Speech by 2M Desmond Lee at the Professional Engineers Board’s Day of Dedication

Nov 9, 2019 14:00

I am delighted to be back amid many familiar faces on your annual Day of Dedication.

Let me begin, on this auspicious day, by congratulating the 127 newly minted Professional Engineers (PEs), Specialist PEs, and ASEAN Chartered PEs, and our 12 new graduates receiving the PEB Gold Medal Award for outstanding performance.

The awards and titles are a recognition of your hard work and professionalism. I hope they renew your passion in engineering, and your commitment to this meaningful career.

The theme of this year’s Day of Dedication is “Transformative Innovations: Engineers Driving the Change”. I think this really captures the essence of what it means to be an engineer, which is to transform, to innovate, and ultimately to drive change. Allow me to elaborate.

First, as engineers, you have always played a crucial role in transforming cities and civilisations. Singapore is no exception. In the years following our independence, Singapore bustled with construction activity, as large-scale infrastructure projects were rolled out en masse. At the heart of the action then were our pioneering engineers, who turned paper plans into reality. We owe so much of what we enjoy today to these “transformers” – from quality housing, to world-class water and energy infrastructure, to a first-rate airport and a vibrant city-centre. They completely transformed our cityscape in just a few decades. Their stories and legacy are worth celebrating, generation after generation, never to be forgotten.

In this regard, all of you will be pleased to know that the PEB and the Centre for Liveable Cities are launching a book that documents the journeys of these great pioneering engineers of Singapore. Titled “Engineers as Urban Systems Innovators”, the book features the achievements and contributions of six eminent PEs who played a pivotal role in Singapore’s urban transformation. These include Er Tan Ee Ping and Er Liew Mun Leong, who helped develop our Jurong Industrial Estate and Changi Airport in the 1960s and 1970s. I remember having the honour to present the PEB Distinguished PE Award to them three years ago. I am very happy to see them featured in this publication, along with other esteemed pioneers of our engineering community. I hope that their stories will motivate young and aspiring engineers and engineering students to follow in their path.

We have come a long way from our early days, thanks to the hard work of engineers like Ee Ping and Mun Leong. But we are not done transforming for the future, and we have much to do to continue improving and rejuvenating our city – not just a city, but a City in a Garden.

Engineers as Innovators

This brings me to my second point, on the engineer’s role as an innovator. Living in an ever-changing world means that every generation will have its own set of challenges. Therefore, we can’t always look to past ways of doing things. Though precedents are valuable and important, we continue to look forward and find new ways of doing things. Take for instance digital disruption and climate change – two of the greatest challenges of our time. Both demand new ways of doing things, but also generate demand for new services and systems, such as smart and energy-efficient infrastructure. If we all adopt an innovative mindset, explore ideas from around the world or ideas that are still nascent in research, publications or raised in conferences, we can see how they can be of value to Singapore. We can turn these challenges around into opportunities.

Two inspiring members of your community have shown us how this can be done. The first is Er Tan Kee Chong, whose team in the Ministry of Manpower helped proliferate the use of data logger-equipped mobile cranes to enhance workplace safety. Kee Chong led his team in working with industry stakeholders to test and integrate data loggers in various types of mobile cranes, which enables logging of key operational data, including whether safety devices have been duly activated. Such data not only aids the investigation of crane-related incidents so we can prevent them, but also provides insights on usage patterns for operational purposes. This enables crane owners to take measures to curb unsafe practices before they cause workplace incidents, and optimise crane deployment and fleet management. Kee Chong’s efforts have borne fruit – since August last year, all mobile cranes in Singapore are now equipped with data loggers. Workplace safety has improved since the project started in 2015, with the number of mobile crane-related faults and incidents dropping by more than 70 per cent.

So innovation need not always be about ground-breaking technological breakthroughs – applying existing tools to different areas can also go a long way to improve and save lives.

Another PE I would like to highlight is Er Teh Poh Suan. In 2008, her team was tasked to kick-start the Housing Development Board’s solar deployment efforts, in a push towards clean and renewable energy generation. But the high capital cost of solar panels at that time meant that the allocated budget could only afford a small system of about 3 Mega-Watt-peak (MWp) – less than 1 per cent of the 350 MWp solar deployment target for 2020. To overcome this, Poh Suan’s team piloted a solar leasing business model, where private sector vendors co-funded the capital costs of solar panel deployment, and recouped their initial investment by leasing solar energy to building occupants, at a discount from prevailing energy tariffs. This innovative model proved successful, and has since been enhanced and extended to all public sector agencies under the SolarNova programme. As a result, we are now on track to meeting our 350 MWp solar target next year.

But that is not all. I understand that Poh Suan is now leading our efforts in exploring 3D printing for public housing. She believes that 3D concrete printing could revolutionalise the way homes are designed and built, and I agree with her. I look forward to the achievements of Poh Suan and her team.

Kee Chong and Poh Suan, like many of you who are here today, truly exemplify the spirit of engineers as innovators. In this regard, I am glad to announce that they have both been conferred the inaugural Innovative PE Award, in recognition of their innovation and outstanding achievements. My heartiest congratulations to you both!

Engineers as Change-Makers

Finally, I would like to touch on the role of engineers as change-makers, which goes beyond need-driven transformation and innovation. Thanks to the generations of engineers before us, not all engineering challenges we face today are necessarily existential. This also means that to continue improving, we must actively look for ways to institute positive change – even if the present state seems fine. It’s about developing a healthy dissatisfaction with the status quo, and driving change before change becomes inevitable. This will be key in the next phase of Singapore’s development. From 5G networks to autonomous vehicles, to smarter cities, we must stay ahead in our game to remain attractive, liveable and globally competitive. But above all, harness what science and technology can offer to improve lives.

Hence in closing, I would like to challenge all of us to think of one positive change you would like to see in Singapore over the course of our career, and how we can contribute to it as active change-makers. We are never too young, nor never too old to be able to drive change. If we each do our part to transform, innovate, and drive change, at whatever level, together we can engineer a better Singapore for generations to come. Thank you.