Remarks by Minister Lawrence Wong at the Book Launch of “Seeking a Better Urban Future” by Dr Cheong Koon Hean

Dec 6, 2018 18:00

I am happy to join you for the launch of Koon Hean’s book, “Seeking a Better Urban Future”. 

Usually people write books after they retire. Last I checked, Koon Hean has not made any retirement plans. I would be very worried if that were the case. We still need her as CEO of HDB! 

She explained to me that she doesn’t have time to write a book, and that this book is really a compilation of the lectures she had given as an S R Nathan Fellow. I think she is modest about her ability to multitask, because as you all heard from Janadas earlier, all the S R Nathan Fellows, with the exception of Ho Kwon Ping who is in the private sector, and Professor Tan Tai Yong who is an academic, have been public servants, and all of them had retired before coming to speak. One of them was a Permanent Secretary, Bilahari, and two were former Heads of Civil Service, Peter Ho and Lim Siong Guan.

So Koon Hean is the first active serving public sector leader to be appointed S R Nathan Fellow. Her lectures were very well-subscribed, and it is demanding to have to do her full time job, which already takes a lot of time in the Housing & Development Board (HDB) because of the volume of work that you have to do, and at the same time prepare and deliver the series of lectures for the Fellowship. So I think it really says something about her work capacity, and her distinguished record of service.  

Singapore is indeed very fortunate to have someone like Koon Hean dedicate herself to public service. MND in particular has benefited from her service, because she spent most of her career in MND agencies – starting from the Public Works Department (PWD), then later in the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and now HDB. Speaking personally as the Minister in charge, I would say that I always count my blessings to be Minister at a time when I have such an effective, experienced and capable CEO in charge of one of my most important agencies.

Koon Hean’s calling is in architecture and planning, but she has also proven herself to be an effective leader in other domains. In fact, I first knew Koon Hean years ago, when she did a secondment in the Ministry of Trade & Industry (MTI). I was then an economist in MTI; and she was Director of International Business Development (IBD). That was the time of the Asian Financial Crisis. As Director of IBD, she provided a steady hand through the crisis, and played an important role in shaping our trade and business policies and helping companies venture outside of Singapore. 

You could already see at that time, that what makes her so effective is this broad range of skills that she possesses. As a leader, she is able to see the big picture; she understands the importance of organisational systems and processes, and how to bring people together to get things done. But because of her training, she has an eye for details; a good sense of aesthetics; and she always brings that special architectural touch in her work.

So today, her legacy can be seen in physical landmarks all over Singapore, most notably in the stunning Marina Bay waterfront that she helped to develop and transform as CEO of URA. But after URA, she then went on to HDB, and helped to develop and transform public housing estates. There was a time when people used to say that all HDB flats had a standard HDB look. I think it’s certainly no longer the case with projects like Punggol Waterway Terraces, SkyVille @ Dawson and the upcoming HDB flats of the new estate in Tengah. They are completely different, they are beautiful, they are stunning, and they have won many local and international awards. Just recently, Kampung Admiralty won Building of the Year award at World Architectural Festival. In case you think that this is just yet another award, the World Architectural Festival is regarded as the award for architects – it’s the Oscars for architects. Building owners and architects spend a large amount of time trying to get an award there, and we have now won for an HDB project. It’s a very strong endorsement of the kind of work that Koon Hean and her team do.

A project like this is not done by HDB alone. Kampung Admiralty was done in partnership with WOHA Architects. I think that also speaks to the kind of work that is sometimes not very visible, and the ability that Koon Hean has to bring people together. Because she herself is a highly respected leader in the architectural community, she has been able to bring in many private architects for HDB developments, and forge strong partnerships with them. 

At the same time, she recognises that not all public housing functions can be outsourced fully to the private sector. So she has devoted energy to building up in-house capabilities within HDB itself. Every year, HDB has a pipeline of projects, and out of these projects she will set aside some to be done entirely within HDB. She has nurtured the team of architects, planners and engineers, and given them opportunities to shine and to excel, mentoring and guiding them along the way. This is very important, because what this means is that ability to design and build beautiful and stunning HDB public housing estates will not just come and go with her as an individual, but we are systematically putting in place and building up capabilities within the organisation. 

From time to time, you hear criticisms of architects being too focused on building form and structure. But this is certainly not the case for Koon Hean. She understands that good architecture is not just about aesthetics and design, but importantly about public spaces, human scale developments being people centered and facilitating social interactions. Because it’s not the buildings but ultimately the people who shape the community, and make it a home. That’s why she has also been instrumental in getting HDB to build up its software – engaging residents, activating public spaces with programmes, and injecting vibrancy in the community. 

For all that she has achieved, and I might add that she is continuing to achieve because she has not retired yet, it is fitting that she is not only recognised within Singapore, but also internationally. In 2016, she was the first government official and also the first female to receive the prestigious Lynn S. Beedle Lifetime Achievement Award. This is given by the Council for Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat Board of Trustees, for individuals who have made extraordinary contributions to the advancement of tall buildings and the urban environment, improving the quality of life in the cities they work in. In the same year, she became the first person in Asia to receive the Urban Land Institute (ULI) J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development. That makes her the only person in the world to have received both prestigious lifetime awards within the same year.

In Singapore, we don’t like to blow our own trumpet, and sometimes it seems like we are always trying to do better and nothing that we do is ever good enough. But objectively speaking, when you look at what we have achieved today, there are indeed many things that are of international standard, and that are world class. We do have many visitors who come to Singapore, and they truly admire what we have done in our urban environment, what we have done with our greenery, and what we have done with our public housing. Of course, all of that is a team effort. Needless to say, it can’t be done by any one person. But the individuals in the team do matter, and Koon Hean is one individual who has made a difference. 

So I’m very glad that as S R Nathan Fellow, she had the chance to share her experiences and insights, and all this is now documented in the book, which means that all of that can be shared with a wider audience. Her talks, and the title of the book, are about a better urban future. That’s what Koon Hean has devoted herself to in her professional career, and her many contributions. Her experiences and insights, and the legacy of her outstanding work so far, give us hope that we can indeed strive for a better urban future for Singapore for many more decades to come. Thank you very much, and congratulations Koon Hean.