Singapore tech pioneer behind Sound Blaster dies, marking end of illustrious era

Creative Technology's founder and CEO Sim Wong Hoo not only helped put Singapore on the global technology map with its Sound Blaster audio cards, he also carved an era that encapsulated never-say-die entrepreneurship.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

Creative Technology's founder and CEO Sim Wong Hoo has passed away, marking the end of an era he carved with his never-say-die entrepreneurship. A name long synonymous with Singapore-grown technology, Wong will be remembered not just for putting the country on the global map, but also for his undying passion and determination to push through amidst setbacks.

In a SGX filing Thursday, Creative said Sim died on January 4 and named its current president of Creative Labs Song Siow Hui as interim CEO. The company's independent non-executive director Lee Kheng Nam has been appointed acting chairman.

Describing Sim's passing as a "sad and sudden development", Song said he "recently had extensive discussions" with Sim on Creative's future direction, including one with the engineering team the night before his demise. They had slotted in a meeting with the online sales team the following day, revealed Song, who said he had worked with Sim for more than three decades. 

He added that he would work to ensure Creative's "continued smooth running" and to drive Sim's vision and strategy the company.

According to the statement, details of Sim's cessation will be released in a separate announcement, as required of public-listed companies under the Singapore Exchange Securities Trading.

Sim, who was 67, founded Creative in 1981 and had remained its chairman and CEO since then. 

"Under his guidance, the company became famous for the Sound Blaster sound cards and a worldwide leader in digital entertainment products," Creative said in the statement, adding that its product portfolio now spans wireless speakers and headphones, audiophile-grade amplifiers, and digital audio converters. 

His passion was steadfast, tenacious

Since the news broke, feeds on my LinkedIn and Facebook pages have been flooded with tributes, mostly citing Sim's inspiring work in the digital audio space and pioneering role in Singapore's tech entrepreneur community. Ask anyone here (from a generation old enough to know) to name a homegrown tech brand, chances are they'll point to the person behind Creative and the Sound Blaster. 

So innovative was the technology back then that Apple copied it, at least, according to Sim who took the US company to court in 2006 for patent infringement. In fact, Sim credited Apple's success to the Creative technology he said was replicated in Apple's iPod, which then evolved to become the iPhone. 

The two companies later settled their legal dispute when Apple agreed to pay $100 million for a patent licence to use Creative's hierarchical user interface found in the latter's Zen music players.

Eventually, it is Apple's immense success with iPod alongside increasing market competition that eventually snuffed out Creative's stronghold in the digital audio space. In the years that followed, the Singapore company persisted and continued to churn out new products, including its AI-powered Super X-Fi technology. 

Creative, though, never reclaimed its early glory days. Net sales for its fiscal 2022 dipped 27% from the previous year, impacted by shipping disruptions, global chip shortages, pandemic-related market conditions, and the Ukraine conflict. The company saw its net sales drop by 23% in Asia-Pacific, 34% in Americas, and 27% in Europe.

In spite of the tough landscape, and probably to the surprise of some, Creative is still chugging away.

Sim, by his own admission, believed it was enough to just be able to survive in the market, having once described Singapore as an arduous environment for entrepreneurship. In spite of this, he was steadfast in his desire to remain focused on his home country and nurture local talent. 

I didn't have many opportunities to meet Sim since Creative played in a market I didn't cover much in my beat, but I was a loyal user of the Zen products. Picky about audio quality, I chose to stick with the MP3 player through multiple generations even when the likes of iPod hit the market, because the sound clarity and richness Zen produced was unrivalled back then. 

A diploma graduate in electrical and electronics engineering, Sim was known for his love of music, which might explain why he founded Creative. Described as an amiable boss, if not somewhat eccentric at times, he had a larger-than-life personality who was once spotted alongside his staff serving customers.

Over the years, I've heard numerous tales and personal anecdotes from others about the brains behind Creative. Amongst these was how he once instructed his engineering team to take apart a high-end digital piano built by a major manufacturer of musical instruments, so they could study the audio technology used in the product. Their efforts at "reverse engineering" apparently backfired spectacularly when his team couldn't figure out how to put the components back in their rightful place and he had to call in the manufacturer for help to do so.

I heard that tale years ago and I can't be certain of its authenticity, but it was befitting of a man with Sim's tenacious passion. 

In another media interview, he advised aspiring entrepreneurs against marrying because doing so meant they couldn't afford to take risks. Himself a bachelor, he said having mortgages and a family would be a distraction, when entrepreneurs needed to be focused and committed to succeed.

Asked what motivated him, Sim said in a 2020 interview with CNBC: "The key thing is to make a difference to the world...From young, I always wanted to be like that. I always wanted to make the world a better place for all and that's why I am being creative. If you look at back at Creative's history, there are many times when a lot of people including my close siblings who would say that you would never get through this because it's so onerous, it's so difficult, you are going to fail, you're going to fail. Somehow, we get through. Somehow, we get through.

"So, you are trying to bash through a wall, but you couldn't bash through because this is a wall. So, I looked for cracks. So, there was a crack there, I squeezed through the crack and I managed it."

Sim more than managed. He bashed through the wall and paved a way other Singapore entrepreneurs have aspired to follow. While Creative's light may no longer shine as brightly as it once did, Sim will always remain one of the country's most luminous tech pioneers.


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