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Necklace of pearls around the bay

HDB Chief Cheong Koon Hean sold a vision to help shape the Marina Bay Skyline.

Cheong Koon Hean


ARCHITECTS and city planners don't quite get along. Architects resent planners for hindering their creativity, while planners sometimes disapprove of architects' too-narrow focus that may neglect public interest or obscure the bigger picture of building a city.

But Cheong Koon Hean, chief executive of the Housing and Development Board (HDB), is both roles merged in one. Her ambition was to be an architect, but by accident, she found her calling in planning.

She says that having both perspectives now has been complementary rather than a conflict. Her views on things are now both two-dimensional and three-dimensional, macro and micro.

Initially trained as an architect, the Colombo Plan scholar had returned home after graduation only to find herself placed in a planning role at the development controls section of the then Public Works Department. (The PWD was later merged with several other urban planning functions to form the Urban Redevelopment Authority, or URA, in 1989.)

"I was quite disappointed they didn't put me to do architecture but planning," she tells The Business Times. "It wasn't where I wanted to go. I did very well in architecture."

But her architecture training and skills have not gone to waste. Today they continue to contribute to the richness of her planning, she says. It probably also reduces the ire of the architects she works with when they realise that she sees and understands their perspective too. She says she eventually found planning to be more interesting than architecture, because the scope is broader.

"You can really shape the entire city. In architecture, you are only looking at a singular project, but when you do planning, you are looking at the whole country, and then you are looking at specific areas."

She always tells people that it takes three years to build a building, but 30 years to build a city. She says people look at buildings and say they look great, without realising that is not where it all starts.

It always starts with a plan. Particularly in land-constrained Singapore, urban planning is vital to make the best use of land.

There are various levels of planning. The first is a concept plan that charts land use for the next 40 to 50 years. This is then cascaded back into the master plan which has a shorter time horizon of 10-15 years and contains more detailed plans for implementation, including prioritising the infrastructure investments.

"Planning is important because we are a country; we are not a city. We are a city state. This is a major difference with most places in the world, which is also what makes planning so challenging in Singapore," she says.

Singapore is only about 720 square kilometres, half the size of Greater London. Many people make the erroneous comparison with places like Manhattan and ask why Singapore cannot be like the New York City borough, she notes. "They don't understand. Manhattan is a city, not a country. But for Singapore, a country means we need to plan many things: airports, ports, military use, water sufficiency - things which most cities don't need to take care of because they are taken care of by a federal government."

The next step is the urban design of a smaller specific area. Planning is two-dimensional, but urban design adds a third dimension. She cites the Marina Bay area, which she had a hand in developing and transforming. While planning decides where to place different parts - residential units, offices, retail malls - it does not translate into a third dimension that people can better relate to, such as how the place looks, how people feel when they are inside the building, how the skyline takes shape, with lower buildings in front and the taller behind, for instance.

It is only after the urban design is done that the developers and architects enter the picture.

Mrs Cheong, who used to conduct a military band in school, likes to compare successful urban planning to a symphony of musicans each playing their respective instruments.

"You need a very good composition, and you need to have very good passionate musicians," she says. The "composition" would be the plans, and the musicians the various stakeholders such as the government agencies, planners, architects and developers.

"You have to work together in order to play this symphony beautifully so that the plan can be realised. The outcome is that everyone enjoys the piece - the music and the type of environment that we live in. It really is like a symphony and it has to be conducted. Planning is never about a single person but many people coming together, being aligned in their thinking, having a vision to deliver a very good product."

The story behind Marina Bay

There is another important factor that makes a place come alive - the people who use it.

Today, when she walks around Marina Bay, it is no longer the buildings that she pays attention to, but the people and the activities. "I see people picnic. They just bring a mat and sit down with their families.

"Of course there is kite-flying which is really nice, and people are just jamming, buzzing around and actually I enjoy that a lot - looking at people and what they do, because that's what a city is about."

Cities are not built for tourists, but for the people who live in it. If the residents enjoy it, others will too, she says.

The Marina Bay Sands project, which cost about S$8 billion in all to develop, was no mean feat. It required URA, together with the Ministry of Trade and Industry and Singapore Tourism Board, to convince other government agencies and private-sector developers to plough money in to build up its infrastructure as well as real estate.

She recalls an evening in Las Vegas when she and a Singapore minister met American casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.

"He was just supposed to meet us as a cursory courtesy thing, but in the end we sat around and talked for more than an hour because I was explaining to him the idea of Marina Bay and how we have this necklace of attractions around the bay. I said that the integrated resort will be one of the pearls of that necklace."

The chairman and CEO of Las Vegas Sands eventually bid for the integrated resort, won the tender, and built Marina Bay Sands.

"Now I never knew he remembered it, but finally when MBS was built and I was with him at the dinner, sitting next to him, he told me: 'You remember you told me about the necklace of pearls around the bay? Well, we have built it.' He remembered because this site is such a fantastic site . . . He was convinced by the plan."

Mr Adelson is only one of many that she had to sell her vision to. To begin with she had to convince the government that it was not too wild an idea to build a garden on 100 hectares of perfectly prime land in Singapore. She also convinced them to build a common services tunnel beneath Marina Bay to house telecom cables, power lines, water pipes and pneumatic refuse collection pipes. This cost more than S$200 million to build, but it meant that disruption would be minimised and roads would not have to be dug up every time a new building was erected to lay the underground cables and pipes.

URA also introduced an innovative tender process in its quest for a master developer for the massive 3.55-hectare plot where Marina Bay Financial Centre now stands. The master developer could decide the mix of uses, and to design and build in phases according to market demand and tenants' needs.

