Saturday, 30 June 2012

In love with the little red dot

Jun 29, 2012


Ten years after giving up Belgian citizenship to become a Singaporean, Singapore Diamond Exchange chairman and Singapore FreePort co-founder Alain Vandenborre tells Susan Long why he is more smitten than ever with Singapore.

AS THE euro crisis deepens, Mr Alain Vandenborre's European friends, who once asked why in the world he would renounce his Belgian citizenship to become a Singaporean, are now seeking his help to relocate here too.

At least half a dozen have called him this past year and these include top-brass finance professionals who sit on global boards.

'Nobody questions any more, 'Why are you doing this?' Instead, they are all asking, 'How can I become a citizen?'' says the 51-year-old venture capitalist and entrepreneur, who has lived and worked in six countries, including Germany, Holland, France and China.

Each time, he hangs up the phone and 'smiles a little smile' to himself.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Growth for Singapore - Concerns and Considerations

Jun 16, 2012

Growth Potion No. 4?
The Prime Minister's defence of the pursuit of growth has stirred fresh debate on the right mix of economic gain and social welfare. In the first of a two-part series on economic growth, Political Correspondent Robin Chan delves into the issue.

SINGAPORE'S seeming ability to grow against the odds has been a hallmark of its economic development.

To spur growth, the Government has consciously driven change, in the 1960s through industrialisation, in 1985 - post recession - by making wages more flexible and cutting direct taxes, and then again in 2003, when it launched its third economic 'paradigm shift'.

From 1997 to 2003, the economy suffered a series of setbacks that included a debilitating Asian financial crisis, the post-Sept 11 gloom, a bust and the Sars public health crisis.

By 2003, the city state's economy was at a turning point, triggering a third paradigm shift centred on innovation and entrepreneurship as well as deregulation and liberalisation.

In a speech at the Economic Society in 2003, then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong asked for support for the latest round of restructuring, saying 'no system works forever'.

As National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan explained recently, post-Sars, Singapore's economy was down in the doldrums. Unemployment hit 5.5 per cent in September 2003, which meant close to 100,000 people out of work, many of them for more than six months.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Architect of tomorrow's homes

Jun 16, 2012

HDB chief wants to improve living standards in sustainable ways

ON ANY given weekend, all along the river park that runs through the youngest Housing Board town of Punggol, runners train for marathons, shutterbugs snap away at flora and fauna, and families live it up at carnivals and picnics.

They have Dr Cheong Koon Hean to thank for the idyllic 4.2km waterway that is their hot spot. Government engineers had initially wanted to run a giant pipe between the Punggol and Serangoon reservoirs that make up the waterway, but Dr Cheong recalls: 'I said, 'Why a pipe? Why not make a river out of it so we can build a river park that everyone can enjoy?''

Now, she exults, there is a thriving community of young and old there, buoyed by their own special corner of Singapore.

Dr Cheong, 55, who has been HDB's chief executive since 2010 after six years as chief of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, is bent on building HDB towns for the future where residents can truly call their houses 'homes'.

She shared all this with The Straits Times last Friday, ahead of this year's World Cities Summit, which will run from July 1 to July 4.

'In the end,' she says, 'what really makes a town is how its residents respond to it. I can design a green town but if no one in it switches off the lights, we can't do anything.'

In a world where people are increasingly harried and distant from one another, she knows only too well how tall an order it is for HDB dwellers to think and act in ways that are considerate of others and the environment.

Certainly, she notes, HDB can help shape better behaviour by designing towns that are calming and chock-full of conveniences, but it is really up to those who live in them to reach out to their neighbours to foster a greater sense of community.

Likening the relationship between a city and its dwellers to a love story, she says: 'The city needs to love its people by giving us spaces to build up memories, and build homes for us and places for work. And the people need to love it back - even with all its imperfections - because a city is about its people too.'

It does not even take that much to give back to one's community, she adds. 'It's simple things like 'Do we litter?' and 'Can we smile when we meet our neighbours in the corridor?''

Says Dr Cheong, who has a PhD in architecture from Australia's University of Newcastle: 'It's not about building buildings; it's about creating homes - and environmentally friendly ones at that.'

To do this, she now has HDB focusing on designing towns with distinctive identities so that their residents can have pride of place, harnessing the latest innovations so that residents find it almost effortless to recycle and reduce their use of water and electricity, and carving out more pavilions, plazas and promenades to encourage everyone to mingle more meaningfully.

She and her team are trying to do all this over the next five to 10 years, even as HDB is on its biggest building drive in the past 20 years, churning out 25,000 public flats a year to satisfy snaking queues of aspiring home owners at a pace that is rattling the labour-strapped construction industry here to its foundations.

'The exciting thing about HDB,' she says, 'is that it is not only a master planner, but also a master developer. This means we can make what we plan happen.'

So she is pushing ahead with the hardware needed to improve the quality of life for HDB dwellers in a sustainable way.

Noting that the 52-year-old HDB has expanded well beyond its original brief to provide affordable housing for all Singaporeans, she says it is now working even more closely with private developers and innovators to match the accelerating aspirations of largely middle-class Singaporeans.

In all this, she is firm on the need for the HDB to continue partnering the private sector for even higher quality designs and construction, but she is equally firm that the HDB must have the last word on suitable design. 'We still have to set and drive the vision because developers will build only what you ask them to build for you.'

Amid all this, she is trying to 'weave the green' into the concrete jungle by incorporating hanging gardens, eco-decks and rooftop terraces a la the skyparks of HDB's signal development, Pinnacle@Duxton. She hopes these will encourage the return of birds and plants to HDB neighbourhoods.

Suggest to her that many urban dwellers today consider living close to nature a nuisance and she says: 'It's true. A gentleman once said to me, 'Can you make sure there are no snakes, squirrels or monkeys around here?' And my point to him was, 'They were here first.''

All this is in keeping with her dreams since her days as a planner in the early 1980s that Singapore should capitalise on its chief assets or, as she puts it, make the most of 'the blue of the sea and the green of the tropics'.

That milieu is certainly palpable in Punggol - where the first waterfront HDB flats have been built, keeping alive the memory of the former fishing village. Indeed, HDB has designated this budding north-eastern precinct as Singapore's first eco-town.

Besides installing solar panels on the rooftops of HDB blocks to absorb the sun's energy to light their corridors, there are also ongoing experiments there to store kinetic energy from the up-down motion of lifts - also to light corridors - and save the water used in hand-washing to flush toilets.

Come September, 10 families at Block 109C, Edgedale Plains, will use a smartphone app developed by Panasonic to monitor in real time how much energy their air-conditioners are guzzling.

If all these innovations are a hit with residents, Dr Cheong says the HDB will roll them out to future towns, including Bidadari and Tengah.

The HDB has not forgotten its older estates; indeed, the first HDB estate, Dawson in Queenstown, is undergoing a swish makeover (see box). By 2015, it will have two 40-storey blocks called Skyville@Dawson and SkyTerrace @Dawson, which will have a total of 1,718 flats.

And over at Jurong East, the HDB is now trying out a pneumatic waste management system to suck all household waste to a single collection point to rid the estate of smelly mornings. If it is a hit there, the board will roll the system out to other estates too.

Then, for the second time during the interview, Dr Cheong says with relish: 'It's all very exciting. It's just that I can't do it tomorrow. But we're beginning to see all of it shape up and I'm a lot more positive and encouraged because I'm seeing people responding to some of our plans.'