Whatever peeves some Singaporeans may have with the People’s Action Party, all should acknowledge unreservedly its achievement in one area – public housing. Specifically what the Housing and Development Board has done over the years in giving the vast majority of Singaporeans a decent roof over their heads, something that many other countries are unable to do for their citizens. Hence, an announcement that the HDB’s Chief Executive Officer Cheong Koon Hean has left marks a milestone worthy of some comment.
Monday’s (Nov 30) announcement said Cheong will be succeeded by the current National Environment Agency CEO Tan Meng Dui. I don’t know much about him. A quick check revealed that he was a Brigadier-General in the Singapore Armed Forces and a Deputy Secretary with MINDEF and the Ministry of National Development before going over to the NEA. He was also Returning Officer for GE2020.
But I do know a bit more about Cheong. She has been a long-time public face of what can best be described as Singaporeans’ super landlord. Your life literally revolves around the HDB. Most Singaporeans grow up in HDB flats. As they start their own families, they deal with the HDB themselves for their own flats. So who is running the agency is important. All these 60 years since the HDB was formed, strangely not that many personalities have been so closely identified with its success as Cheong – one of a rare quartet.
Lim Kim San started it all. The late National Development Minister, considered a member of Lee Kuan Yew’s inner circle besides people such as Goh Keng Swee and S Rajaratnam, set up the HDB in February 1960 to move Singaporeans out of the many squatter villages which were part of the then landscape. He had Teh Cheong Wan as Chief Executive Officer of the HDB to help him (Teh later went on to become the National Development Minister himself). The next CEO from 1979 was Liu Thai Ker (yes, the falsely labelled 10-million-city man).
Liu left in 1989 to become CEO of the Urban Redevelopment Authority. In a reverse direction, Cheong left as CEO of the URA from 2004 to 2010 to take over as CEO HDB till the latest announcement. We are talking about someone deeply involved in Singapore’s city planning and housing programme.
She belonged to that very special group of pioneer specialists who had been so hands-on and so entrenched from the day they were given their task that they could anticipate every scenario along the way to fruition. These were probe solvers extraordinaire.
Few civil servants in Singapore have, I think, that kind of intimate knowledge and confidence.
The HDB and MND in a joint statement paid her this tribute: “Dr Cheong has been pivotal in the formulation and review of housing policies and building programmes, to meet the evolving housing needs and aspirations of Singaporeans, and promote community bonding across different demographics of society.”
The transformation of Singapore – though not without its critics who lament the loss of many heritage structures in the relentless modernisation – to its global city status owes much to people like Liu and Cheong. They were proven architects and planners.
The citation for an award Cheong was given said: “In 2016, she became the first person in the world to be conferred the Urban Land Institute’s JC Nichols Prize for Urban Visionaries; and the Lynn S Beedle Lifetime Achievement Award by the Council for Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat in the same year.”
With Cheong’s departure, a key rich string which leads all the way to the genesis of the HDB has been snapped.
I am sceptical that her ex-military successor would have any experience, deep knowledge or vision to carry the HDB forward to anything nearly as substantial as she has achieved. Many Singaporeans may share my sentiment. The public record of helicoptered SAF generals into civilian public service is not particularly outstanding, to say the least.
Perhaps Tan Meng Dui, the new HDB CEO who has massive boots to fill, will surprise us, I hope. With the HDB’s 99-year leases running out, I wish him luck.
Han Fook Kwang is right: Don’t just blow your trumpet
Han Fook Kwang is right. Talking about failures is just as important as trumpeting one’s successes. The Straits Times Editor-at-Large says he finds the biennial Singapore Public Service Outcomes Review quite jarring to read, as it seems to be solely focused on presenting anodyne self-praise. He says: “I have a problem with the way it describes what it has achieved, making it sound as if it has all the answers and that life here is hunky dory for everyone.”
He would rather such reviews talk about our failures and perhaps learn and discuss the issues arising from these. Examples: low birth rates, weaning companies from cheap foreign labour, social inequality, the basic wage problem. Can’t agree more with him.
I would add these to the list of failures for fruitful serious discussion: What ever happened to the great plan to create a base of innovative, hands-on citizens who were supposed to have emerged from the polytechnics and ITEs? Should we be happy that there are so many young and able Singaporeans doing low-hanging fruit delivery work? And, of course, there is that foreign worker dormitories debacle.
Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.
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