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Unfinished business at BCA: John Keung

Soon-to-retire chief wants to see more productivity gains and to cut low-skilled workers by 20-30% by 2020

As the BCA Academy's new Dean, Dr Keung aims to build talent for the construction sector by ensuring that the courses are up to date with the most cutting-edge technologies.


HIS last 11 years at the Building & Construction Authority (BCA) have pushed Singapore's construction sector forward on the sustainability and productivity front but chief executive John Keung, 64, is not satisfied.

He has unfinished business and unmet targets, some of which he shared with reporters recently as he is due to retire from his position on June 1. He will be succeeded by Hugh Lim, deputy secretary (community, youth and sports) in the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.

Dr Keung plans to continue his mission to improve the way the sector builds from a different vantage point as the new Dean of the BCA Academy.

In his swan-song interview, he said he is not content with the productivity growth of the sector in the last few years, even though the numbers have shown improvement after languishing for some years.

BCA aims to raise the productivity of the sector by an average of 2-3 per cent per annum from 2010 to 2020.

Site productivity (total constructed floor area divided by manpower used on site) has improved 2 per cent each year for the last three years.

Value-added productivity improved 3 per cent year-on-year in the first quarter of 2017, after slipping 0.5 per cent in all of 2016, while labour productivity rose 0.1 per cent in the first quarter o f 2017, after increasing 4 per cent in the whole of 2016.

Still, Dr Keung wants to see site productivity - which he considers the best yardstick of the three - to go beyond a 2 per cent improvement each year.

He thinks that what will finally tip laggard companies into joining the productivity drive is when labour costs rise to a point that it becomes unsustainable to keep hiring foreign workers.

This is what the government has been trying to bring about. Worker levies have soared from S$150 per worker per month a decade ago to between S$300 and S$950 per worker per month now.

"We are trying to make the cost of labour as high as possible to make sure that the industry has the incentive to substitute manpower with technology, because if the cost of labour is so low, very few people will want to buy an expensive machine to replace the need for workers," said Dr Keung.

Most companies have already gotten the message, he added. Continued programmes such as government land sales with tender conditions requiring the use of more productive building methods, such as prefabricated prefinished volumetric construction (PPVC), as well as public agencies implementing their productivity plans in public-sector projects will help the sector "reach a point of no return", he said.

Another goal he has for the construction sector here is to reduce the number of lower-skilled workers at the rank-and-file level by 20-30 per cent by 2020.

Correspondingly, he wants to increase the percentage of higher- skilled workers from the current 40 per cent of rank-and-file workers to 50-60 per cent.

Another goal is to develop low-rise buildings that are generators, rather than consumers, of energy through the installation of solar panels, for example.

He also wants to build more zero- energy medium-rise buildings (meaning the building produces enough energy to run itself) and super-low-energy high-rise buildings that are up to 60 per cent more energy-efficient than a normal code-compliant building.

He also wants to see 40 per cent of Singapore's building projects use one type of productive building technology or another, whether it is PPVC or mass engineered timber or structural steel or advanced precast construction, up from the current 10 per cent.

"These are still works in progress. That's why I'm not 100 per cent satisfied, although I am happy with what we have achieved. The next few years will be even more challenging."

As it is, Dr Keung believes the sector is not ready to be weaned off the productivity grants that the government provides to incentivise the sector to raise its game. "That's why we need to sustain this momentum. We need to do as much as possible while the funding support lasts (until 2018) so that we can set the industry on this path of no return, that that will be the way to build," he said.

As the new Dean of the BCA Academy, he wants to focus on building talent for the construction sector by ensuring that its diploma and degree courses are always up to date with the most cutting-edge Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DFMA) technologies such as virtual design and construction.

This should help it reach BCA's target of 20,000 green-collared workers by 2020, up from about 15,000 now.

Dr Keung also plans to tear down some of the older buildings at the academy to build two new ones - a 20-storey high-rise building and another seven-storey medium-rise building - using PPVC and mass engineered timber respectively.

These will house new laboratories, classroom space and R&D (research and development) facilities, as well as serve as demonstration projects by showing the public that it is possible to build zero- and low-energy buildings. "We want to walk our talk; it cannot be that we ask the industry to do it but we don't do it ourselves," he said.

A town planner by training, the Hong Kong-born Dr Keung joined what is today known as the Urban Redevelopment Authority in Singapore in 1989, drawn to the city-state by its excellent town planning.

Before BCA, he also served as deputy CEO (building) at the Housing & Development Board, and director of strategic planning at the Ministry of National Development.


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