Because of the size of the plot, the agency had to develop an options approach to share the business risk with the winning developer. This means that the winner can buy the first plot and put an option on the second plot, which it can subsequently exercise when it is ready. There were also conditions in place to split the risk of subsequent land price volatility between the developer and the government.

"This options approach was very successful. And because the economy turned around, after the consortium (comprising Keppel Land, Cheung Kong and Hongkong Land) bought phase one, within a year they put the money down for phase two and the rest is history."

She also had to convince the Land Transport Authority to spend more to build the Marina Coastal Expressway underground so that it would not cut the city off from the waterfront the way East Coast Parkway does.

This way, the city can grow towards the water. She justified her proposal by arguing that the government could recoup its higher cost of construction through the real estate value that would be gained back from selling the waterfront land.

Often times the difficulty is in finding the right business model and a financing plan that is cost-effective and that generates a loop back, so that the government does not have to be the party to keep ploughing money in.

But the government does have to start the ball rolling and put its money where its mouth is so that others will follow, she says. The government pumped in nearly S$2 billion to build the infrastructural base for Marina Bay.

No cookie-cutter

After six years at the helm of URA, she joined HDB at the end of 2010 as its chief and found herself quickly thrown into a crisis. Housing demand was booming and public flat supply was running low. HDB had to triple the housing programme, which brought on a massive strain on its manpower.

Even then, she didn't want to merely churn out the flats. "I didn't want to just build, because when you're under so much pressure to deliver on the numbers, it's very easy to do more of the same, just cookie-cutter. But I didn't want that because it's actually a great opportunity to do new things. The fact that you can build so many flats - wow, you can do many new things right?"

So she developed the "Roadmap for Better Living", with three key thrusts: to build well-designed, sustainable, and community-centric towns.

It became an opportunity for her to explore a new generation of HDB town plans. She also redid a new plan for the second phase of Punggol, which was already building phase one. In this revised plan, she introduced more greenery and promenade water elements.

She made it her target to make every town distinctive by capitalising on the heritage and character of each locality.

For example, her team recently traced the roots of the Bidadari estate back to days when it was home to a beautiful garden built by the wealthy Alkaff family. There were archival photos of men in suits and ladies with brollies rowing a boat in the garden. That led to her decision to preserve that heritage of Bidadari's "rolling hills and plains".

Now, HDB is working with the Nature Society to bring its original avian inhabitants back by building them a runway to land on the ridge and by planting the right types of trees to draw them home.

In October 2016, she was awarded the Urban Land Institute's J C Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development, which celebrates people who have helped to create communities that reflect high standards of design and development. She is the first Asian to have won this accolade.

But she seems to find more satisfaction from the appreciation she receives from Singaporeans. Last December, a Christmas card came in the mail from an elderly woman who had just moved into a new HDB project at Ghim Moh, thanking her for making "all these beautiful homes" for the people.

"That made my day," she says. "After six years of hard work, it is worth it. It's good to see people do appreciate. I think this is the most satisfying part in our work," she adds, tearing up.

The need for vision

Asked what makes a good planner, she lists, besides the usual attributes of passion and determination, something less commonly cited : paranoia.

"A little bit of paranoia, because you are always worried about the future," she says. It is not too crazy to be thinking ahead 40 to 50 years.

Commercial entities and some governments think short-term, but planners need to be paranoid about making sure there are plans in place and sufficient land, resources and ideas to continue to meet the country's development needs, all the while keeping it a pleasant place to live still.

And vision is important, she emphasises, especially when one is involved in a very long-term project. A dream and a vision keep you going on a long journey.

It was far-sighted planning that led the government to reclaim the land at Marina Bay in the 1970s because it foresaw the need to grow the city. Because of this, Singapore was able to save many of its historical districts such as Chinatown and Little India, unlike countries that are forced to build their new cities over old heritage districts.

Vision also led the government to envisage something more for Marina Bay than to be just "the backside of the city". It led Moshe Safdie, the architect of Marina Bay Sands, who she says "understands cities", to build the development such that when one is inside, they always see the outside: the water, the sailing boats, the people, and the old city by the Singapore river.

"Especially the old city," she says. "I am not divorced from it. We have this beautiful thing about an older city transiting into the new. And it is seamless. These things don't just happen, you know. Very few cities have these wonderful things merging. And it's exactly Singapore, right?

"What is Singapore? Always a merger of old and new, always a juxtaposition of the tall and low, the East and West . . . These are the beautiful contradictions we have in Singapore."

To her, that diversity is a trait of Singapore that is reflected in the design of the city. But none of it happened by accident or chance; rather it is the product of a vision planners drew up decades ago, and has now come to pass.


CEO, Housing & Development Board

Born in 1957


1981 Bachelor of Architecture (Newcastle University)

1985 Masters in Urban Development Planning (University College London)

2007 Advanced Management Programme (Harvard Business School)

2010 Doctor of Architecture (Newcastle)

Career highlights

1981 - 1988 Planner, PWD

1988 - 1990 Asst Director, Strategic Planning Department, Ministry of National Development

1990 - 1997 Various appointments in Urban Redevelopment Authority

1997 - 1999 Director (International Business Development), Ministry of Trade and Industry

1999 - 2000 Director (Conservation & Urban Design), URA

2000 - 2001 Director (Strategic Planning), MND

2001 - 2016 Deputy Secretary, MND

2004 - 2010 CEO, URA

Since 2010 CEO, HDB

Other appointments

Since 2016 Deputy President, International Federation for Housing and Planning

Since 2013 Nominating Committee Member, Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize

2014 - 2016 Member, World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council for Real Estate and Urbanisation

Key awards

2016 ULI JC Nichols Laureate

2016 CTBUH Lynn S Beedle Lifetime Achievement Award

2011 International Women's Forum "Women Who Make a Difference"Award, Washington DC, USA

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