SEE PHOTOS & WATCH VIDEO: The former chief of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, Dr Cheong Koon Hean transformed Singapore into the global city we are admired for today. We meet the down-to-earth yet remarkable Her World Woman of the Year 2010
“Shall we start?” Dr Cheong Koon Hean, the former head of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) asks, smiling. Sitting across from me in her office lounge, she is the picture of poise in a black shift dress and fuchsia jacket.
From her take-charge manner and the handwritten notes she has prepared for our interview, it seems that the chief executive of the Housing and Development Board (HDB) is a woman who believes in getting the job done—and done well. But I cannot detect the slightest hint of bulldozing. Instead, she sips her tea and smiles, urging me to go ahead and ask away.
I recall what internationally renowned architect Moshe Safdie, who worked closely with Dr Cheong to design and build the Marina Bay Sands integrated resort, told Her World: “She is firm about what she wants, but she always achieves it with a smile.”
Perhaps it could be said that our city – in particular, the spectacular structures surrounding the gleaming waters of Marina Bay – was built on a foundation of Dr Cheong’s smiles. When Sars struck in 2003, the Marina Bay project – poised to be the sophisticated yet sustainable sister to oh-so-serious Shenton Way – was hit by a dismal economy. And this was after four decades of planning and reclamation works.
Dr Cheong, who is in her 50s, recalls: “Businesses stalled. Nobody had confidence to invest anywhere.” Billions were at stake, but the then-chief executive of the URA was undaunted. Instead of sitting tight and waiting for a turnaround, she led a marketing blitz to sell Marina Bay to sceptics here and overseas. She and her team showcased its plus points, like its high-quality infrastructure, to the world at major real estate forums like Mipim in Cannes and CityScape in Dubai.
More crucially, they cranked up their creative juices to convince potential investors to give the project a chance, such as offering developers site flexibility and the option to develop in individual phases so they did not have to pay so much upfront.
Dr Cheong explains: “Such flexibility was critical to assure investors that we would share the business risks with them. The Government also pumped in millions of dollars to build up infrastructure at Marina Bay. We had to show that we were fully committed to the project.”
Her efforts paid off. By 2008, Marina Bay was no longer a hard sell. It was an emerging icon. Residents moved into The Sail, Singapore’s tallest condominium. Marina Barrage, built across the mouth of the bay, was opened and Singaporeans flocked there to fly kites, row boats or enjoy picnics. The world took notice, too—the first Formula One Grand Prix was staged at night, with an eye-catching floodlit track running through the city.
For Dr Cheong, 2010 was the year of milestones. She watched the most iconic of Marina Bay’s structures become concrete reality. The three towers of Marina Bay Sands rose into the sky as Singaporeans watched in awe. The 3.5km Waterfront Promenade linking Bayfront to Marina Centre saw families and lovers alike strolling by the gleaming waters. The Float@Marina Bay hosted the opening and closing ceremonies of the inaugural Singapore Youth Olympics.
Yet Marina Bay is still in its infancy, Dr Cheong says. “There is still a need to guide its growth by building up the buzz in the area. We did that by gathering stakeholders together to ensure social sustainability.” That’s how hundreds of “wishing spheres”, an art installation, appeared on the waters of the bay, for instance. “We wanted to create a meaningful tradition for all Singaporeans to pen their wishes and hopes for the New Year.”
THE FOUR “GREATS”
In shaping a world-class city, Dr Cheong says she’s trying to create the four “greats”. “Great concept, great infrastructure, great investors and great design,” she elaborates. “People think all these just happen, but that’s not so. Planning is the unseen hand that guided the work.”
“Cities are not instant soups,” she had told The Straits Times last August. “Cities are like a stew, they have to be brewed slowly and double-boiled.” And Dr Cheong, with her long and distinguished public service career, is in a unique position to make that observation.
After graduating with first class honours in architecture from the University of Newcastle – where she won the University Gold Medal – the Colombo Plan scholar joined the former Public Works Department as a planner and architect in 1981.
Moving to the URA in 1991, she became head of its urban planning department soon after and was pulled into the Marina Bay project. “Many major ideas were conceptualised then, like having the bay as a ‘water padang’ for celebrations. But the land reclamation for Marina Bay had actually started in the 1970s,” she recalls. “As planners, we constantly have to think ahead and anticipate Singapore’s future needs.”
Of course, Marina Bay wasn’t the sole focus of her career. Dr Cheong was seconded several times to various agencies. She did a stint as the Director for International Business Development in the Ministry of Trade and Industry between 1997 and 1999, and was appointed a Deputy Secretary in the Ministry of National Development in 2001.
In 2003, during her stint at the Ministry of National Development as its deputy secretary of special duties, she garnered international acclaim when she represented Singapore in a high-profile land reclamation dispute with Malaysia at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg.
Professor Tommy Koh, ambassador-at-large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, worked intensively with Dr Cheong on the case. He recalls: “She was such an articulate speaker I had no doubt that we had won the court’s sympathy by the time the court broke for lunch.”
She also stood out in another area. “She showed great cultural sensitivity during the negotiations, even earning the admiration of the Malaysians,” he says. “She’s a complete woman. A woman who has everything—brains, beauty and character.”
In 2004, Dr Cheong returned to the URA and became the first woman to be appointed its chief executive. At the helm, she spearheaded major urban transformation projects like the Jurong Lake District and the remaking of Orchard Road.
