list the malls and take note of who has serviced the rides, to make it more efficient when retrieving records.
Shrugging off the setbacks, Mr Chew said that he is “determined to fight” on.
He has turned down suggestions to turn to crowdfunding or donations, as he felt the company should be able to compete on its own merit, regardless of its special-needs crew.
“We are determined to stay and build a business for special-needs people like us (who want to) build a life for themselves,” he said.