Steering a Vision
Having steered HDB towards creating a new generation of public housing in Singapore in the last decade, Dr Cheong Koon Hean concludes a remarkable career after 40 years of public service, much of which has been devoted to shaping Singapore’s urbanscape.
A bird’s eye view of MyWaterway@Punggol and Waterway Terraces
In the last decade, a wave of change has begun to spread across Singapore’s heartlands. Amidst the slab and point blocks, new building typologies have emerged. Threads of greenery weave through our towns, as roof gardens and other green spaces became integral parts of the landscape. Solar panels on the roofs of our blocks power whole estates, and new shared spaces such as community living rooms and town plazas bring communities to life.
These are just some of the ways in which HDB has transformed public housing in the last 10 years. And at the helm of this transformation was Dr Cheong Koon Hean, whose leadership and values provided a steady anchor as HDB navigated this pivotal decade of change.
Dr Cheong joined HDB at a time when public housing faced surging demand, changing aspirations, and rising expectations. The immediate task was to deliver more and better flats to people – but the urban planner in Dr Cheong knew she had to look further than that.
“Urban planners constantly look at things with one eye on the future, almost obsessively,” says Dr Cheong. “Are the homes we build today ready for an ageing population, climate change, and other looming trends? Have we anticipated the future well enough, so that our residents can continue to live in homes that are relevant, resilient and liveable, even decades later?”
As HDB embarked on a massive building programme, Dr Cheong saw an opportunity to build a whole new generation of public housing that has the future in mind. Barely a year into her role at HDB, she launched the ‘Roadmap to Better Living in HDB Towns’ in 2011, to guide HDB in developing homes and neighbourhoods that are well-designed, smart and sustainable, and community-centric.
Dr Cheong has led HDB through an era of transformation, with a vision of better homes for all Singaporeans
Who inspires a leader?
Dr Cheong shares more about Punggol’s development with the late Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, during a visit to the eco-town in 2012
Dr Cheong has been credited with transforming much of Singapore’s physical landscape, gaining wide acclaim and inspiring many in her career. But who inspires a leader like her?
“Even though he was not trained as an urban planner, Mr Lee Kuan Yew was an urban visionary who inspired me greatly. His Garden City vision transformed Singapore into a city with abundant lush greenery to make life more pleasant for the people, and his belief in water sustainability drove many infrastructure initiatives such as the transformation of the Singapore River and the creation of the Marina Bay reservoir,” she says.
Dr Cheong recalls when the late Mr Lee visited Punggol in 2012. Punggol, imbued with green and blue elements to enhance the living environment for residents, captures the essence of what Mr Lee had envisioned. “It was an honour to show him how his vision came to life in an HDB town,” she says.
With the Roadmap, Dr Cheong consciously created opportunities for her colleagues to challenge the status quo and spark their innovative spirit. She recalls one of the first questions she had when she joined HDB: could there be fewer driveways surrounding blocks, in order to create a safer environment and introduce more greenery for residents instead?
As the driveways allowed rubbish trucks to reach bin centres or centralised refuse chambers in estates, HDB had to seek out new technology that would reduce the number of driveways. This led to the creation of the Pneumatic Waste Conveyance System (PWCS), an underground network of pipes that uses vacuum suction technology to transport waste to one central location for collection. The PWCS would also prepare HDB towns for the day when Singapore faces manpower constraints in collecting rubbish in the traditional way, since the PWCS is far more efficient in managing waste collection.
“Challenges and constraints push us to do new things and to be visionary in our planning,” says Dr Cheong.
New generation public housing like Tampines GreenRidges are built with the Pneumatic Waste Conveyance System (PWCS)
Such visionary planning is key to ensuring Singapore’s high-density environment can still continue to be a good living environment, and our residents can continue to live comfortably. As a strong proponent of good urban design, Dr Cheong placed great emphasis on achieving liveable density through the innovative juxtaposition of building heights, public spaces, greenery, and water bodies. She is also a keen driver of sustainability initiatives – under her leadership, HDB sought to achieve the larger national goals of sustainable urban planning and development.
