What initially started out as a single garment store in 1971 has since burgeoned into a 24-hour, 150,000 square foot, six-floor, two-building “shopping paradise”.
At Mustafa, every day and every hour spent there is like an assault on the senses and a fight for survival.
Every week, tens of thousands of people shuffle and squeeze their way through Mustafa’s narrow aisles in search for a ‘fun’ way to pass their day.
Cabin fever aside, the interior of Mustafa is confusing enough to put the Maze Runner to shame. It’s not uncommon for customers searching for, say, the shoe department to end up lost amongst shelves of air-fryers 20 minutes later, with no memory of how they got there in the first place.
And then there’s the lure of pure, unadulterated consumerism. With over 300,000 products on sale at bargain prices, even the most disciplined of shoppers are prone to finding their baskets filled with sunglasses, socks, and other useless household items they convince ourselves they’ll need “eventually”.
On a good day, most people leave Mustafa feeling absolutely worn out. On a bad day, they can come out feeling as if they’ve just escaped a metaphorical war zone.
Weaklings, all of them.
I’ve always fancied myself to be a hardy individual—able to weather 20KM bush walks, survive for days on three hours worth of sleep, and hold in my pee for an entire day. Could I add “able to survive for 24 hours in Mustafa” to my list?
In many ways, my trip would resemble that of the the survival television series Man vs. Wild where man (i.e. Adventurer-Writer-Presenter Bear Grylls), is left stranded in the wild with his film crew who document his survival efforts and journey back to civilisation.
Only this time there wouldn’t be a film crew—just me and my iPhone—and I wouldn’t be stuck, foraging in the wild, just for several hours at Mustafa Centre.
Yes I hadn’t been to Mustafa in years, but as a lover of crowds, consumerism and chaos, I was fairly confident I’d make it out alive.
How bad could it be?
Whether he was wandering the Rockies or exploring Iceland, Bear Grylls always packed a bag—as did I.
The only difference is that his bag would contain, amongst other things, an emergency whistle, a knife, waterproof matches, and land-to-air rescue instructions. My bag on the other hand, contained a pair of slippers, lozenges and a melted piece of chocolate.
I’m in Singapore, I thought. Mustafa even has air-conditioning. What could I possibly need?
Of course I was ready.
3.01 PM: Composure Is Key
Given my good luck, it seems only natural that I encounter my first obstacle before I even set foot in the mall.
Every Singaporean knows of Mustafa’s fondness for cable ties—anyone carrying a bag big enough to hide a Mars bar inside is carted off to the side to have their bags “sealed” before they’re allowed into the premises.
I had no choice but to sneak in.
Since I had all the stealth prowess of a pregnant elephant, I decided to harness the power of the many curious Chinese tourists congregating at the entrance and use them as my human shield.
Like the South American Journo Fish who disguises itself as a larger, more dangerous predator, sticking to underbelly of a Chinese tour group from Hunan proved a wise decision.
I was in.
Based off a survival guide I read and had memorised when I was 10, I knew that a careful assessment of one’s environment is half the battle won. So I spent the next two hours counting the number of different types of air-flown Indian sweets Mustafa carried (15), how many Fila watches were on discount (107), and how many Archie comics were on sale (9).
Vital information for survival.
At the same, I came to recognise a new species.
Much like how the Solomon Islands were blessed with the recent discovery of the Coconut-cracking Giant Rat, Mustafa is blessed with The Mustafa Shopper.
Outnumbering regular shoppers 7 to 1, the Mustafa Shopper is armed with a complete lack of spatial awareness, a penchant for stopping in the middle of his/her tracks to exclaim loudly at something, and a tendency to lose their offspring in the mall.
In other words, The Mustafa Shopper is a giant pain in the ass.
At long last, feeding time.
In the wild, one typically has to hunt for their own food. In Mustafa, you have the luxury of two whole options.
The first is an ‘al fresco’ cafe located just outside Mustafa, creatively named the Mustafa Cafe and serving a health variety of fries, nuggets and Naan.
