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Sharing Singapore's expertise in construction across the globe

Interview - June 27, 2018

The city state of Singapore is revered for its beautifully constructed buildings and world-class infrastructure, and CPG Corporation has been one of the major builders in Singapore for decades. Khew Sin Khoon give us more insight into the company, its international expansion, and how it is adopting the latest digital technologies from design to construction. He also discusses the potential of the ASEAN and how the company is using Prefabricated Precast Volumetric Construction as a effective building solution across the region.



ASEAN just celebrated its 50 years anniversary, what do you believe is the full potential of ASEAN and how do you compare it to other economic blocks in the world?

I am originally from Malaysia. I grew up in a developing nation and decided to come over to Singapore. I saw Singapore's potential as a leader of development, and was attracted by its meritocracy. Similarly, there's a lot of opportunity for the ASEAN countries to model themselves after how Singapore developed itself so quickly and moved into a first-world country.

ASEAN is marked by its diverse economic profiles. I always tell my American friends who come over here - “Don’t expect a homogeneous, English-speaking society”. If you drive 40 kilometers up north, you may not be able to understand the people there if you don't speak their lingo. You’ll find this kind of diversity all over the ten countries in ASEAN.

Despite all these differences and challenges, I do see huge potential in the emerging economies in the region. There are a lot of infrastructure opportunities and a lot of land to be developed, leading to projects in urbanisation, in connectivity, and in transportation by land, by sea, by air. ASEAN is teeming with rich opportunities.


Infrastructure is one the biggest challenges to economic growth. What do you see are the main challenges and opportunities in the infrastructure sector in ASEAN for the private sector?

Having done projects in several countries in ASEAN, the biggest challenge remains to be land ownership. It’s a challenge that goes beyond ASEAN; we run into the same challenge in many countries we operate in.

Singapore had one particular powerful instrument during the emerging nation-building years - there was a land acquisition act. Under the act, land could be procured from the private sector or individuals for the common good of developing the country. You don't see that in many countries around the world. I believe Indonesia has just started something similar to make it easier to acquire land for development. But it remains to be the biggest obstacle to development today.


Singapore is very pragmatic when it comes to developing and building the nation. The government is now focusing on a new economic cycle for the economy to go from a value-added to a value-creation one. What is your analysis of the implementation of the CFE and how do you see the impact of the build environment ITM on your side?

Of the seven strategies, the one revolving ‘partnership and the collaboration’ would impact our business the most. Forging meaningful partnerships is something we have been doing all this while as we continue to expand our services into overseas markets. We need to understand the role Singapore plays in partnering clients of different countries, be it from the public or the private sector.

Secondly, we focus a lot on deep skills training for our employees. CPG is operating in a knowledge-based industry; what sets us apart from our competitors will eventually boil down to experience and expertise. There is an inventory of services we offer to our clients, but brainpower is ultimately the essence of our services. The investment into deep skills training means that we make sure our people are technically confident and prepared when they get out there to different countries, and are aware of the value of expertise that we bring across.

The third aspect would be embracing and adopting digital technology into our business. Many people feel that architects and engineers are far way from being disrupted. It may just be that we are not aware of what's going to disrupt us. I don't think the hotel industry or the taxi industries thought that they could ever be disrupted. Then suddenly you've got Grab, Uber, Airbnb, etc.

I think we're going to see more and more of that kind of new players coming into Singapore. The digital economy is something we have to be ready for and at the same time, we can never be ready for. It is very important that Singapore is fully aware of the digital revolutions underway in the society, and the CFE takes into consideration of these changes. When we look at it from our business standpoint, we recognise them and embrace some of these strategies the government has put in place.


Could you tell us more about your collaboration with academia to gain and develop the skills of tomorrow?

As a commercial company, partnering with the academia is extremely important as it has always been a critical resource of R&D.

One of the examples is the future of ageing in Singapore. As a society, we don't believe that putting our aged citizens into elderly homes and segregating them from the communities is the way to go. Instead, the government agencies such as HDB and URA are looking at strategies that infuse senior citizens care within our housing estates.

In CPG, one of the research projects we are working on is with the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) to study designing toilets and door handles for the aging population in Singapore.


The biggest difference between Singapore and the other ASEAN countries is evidently the infrastructure. Singapore is reliant on those infrastructures to maintain its hub status in the region and to remain competitive due to lack of natural resources or small domestic market. What do you believe are the main drivers behind the success of Singapore when it comes to infrastructure?

