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Pushing the boundaries of urban planning
Cheong Koon Hean, Chief Executive Officer, Housing & Development Board
OVER the course of her tenure as head of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and Housing Development Board (HDB), Cheong Koon Hean has played a key role in transforming Singapore's physical environment.
As the current chief executive officer of HDB, she oversees 1 million public housing flats and leads the development of sustainable and smart towns.
She was trained in architecture, but after graduating, the Colombo Plan scholar was posted to a planning role at the then Public Works Department; which later merged with several other urban planning functions to form the URA in 1989.
While she was disappointed at not becoming an architect, she discovered that urban planning gave her a far larger canvas to work with. The role would enable her to have a far bigger impact on Singaporeans than she would have had as an architect working on single projects.
She would rise to the top of the URA in 2004, when she became the first woman appointed as the organisation's CEO.
At URA, she helped kickstart the development of several key new areas, such as the Jurong Lake District Regional Centre, the precursor of the recent initiative to expand it into a new western commercial node; the Kallang node, which is home to the Sports Hub; and the Paya Lebar sub-regional centre.
Among her various projects at URA, however, she cites the development of Marina Bay as her most satisfying. "It was formerly just 360 ha of empty reclaimed land, but today, it is a bustling live-work-play destination that is also a key engine for Singapore's business and financial industries.
"A clear objective we had in URA then was to create a new signature image for Singapore. Judging from the multiple footages of Marina Bay beamed to millions internationally - such as those from the F1 race, documentaries on Discovery channel, the Trump-Kim Summit coverage, to even the Crazy Rich Asians movie set in Singapore - I think we have succeeded."
A new challenge
Moving to HDB as its CEO in 2010, she was excited to play the role of not just a planner, but also a developer helping to further improve the physical surroundings of Singaporeans.
"You can build what you plan and make dreams come true - how wonderful is that? With more than 80 per cent of the population residing in HDB flats, HDB has a strong hand in moulding the physical urbanscape of Singapore. This gives us the unique opportunity to push the frontiers of planning, urban design and technology to develop a whole new generation of public housing."
In recent years, she has overseen HDB's launch of new towns and estates, particularly at Punggol, Bidadari, Tampines North and Tengah. Yet, she stresses that HDB is not only about physical development, but also plays an important role in formulating policies to provide affordable quality housing.
Having to deal with problems on multiple fronts, she believes that one needs to have missionary zeal to be an urban planner.
"It takes many years to get things done. It is complex because you have to balance multiple needs and interests, convince many people with differing views and obtain support for funding to get your ideas implemented.
"I always say: An architect takes three years to build a building, but a planner takes 30 years to shape a city."
Looking ahead, she feels today's urban planners need to leverage innovation to develop new solutions for the challenges ahead.
"New issues require new solutions where we challenge the status quo. What has worked for us for decades may not work in the future. If someone tells me that something cannot be done because it's a policy put in place many years ago - it immediately triggers an alarm bell - that the policy probably requires a review."
She also recognises that teamwork is key in urban planning as today's problems are too complex for one person to tackle. To foster bonding within the organisation, she has worked to build a culture where staff are driven by a sense of common purpose and mission to do their best.
"This is particularly important in a civil service organisation with social objectives. To make a real difference, the motivation must come from within - each of us must ask 'what is the meaning behind our job?' "
An evolving landscape
Looking ahead, she expects public housing designs to continue to improve with new creative building typologies and layouts, as well as better quality and more efficient construction. HDB is also leveraging technology to make the estates more sustainable with better management of energy, waste, water and resources.
She notes that the next generation of high-tech and sustainable housing estates have already begun to sprout across the island.
For instance, homes in Punggol Northshore are being fitted with fibre broadband, and will feature smart solutions that are designed to create a more liveable, sustainable and safe environment.
"Many visitors to Punggol New Town tell me that they are surprised that the developments there are public housing. The quality of the green environment and amenities there have attracted visitors who are not even residents of Punggol."
Yet, she recognises that there are many obstacles to achieving HDB's ambitious vision. For one thing, as Singapore's infrastructure ages, there is a need to progressively rejuvenate or redevelop older developments so that the country can remain economically competitive and vibrant.
She believes that long-term and visionary planning will continue to be key in addressing the country's land and resource constraints.
"An anticipatory approach to plan our needs comprehensively decades ahead of time, will enable us to safeguard enough land to meet our development needs. With enough 'runway', we can build up the resources over time to carry out rejuvenation in a comprehensive way."
Her fervent belief in long-term planning was also one of the hallmarks of Singapore's founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, whom she cites as one of her personal inspirations.