The second is the rooftop restaurant Kebabs and Curries which sits in a desolate corner of the mall. I had heard rumours that to get there, one has to walk through a smelly produce section and up three floors.
Mustafa Cafe it was.
Unfortunately I had come at dinner time and so soon found myself in a Michelin-length queue for some non-Michelin Naan. I was all too aware of the restaurants opposite trying their utmost to lure me in with their fragrant offerings of Maggi Goreng and Biryani, but if I had gone, I’d be a quitter.
I’m not a quitter, I’m a survivor. So I stand resolute (for 30 minutes in the queue), surrounded by people and soaking in the smell of oil and fat.
As I munched on my two slices of Garlic Naan and cup of butter corn, I reminded myself: I’m a survivor.
8.15 PM: Find A Productive Use Of Time
Scratch that, I’m a bored survivor.
Whoever said that you’ll never run out of things to do in Mustafa clearly never spent more than five hours in the place. I had two choices, either ignore the crushing pressure of my looming deadlines and continue to rub shoulders with the Mustafa Shoppers, or hole up somewhere and bury my head in my work.
I went with the latter and began fashioning myself an office out of a computer table, a bar stool, and a flower plushie for decoration.
The table was shaky, the stool groaned under my weight, and the flower was very much dead. But all in all, it was a highly resourceful attempt if I could say so myself.
If anyone saw me (and they certainly did), they didn’t care. This was Mustafa after all.
Damn. I knew I should have packed a change of clothes.
While I was not averse to finding a place to sleep in Mustafa overnight, I was unfortunately underdressed for the occasion.
And so I asked, WWBGD? What would Bear Grylls do?
“In times of need,” a voice in my head boomed, “Clothes can be fashioned out of the carcasses of animals; for example, a coat from a bear or a wetsuit from a dead seal.”
Thanks Bear Grylls, but fortunately I’m not desperate enough to create a nightgown out of the skin of another human being—so to the clothing section I went (only took me about thirty minutes of searching back and forth, up and down).
I sorted through about 20,000 different styles of dressing gowns, each one more garish than the next, before giving up and settling on a baby pink heart-printed one that was in equal parts cute and disgusting.
I should’ve listened to you Bear Grylls.
To my surprise, there was only one bed in Mustafa and it was tucked away on the highest level at the farthest corner of the mega mall. It was a small, single sized, and the mattress (if you can call it that) was paper thin. Like I said, untamed.
“Well,” I thought to myself. “At least I’ll be free from the Mustafa Shoppers here.”
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
As I lay in bed, trying not to think about who might’ve used the pillow I was currently lying on, I heard them.
I’d assumed Mustafa would be emptying out by now, but I was wrong. Even in the wee hours of the morning, the Mustafa Shopper persisted.
Despite there being a surveillance camera above me and the constant presence of Mustafa staff in the area, it was the heavy footsteps and loud voices signalling the presence of The Mustafa Shoppers—in the home goods section no less—that disturbed me the most.
Why people were shopping for fake sunflowers and plates in the shape of Pandan leaves at 1 AM in the morning was beyond me. All I knew was that it was going to be a very long night.
It only took me one hour, before I abandoned my makeshift bed for a seat at the Mustafa Cafe.
This was the only place, aside from the toilets (smelly) and the stairs (busy) that I could escape the plague that was Mustafa Shoppers.
Finally, I could rest in peace with my feet up on the benches and my back against the wall.
That is, until I caught the whiff of someone eating a freshly cooked plate of cheese fries.
My stomach growled.
Then it growled again.
To shut it up, I took a swig of water and looked around at my fellow bench-mates. I wasn’t the only one who had taken to sleeping out here. Joining me were several others who’d come here for the night (except unlike me, perhaps they had no choice).
We were survivors, I thought.
And that’s when my back started aching.
Never Give Up, said my inner Bear Grylls.
“Yes, never give up. Except for today,” I thought to myself as I flagged down a cab and told the uncle to take me home right away. Mustafa could win today. For now, all I wanted was a shower, some real food and my bed.