Whenever I hear such a question, I use Changi Airport as an example.

Friends always ask me 'Why is Changi Airport the world's number one for six years? Physically there’s nothing special about it that sets it apart from other airports.” But I always say this: it is not the hardware but the software - the people within that system - that make it work.

When we were designing Changi Airport, one of the KPIs we had to adhere to was this - it should take no more than 12 minutes for the luggage to be transported from the plane to the carousel, because that’s the time it would take for the passenger to walk from the aerobridge to the carousel.

Twelve minutes. For every plane that disembarks, the system works the same way. It is the quality standard set. In this case, it isn’t just about building the infrastructure, it’s also about putting the invisible system in place and training the people. You could bring Changi Airport and put it in a different city around the world and you may not get the same outcome.


When it comes to CPG, you've got a very long relationship with the infrastructures of Singapore. You were originally the department for public works until you got corporatized. What do you believe are the most relevant infrastructure CPG has been involved with in Singapore?

Coming back to systems again, Singapore organises itself around creating government agencies for specific development areas, particularly in infrastructure and space. The HDB, the Housing and Development Board, concentrates on public housing. The JTC - Jurong Town Corporation - handles all the industrial spaces. The PWD - Public Works Department – was responsible for everything else.

The PWD came into being in 1946, and was reinvented after Singapore’s independence in 1956. Back in 1984, PWD was in charge of building the social infrastructure in Singapore, from bus stops, public toilets, hospitals, schools, fire and police stations, to the Woodlands checkpoints – essentially the public infrastructure used by all citizens on a day-to-day basis.

It was a very exciting time as there was rapid development going on. At some point, we were designing and building schools at the rate of one project a month. Between 1985 and 1990, PWD built all the schools in Singapore, many of which are still in use today.


Could you tell us more about the evolution from Public Works Department to a fully corporate company which now has interest in Singapore but also abroad?

I joined the PWD as a public servant in 1984 – it was my first job. I spent 15 years there as an architect when the decision was made to corporatise the PWD. It was the era of Thatcherism; we were looking towards the UK for how they managed the civil service. England was corporatising and privatising their public sector, so we decided to do the same.

Architectural and engineering services need not be provided by the government and could be privatised – that was the rationale back then. Subsequently, CPG went through several owners. Looking back, it’s interesting how my career took me from the public sector to the private sector.


Coming from the public sector, how do you believe that makes you unique compared to your competition?

Being in the public sector gave me very solid and systematic training. There was a certain level of bureaucracy common of most governments, but it also translated into a high level of integrity, transparency, and a belief that you were there to make the world better. Those were the values from our founding Prime Minister on which he built the Singapore civil service.

The Singapore brand of integrity and transparency still resonates today. When a client finds out that we’re from Singapore and used to operate in the public sector, he or she always has a positive reaction. Our clients know that whatever we say, we deliver. There is trust and confidence because our city is testament to the way we are, to our culture, and to how we work.


Could you tell us about the internalization process of the company? the markets you're the most present in and the ones you see the biggest growth potential?

It was quite a journey transitioning from the public sector to the private sector. But I’m glad that we made it and are thriving in the private sector now.

The Singapore system focusing on transparency and fairness is unique, and it may not work in all countries. In our overseas markets, we try to find a middle ground with our clients.

Many clients would ask us “Could you bring this building to my country?” We always remind them that architecture needs to be done within the context of their country and culture. We can’t simply transport a building without taking the local identity into consideration.

That is why we always engage a local consultant when we work on a project overseas. In ASEAN, the practice of Islamism is an important factor to consider when we work on projects in Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Southern part of Thailand. Language and communication is another challenge. Architecture is inherently expressive, and we need to know exactly what our clients want their projects to express. You wouldn’t be successful if you couldn’t understand the clients.

Although we bring a lot of knowledge about Singapore, we may not have a lot of knowledge about the country we’re operating in. You could be designing something that is against the local religious practice without realising it. Such design wouldn’t work because it has forgotten about the users who will inhabit the building.


If you had to choose your favourite project in which you've been involved, whether it's in Singapore or internationally, which one would those be?

I have an affinity towards Gardens by the Bay because I was personally working on it right from day one.