She also led a panel of policymakers to multiply round-the-clock leisure choices to nurture a new “evening economy” in Singapore (for that, an article in The Straits Times hailed her “Mrs Nightbuzz”). At the same time, she championed the concept of place management in downtown areas like Orchard Road and the Singapore River. “This means we pulled stakeholders together, with the assistance of the Singapore Tourism Board, and got them involved in generating economic and social vibrancy.”
To Dr Cheong, it was important for the URA to have an international outlook. “After all, we’re a city-state and compete with cities around the world.” That’s why she encouraged the URA team to learn from other cities, to participate in international events to brand and promote Singapore and to network with overseas organisations with similar interests in cities and their development.
In 2009, she started the URA International Group to share Singapore’s planning experience overseas. The venture was well received by countries like China, and she later advised on projects such as the China-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City. “Sometimes,” Dr Cheong shrugs, “people overseas appreciate what we do more than the locals.
Fun Siew Leng, group director of urban planning and design at the URA and a long-time colleague, observes: “She’s not only intellectually impressive and technically proficient—she’s also a true visionary. As an urban planner, you need to have staying power to see your ideas materialise. Dr Cheong has that.”
A music lover, Dr Cheong likens the process of creating a visionary city to that of an orchestra playing a beautiful piece of music. “Conceptualising planning ideas is like composing a music score,” she says.
“The conductor needs his musicians to play in unison—the URA staff and partners in the public and private sectors help to translate the plans into reality. Then, hopefully, that music will touch the hearts and minds of the audience.”
To Dr Cheong, shaping a city is not a one-man show. “It’s a concerted effort. And when everyone plays the score well together, we enjoy a beautiful symphony. In the same vein, we hope to build a great city.”
NO PLACE LIKE HOME
It’s fitting that Dr Cheong is now continuing the next chapter of her public service career at the HDB. She now leads about 5,000 staff—five times more than at the URA. Plus, there’s an insatiable demand for affordable housing for Singaporeans. But working on projects like the Punggol Eco-Town is stimulating for Dr Cheong, who was recently awarded an honorary doctorate from her alma mater, the University of Newcastle.
“At the URA, we generate ideas and ‘persuade’ others to implement the plans. But at the HDB, we are more in the driver’s seat—we can plan, design and build ourselves.”
She says: “I see my role in HDB as a continuation of my journey to make Singapore a better place to live.”
Outside of work, Dr Cheong spends most of her time with her family. She’s married to financial consultant Cheong Heng Lim, who she says is quietly supportive of her career.
They have two sons—Jonathan, a final-year law student, and Justin, who just completed National Service. When asked about her parenting style, she says: “I would definitely fail as Amy Chua’s Tiger Mum. Certainly no punishment if they don’t score straight As. Children should learn at their pace, not ours.”
Late-night suppers and ice cream feasts were the family’s favourite activity when the boys were growing up. But the self-professed closet musician, who enjoys playing the piano and guitar to relax, most enjoys jamming with her sons. “Jonathan and Justin play the acoustic and bass guitars. They have told me it’s cool to have a mum who jams with them,” she laughs. “Besides, music is therapeutic even if we’re all just mucking around.”
It seems that Dr Cheong has no problem doing the juggling act. “I’m an ordinary mum,” she insists. “Everyone has 24 hours. You just need to be disciplined and prioritise.”
It’s obvious that family is the reason why Dr Cheong pours herself into her work and why her happiest moments are when she sees families enjoying the spaces she’s helped create. “It’s not about building the tallest tower,” she says. “It’s about creating a great place to live, work and play. It’s about filling up the city with hopes and memories so we can call it home.” HW
DR CHEONG’S TOP FIVE MUST-SEE CITIES
1. New York, United States: “New York is proof that a city needs more than just ‘hardware’, like iconic buildings and working infrastructure. Even though it’s an old city, New York continues to surprise us by re-inventing itself. For example, it transformed 42nd Street from a crime-ridden street to a tourist draw as a theatre district. It even recently converted an abandoned rail line into the ‘High Line’, an above-ground linear park. The city is still incredibly innovative and it’s this ‘software’ that makes a difference.”
2. Sydney, Australia: “I spent five years as an architecture student in Australia and travelled extensively while I was there. Sydney probably has one of the world’s most photographed and beautiful waterfronts at Circular Quay and Darling Harbour, framed by its iconic Opera House and Harbour Bridge.”
3. Shanghai, China: “While I would not describe this megacity as well planned, it has a great buzz and not just on The Bund. From an urban planning perspective, it’s no mean feat to make a city of this size function. Just building an extensive railway system to free the city from a traffic gridlock is hard enough. Yet, they’ve done it and even caught international attention with the World Expo. I admire their ambition.”
4. Barcelona and Bilbao, Spain: “Spanish cities are becoming more flamboyant and creative. Barcelona is famous not only for its rich architecture by 20th century Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi, but also for its thoughtful urban design which has livened up its waterfront. Bilbao is an ‘up and coming’ city which used cultural architecture, like Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum, to re-brand itself.”
5. Kyoto, Japan: “Walking around this beautiful city never fails to conjure a sense of peace and tranquillity in my soul. With its temples and shrines, beautiful gardens and deer parks, there’s a very strong sense of cultural history here.”