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Lee Kuan Yew, truly the father of Changi airport

It was he who asked that plans to expand Paya Lebar airport be dropped in favour of building an airport in Changi, and remained interested in the project even till late last year.
Tuesday, March 31, 2015 - 05:50
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Mr Lee, then Minister Mentor, visiting Changi Airport's Terminal 3 in 2007 for a preview of Singapore Airlines' A380 jets.

CHANGI Airport is today a strategic international air hub, where more than 100 airlines connect Singapore to more than 300 cities across the world.

With more than 480 "World's Best Airport" awards from various quarters under its belt, it is now also known as the most-awarded airport in the world.

Many may not realise that the airport was the brainchild of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

In mid-1975, he decided it was advantageous to build the new international airport in Changi, and was single-minded about pushing it from its Paya Lebar location to the new site.

The year before that, however, we had started construction works to expand Paya Lebar airport to meet the rapidly growing aviation sector. I was then a young engineer in the Public Works Department (PWD), busy building a new aircraft parking apron and clearing resettlement cases - 11,000 families had to be resettled for construction of the second runway at Paya Lebar to proceed.

But Mr Lee, in a flight over Boston's Logan Airport, saw the genius in developing an offshore airport for Singapore. Building it on the Changi coast would give us the flexibility to expand the aerodrome towards the sea to meet future expansion needs; and it was better that the high decibels from aviation be directed out to sea instead of affecting the population in the city.

Moreover, building out to sea would mean there would be no need to restrict the height of future nearby developments, hence liberating several hectares of much-needed land for development.

There were, however, uncertainties about implementing this strategic shift to Changi. Some quarters in the government questioned whether the PWD was up to handling such a large-scale project and within a tight time frame at that. Rightly or wrongly, the perception back then was that the PWD was an old, conservative and bureaucratic department handed down from the British colonial days.

Some sceptics derided the PWD as having experience in building only drains, sewers, roads, bus stops, government offices and schools, and asked whether the department had the expertise and human resources for such a mammoth undertaking.

There were also doubts that we could complete Changi Airport by mid-1981, when more than half the site had to be reclaimed from the sea. But Singapore urgently needed a new airport by mid-1981 and we couldn't afford to delay this any further.

"THE THREE WISE MEN"

Mr Lee roped in a trio of top civil servants he called "The Three Wise Men'' to study the feasibility of building the new airport at Changi.

Port of Singapore Authority chairman Howe Yoon Chong, Housing Development Board chief executive Teh Cheang Wan and JTC chairman Woon Wah Siang had, among them, led many successful major national developmental programmes in Singapore and therefore had the credentials to do a feasibility study on the Changi project.

Mr Howe confidently concluded that the project could be implemented - and in time - by the PWD, with the PSA executing the sea reclamation work. Mr Lee later appointed Sim Kee Boon, a legendary leader in the civil service with a great eye for detail, to drive the project.

Mr Lee had invested his most capable civil servants in this undertaking.

We built the first runway as an extension of the existing British-built military runway. It was then 2,000 m long; we extended it to 4,000 m by expunging Tanah Merah Road.

Mr Lee wanted to see where the extension would be. He wanted an aerial view, so we arranged for a Skyvan, a military passenger transport plane, to take him to a height for a bird's eye view of the construction site. In order for him to spot the site from up there, we tied big, yellow aviation balloons to the working bulldozers.

Mr Lee was very involved from the beginning.

He wanted the airport to be built within a garden city. He wanted a lot of trees planted, saying he wished to "see a jungle" when driving to the airport.

We had to count trees daily and I sent telexes to Mr Sim, detailing the number of casuarina and rain trees we had planted.

AN ABIDING INTEREST

Mr Lee's interest in Changi Airport never waned.

As recently as last November, he had visited the airport for an update of its latest developments, especially Project Jewel, the airport's retail and lifestyle complex. By then, he was not very mobile, so we took him around in a buggy and also went on the train connecting Terminal 2 to Terminal 3. When I asked him if he had enjoyed the train ride, he replied: "Yes, but too short."

Even till his last days, he would never fail to ask me, even in a weakened voice: "How is Changi Airport?"

What would have happened if he had not had the vision to move the airport to Changi?

If we had remained in Paya Lebar, we would not have had the flexibility to build the third runway - unless we forgo Tampines town - or the fourth terminal, let alone the fifth; of course, there would also be no Project Jewel.

Changi Airport was his baby, and it has become an icon. Mr Lee Kuan Yew was truly the Father of Changi Airport.

  • The writer is chairman of Changi Airport Group