At that time, the first and the only botanic garden in Singapore was a legacy of the British. It was green and wonderful but it had no colour. If you go overseas and visit their botanic gardens, you see different flowers in different seasons; it would be a revelry of colours. This realisation sparked ideas for a new garden.

The Singapore government played a huge part in securing the land for Gardens by the Bay. The location is in downtown central business district – it could be potentially worth billions of dollars. The government had a strong vision – to build a national central park that could be accessed by everyone in Singapore and the tourists. Land is already so scarce in Singapore and we were turning 54 hectares of land into a garden? It was a courageous and patriotic decision. Gardens by the Bay wasn’t built for the tourism industry – although it helped; it was built for Singaporeans. Today, most parts of the Gardens are free of charge; people can come by for a jog or a stroll anytime.

The second challenge we faced was how to efficiently use energy. Within the Gardens are two ginormous tropical greenhouses, powered by air-conditioning at all times. Many were surprised by the design, asking “Are you crazy? How are you going to build two greenhouses and air-condition them? You know how much it would cost to do that?” It seemed an insurmountable task.

We spent two years doing research into glass technology, architectural forms, building forms, and sustainable technologies. We promised our founding Prime Minister that the air-conditioning bill for the conservatories would be no higher than a typical office building. 

In the end, we used micro turbines and burned plant waste from all around the island to generate energy for air-conditioning the greenhouses. We were extremely lucky that the technology had matured for us to do that. Today, the energy consumption is the same as a typical air-conditioned office building.

In addition, we had to transport the plants and make sure the air-conditioning temperature created an ideal environment for these plants to grow and thrive. Come to think about it, our primary clients were the plants. If the plants couldn’t survive, we wouldn’t have the Gardens.


Did you expect such a success from that development and so much international recognition for it?

We worked towards it, but we didn't expect that much.

It definitely wasn’t an overnight success. In the beginning, there were environmental groups that argued that Gardens by the Bay was man-made; we even had to artificially construct the waterfall.

We responded by saying that 60 years ago, there was no land in the location – it was the sea. Singapore made land out of the sea and that was our can-do spirit! Everything about Gardens by the Bay is man-made and we are not making apologies for it.


You just mentioned technology. How is CPG incorporating those technological trends in its day-to-day and in its development?

It starts with our tools of the trade. In my generation, we used hands and papers to draw. Today, architects and engineers use BIM and 3D modelling, which encourage interdisciplinary collaboration between different divisions working on the same project.

The BIM is a virtual model where if the architect makes a change, the engineers can see what exactly has been edited; it is then moved downstream. This solves a lot of coordination issues.

The industry is also revolutionising construction. Today, we use this method called prefabricated precast volumetric construction (PPVC), where building modules are constructed offsite and assembled onsite - almost like building a Lego model. It minimises labour, reduces errors, and increases efficiency and quality. We have brought this technology to our clients across ASEAN and the Middle East.


In which areas, in terms of infrastructure, do you think there could be synergies between Singapore and the United States?

That's a very interesting question. During Singapore’s nation-building years, we used to look to the US as a model of innovation. It would become an interesting full cycle if US started learning from Singapore in terms of construction technology. For now, I think the US is still more advanced in terms of technologies.

When I was doing prisons, there were not a lot of local architects who had done prisons before. The only example we had was the Changi prison, which was built before the war. At the time, Singapore was embarking on a new prison program, so we turned to the US for examples of clean, humane prisons.

Back then, there was a lot of development towards human rights. A prison can be spartan but should not be an affront to humanity. We went to the US twice and toured all the prisons there - from San Francisco to Washington, DC. I visited a total of 21 prisons in the US, and learned the different typologies and technologies, such as the high-tensile steel bars used for windows.

What can the US learn from Singapore? I think it's still the ‘software’ in our systems.


By the time you resign as CEO where would you like CPG to be?

As a global player.

For CPG to continue growing, we need to move far beyond Singapore shores and beyond ASEAN. My vision is to share Singapore's expertise across the globe, especially with emerging economies. We want to help different countries realise the aspirations of what they envision a model city should be.

Singapore is our living laboratory of experiments – that is the value we can bring to our neighbours. Singapore has made mistakes, but other countries don’t have to make the same mistakes. Our responsibility is to help these countries shortcut the process, work around the roadblocks, and increase efficiency in the projects that are being undertaken.