As HDB’s work transforms, Dr Cheong recognised that the organisation had to transform in step. She especially pushed to strengthen HDB’s digital capabilities in its service delivery. “If we want to build future-ready homes, we have to create an HDB that is ready for the future,” she says. Today, more than 200 electronic services are available on the HDB InfoWEB and the Mobile@HDB app, bringing greater convenience for residents.
Punggol Town illustrates several key ideas of a well-designed town, such as inclusion of green spaces, focus on quality urban design, and creating synergies from integrated developments
Even as Dr Cheong steered HDB towards greater heights, she kept herself grounded to what truly mattered: the people. Her personal ethos, like many built environment professionals, is to make a better world and help improve lives.
This, she believes, is especially important in an organisation with a social mission like HDB. She strove to build a strong organisational culture where people are self-driven by a sense of common purpose and mission to do their best to make a real difference. “We must always remind ourselves, ‘what is the meaning behind the work that we do?’” says Dr Cheong.
With great emphasis on keeping public housing affordable and attainable to as many Singaporeans as possible, she enhanced housing grants for a diverse group of first-time home owners, such as young couples and singles, as well as led initiatives to support the housing needs and aspirations of low-income and vulnerable families. She also believes the ‘heartware’, comprising people and community, is what makes a town and place endearing to its residents.
“HDB towns will continue to be at the heart of Singapore living, but they are not only about the physical buildings and infrastructure,” Dr Cheong says. “What is a home without its people? So, we must never forget that it’s about planning for the people.”
Building stronger communities
Dr Cheong helping to put the finishing touches of the Adventure Playground@Canberra, Singapore's first community-built playground under HDB's Build-a-Playground initiative
Dr Cheong has always championed the creation and activation of public spaces, as she strongly believes these spaces are what gives a place greater identity and vibrancy. “We want our communities to play an active part in place-making, since this is their home,” she says.
She is heartened to see more and more residents coming forward to take greater ownership in caring for their homes and to strengthen community ties. “In this way, our HDB towns can become endearing homes for all.”
For Dr Cheong, her decade with HDB caps a long and fulfilling career in the public service. And even to the end, her resolve to drive innovation remained strong, as she launched the new ‘Designing for Life’ roadmap, a refreshed roadmap that will pave the way for future HDB living.
“It has been a great privilege to work alongside my colleagues at HDB, and to witness their dedication to bring excellence to all aspects of their work,” says Dr Cheong. “I will continue to cheer HDB on, as it moves forward into the future.”
Dr Cheong cheers on her colleagues as they compete in the 2019 MNDRC Dragon Boat Race
A strong sense of unity becomes all the more crucial in an organisation of over 5,000 people. That is why Dr Cheong sought to cultivate a culture of ‘One HDB’, where open communication, mutual respect, and care could thrive. “It is by working as ‘One HDB’ that we can continue on the same path and ride out any wave of change, together,” she says.
Final Words with Dr Cheong Koon Hean
If you could say something to your younger self from 10 years ago, what would you say to her?
There is always opportunity in adversity. Take it one step at a time when faced with many challenges as there is always a way. Build teamwork and work together towards a common purpose and goal. Faith, positive thinking, and humour helps!
What takeaways do you hope your colleagues will gain from your time with HDB?
I believe I should always leave an organisation in a better position than when I first join it. Looking back, HDB faced a lot of challenges when I joined in 2010.
Together with many dedicated colleagues, we have developed a clear vision on where HDB should be heading. More importantly, we formulated clear paths on how to achieve the vision – from the Roadmap to Better Living in 2011 to the Designing for Life Roadmap in 2020.
We have also strengthened our pipeline of talent and built competencies, harnessing strong research and technology to drive an innovative culture. The organisation has also placed `people’ at the centre of our policies and programmes. With this firm foundation, I am optimistic that HDB will be `future ready’ to meet upcoming challenges.
What are you looking forward to most in retirement?
In life, we move from one season to another. I am ready to move to another season, where I will continue to contribute to the built environment and to cities in a different way.
At the same time, I do hope to have more time for my personal pursuits as well – to spend more time with my family, brush up my rusty skills on music and art, exercise more regularly, carry out HIP (my personal `home improvement programme’), and travel (when we can again). There are so many things to look forward to!