"Mr Lee was not a trained urban planner, yet he has shaped many of Singapore's urban and housing policies. His vision to build a nation of home owners gave birth to the extensive public housing programme; his Garden City vision made high-density possible in our hot tropical climate; and his preoccupation with water adequacy drove many infrastructure initiatives such as the transformation of the Singapore River and the creation of the Marina Bay reservoir."
She also credits the many urban pioneers who laid the foundation upon which she and her teams are building on today.
To ensure this work continues long into the future, she is working to inspire the next generation of urban planners. "Sometimes I feel that I am not only a CEO, but also a teacher. We must leave our organisation in a stronger position than when we first join it.
"It's been a great journey over the years, working with many dedicated colleagues in URA and HDB to shape the physical landscape of Singapore and to improve the quality of life of Singaporeans."
A good understanding of housing needs
HDB CEO Cheong Koon Hean's talent for urban planning and leadership is apparent to those who have worked with her, such as Tham Sai Choy, a member of HDB's board. Mr Tham highlights the qualities that characterise her career:
"Koon Hean has a good understanding of how wide-ranging, and sometimes inherently conflicting, the housing needs are for HDB residents who make up 85 per cent of our population. She has a good listening ear at all times and can tune into points of view different from her own.
"Additionally, she builds teams that help her to do exactly that too. This stands her in good stead for the complexity of the demands that come with leading the Singapore success story that we recognise HDB to be."
Helping to secure Singapore's digital future
Lim Bee Kwan, Assistant Chief Executive for Governance and Cybersecurity, Government Technology Agency (GovTech)
LIM Bee Kwan has been keen on a career in technology ever since she was a student. While an undergraduate in the Business Administration faculty at the National University of Singapore, she applied for and was offered a job as a programmer-analyst at National Computer Systems (NCS), then a subsidiary of the National Computer Board (NCB).
The opportunity to help improve the lives of Singaporeans convinced her to stay on in the public sector. She moved to NCB when NCS was corporatised, and was later transferred to the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) when NCB merged with the Telecommunications Authority of Singapore.
At IDA, Ms Lim was involved in the development and rollout of e-services for the People's Association as well as the MediNet infrastructure and systems for the Ministry of Health and its healthcare institutions. She was also responsible for the technology function as part of the Singapore Youth Olympic Games Organising Committee.
Today, she works at GovTech - the agency tasked with harnessing info-communications technology for public sector transformation - where she helps to shape Singapore's digital future by developing and implementing initiatives that aim to strengthen cybersecurity and governance across government agencies.
How does your work at GovTech impact the lives of Singaporeans?
As Singapore drives transformation across the economy, government and society, cybersecurity and governance are key enablers that will help safeguard the systems and networks as we enrich the lives of citizens through new and better government digital services and programmes such as the National Digital Identity.
The Governance and Cybersecurity groups in GovTech develop strategies and implement programmes that deepen cybersecurity capabilities and strengthen the governance function across government agencies.
Why do you think it is important for Singapore to realise its Smart Nation vision?
We are living in the midst of a digital transformation where digital technologies and their accelerating impact across society changes businesses and organisations. To prosper and stay relevant in the world, Singapore has to fully embrace digitalisation, just like how we embraced globalisation and industrialisation in the past.
Smart Nation is about how we make lives better, and how we can work together to use technology more effectively.
What do you think are the technologies that will have the most impact on Singapore?
Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning will have a profound impact on our society. Already, we see a deluge of products and services such as Alexa that assist us in our homes and daily lives. As machine learning algorithms become smarter, every industry will be disrupted. Our society will transform as skills are augmented by AI, and jobs as we know it will change.
How did your interest in technology begin?
I have always been interested in science and technology and how things work. However, science and technology are only useful if they can be deployed and implemented to meet the people's needs and improve lives.
What are some of the challenges you have faced in your career and how have you overcome them?
I have had the opportunity to move across diverse portfolios, from application development to infrastructure implementation, industry development and now cybersecurity and governance.
You don't always get to pick what you do and sometimes you have to rise to the call of duty. It is always incumbent on you to find the value and significance in whatever you do, set your ambitions high and have the tenacity and drive to deliver your utmost best.
What have been some of your more memorable achievements so far?
I spent a better part of my career developing, implementing and operating large infrastructure systems for the government. Some of these are complex with multiple stakeholders, and are multiyear projects that require careful planning and execution.
The more memorable ones I had the privilege to be involved in are the Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic Games and the Government Infrastructure and Services used by all public service officers.
What else do you hope to achieve in your career?
I took on my current cybersecurity and governance portfolios in May this year. These are key enablers, and to do well in them means collaborating better and partnering well with the teams that develop and implement systems so that we facilitate rather than hinder innovations.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I had the honour of working with very dedicated and capable teams that have seen through difficult and complex projects. To me, a leader must lead from the front and be with the troops through thick and thin. One must be appreciative of the efforts of the team because you cannot succeed without their help.