S’porean guy was so inspired by Batman’s Alfred Pennyworth, he became a butler himself
Not just a glorified housekeeper.
The first (and possibly only) time I stepped into Shangri-La Hotel’s Valley Wing, I realised that I might have been a little underdressed in my Uniqlo blouse and jeans.
The Valley Wing is part of the 5-star hotel that houses the most luxurious and expansive suites.
So luxurious that each suite has a butler-in-demand, and these butlers are led by their head butler, 47-year-old Hussain Khan.
Smartly dressed in a straight-ironed suit and with his hair neatly groomed, you would never have thought that this dapper-looking man got his job because he was inspired by a fictional character by the name of Alfred Pennyworth.
But that, I learnt, is just a small part of his 27 years working in the hotel industry.
Started as a bellman at 20
Fresh out of National Service at 20 years old, Hussain was looking for a job in a bid to help support his family’s finances.
During his time, there were a lot of opportunities he could explore, including his childhood ambition of becoming a policeman.
But with a cheeky beam, he shared that he had to put that desire aside for his dear mother.
“My mother said: ‘Don’t become a policeman!’ She was worried for my safety.”
The next best thing, according to Hussain, was a career in the hotel industry, where he started off as a bellman.
As a bellman, he was tasked to provide guests with luggage assistance, transportation assistance and occasionally provide local information and advice to them.
Prior to getting the job, Hussain didn’t know much about the hotel industry. In fact, his strongest impression of the hotel he worked in was their football team.
“At that time, I was playing football with some of the clubs and the hotel I worked with had a good football team!”
But after spending some time on the job and playing more football with his colleagues, he realised that hotel life was his calling after all.
“I learned to love the hotel industry. It’s shift work, uniforms and meals are provided. What else can you ask for?”
Straight out of a movie
Hussain’s road to butlering was straight out of a movie, literally.
After watching a Batman movie, he took a liking to Alfred Pennyworth, a side character in the movie who plays Batman’s house butler.
“If you watch Batman, you would know that Alfred knows the Batcave and even the Batmobile better than Batman himself. As a butler, it’s the same, you have to always think two steps ahead.”
After doing his own research, he found out that there were many types of butlers, including house butlers and yard butlers.
Back then, and even now, the role of a butler is almost like a rare find.
Thankfully for Hussain, hotel butler positions were available, especially in high-end hotels.
Started from the bottom
Determined to become a hotel butler himself, he began his butlering journey first as the most junior role: A butler runner.
As a butler runner, Hussain had to assist the butler and shadow them in order to learn the ropes.
The training proved to be difficult, especially with the lack of resources to gather knowledge from back then.
“To be a good butler, you not only have to understand the rooms and the food offered in the hotel. You need to have an eye for detail and a good knowledge of Singapore. There was no internet last time so I always had to write down or memorise the news.”
Taught by Queen Elizabeth’s butler
Nonetheless, he thoroughly enjoyed his time as a butler runner and slowly rose through the ranks to eventually become a butler himself.
In fact, Hussain was also selected to train at the seven-star Magnums Butler Academy in Australia, which is a big deal for butlers all over the world.
To put it to scale for non-butlers like us, he studied in a world-renowned butler school where one of the trainers was a butler for Queen Elizabeth herself.
Every day on the job, Hussain realises how much he is meant to take on this ever-giving role.
“I hope I can continue until I retire because I get to learn a lot of things, even from the guests themselves.”
A 30-minute journey — by foot
After spending five years as a butler at Shangri-La Hotel, he received a double promotion and is now the hotel’s head butler.
As the head butler, Hussain often takes care of high-profile guest like royal family members or head of states.
But one of the most memorable guests was a foreign prime minister.
The foreign prime minister was due to have a lunch meeting with Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong.
However, there was one problem: The foreign prime minister’s personal butler forgot to pack a square pocket for the lunch meeting — something that was very important to the foreign prime minister as he wanted to leave a good impression.
“His butler forgot to bring something and that’s it, that’s a fail already.”
The butler then asked Hussain if he could get a blood red square pocket for the foreign prime minister.
While the colour may sound simple enough to find, Hussain then found out that it was a rare and old-school colour that a lot of shops didn’t carry.
“I walked along almost the entire Orchard Road, from one shopping mall to another, and yet I couldn’t find the right square pocket. I even called a tailor and they said they could get it ready in two days but the problem is, I needed it in two hours’ time.”
It was only after he reached Centrepoint (which is a 30-minute walk away from Shangri-La, by the way) where he finally found a blood red square pocket, made of premium silk at that.
It was so perfect, the foreign prime minister’s son loved it as well and got Hussain to make another trip to the mall to get another one for him.
And thankfully, his efforts didn’t go in vain.
“When he went for lunch, I overheard Mr Lee telling him: ‘You have a nice square pocket, it matches your jacket and shirt.'”
Thinking on his feet
A trait that Hussain thinks is crucial for a butler is the ability to think on their feet.
Honing this trait has been incredibly useful for Hussain, especially when guests make unexpected requests.
Once, an exasperated guest approached him after midnight and was due to check-out later at 8am.
However, he told Hussain that he didn’t have enough luggage for all his belongings.
“He returned to the hotel after 12am and couldn’t find anywhere to buy suitcases. So of course, we need to help him.”
Thanks to his quick thinking, he managed to solve his guest’s problem simply by taking a trip to the 24-hour department store, Mustafa Centre.
“He got a shock and even asked me if there is such a thing as 24-hour shopping centres.”
Even though the task went beyond his job scope, he was happy just to extend a helping hand.
“When we get asked to service a room, we don’t know what will happen because it is all behind closed doors. If we have to go out of the hotel after midnight for the guests, it doesn’t matter as long as everything runs smoothly for them.”
A glorified housekeeper?
Since a butler is almost unheard of in Singapore, there are some misconceptions that people may have about the career.
While butlers do some domestic chores for guests like making sure their suites are spick-and-span or making tea for their guests, butlers are more than just glorified housekeepers.
“People think we are high-ranking housekeepers. Actually, we do a lot of things for the guests. We know about the property more than the guests do, that’s why we can go the extra mile.”
However, Hussain remains unbothered about such comments.
With all that he has done for his guests, it is almost unsurprising that Hussain bagged himself the Customer Service Excellence for Hotels at this year’s Singapore Tourism Awards.
“I already love my job, so the nomination is a bonus. Winning this is a big gift for me after a while in the industry.”
And despite this “big gift”, Hussain remains humble.
“You know, everybody is a winner tonight. Not just me.”
Top image by Fasiha Nazren