Federation for
Housing and

Interview with Dr. Cheong Koon Hean

At the World Cities Summit in Singapore in July the IFHP Travel Squad met with Dr. Cheong, CEO of the Housing Development Board in Singapore, to talk about sustainable cities.

We asked to Dr. Cheong three questions:


IFHP Travel Squad: Dr. Cheong, what do you see as the three most pressing challenges in cities today?

The first main challenge is job creation. Obviously, there are more than three challenges, but I would say that a lot of cities will always find job-creation challenging. Economic growth is a real imperative, because without jobs it is very difficult. Because of rapid urbanization here in Asia and massive rural-urban migration, this challenge is of major proportions.

Secondly, a main challenge concerns infrastructure. The lack of infrastructure is really a huge challenge, and this influences how cities can keep up with rapid urbanization. Part of the infrastructure challenge is also about traffic congestion. This is a very big issue. Recently, a survey done by SIEMENS, where a large number of cities where asked about their most pressing need, most cities answered ‘transportation and congestion’.

Thirdly, I think that housing is a very big challenge as well. Not only for cities in Asia and America where there are a lot of slums, but also in developing cities. Here in Singapore, prices are increasing rapidly, and there are now concerns about how middle-income families can afford housing.

A fourth major challenge is social integration. When people come to a city like Singapore, they come from many different countries. So when people come together, how do you make them come together and establish a community? In Singapore we are highly cosmopolitan, so you cannot take it for granted that everybody think the same way as you. So how do you live in a city like this? You have the same kind of challenge in London, in New York, and in other cities that tend to be like this.

IFHP Travel Squad: Dr. Cheong, what do you see as some of the most promising developments for creating more sustainable cities?

The most promising development about cities in recent years is that cities realize that they have to grown in a sustainable way. Cities are really beginning to realize this. All mayors are not talking about this. But you cannot only do a bottom-up approach - you also need to have a long-term masterplan. So in my mind long-term comprehensive planning is crucial. Singapore is a good example. We have always done long-term comprehensive planning – just an example: We always selected industries that were very clean, and today we really benefit from this because this sector is growing.

IFHP Travel Squad: Please elaborate on the Singapore way to do long-term planning.

Well, you take a very forward-looking approach which mean that all the different choices and trade-offs you have to make – well, right now. If you believe in sustainable development, you will not bring in polluting industries. And that is what Singapore did. We were very poor 50 years ago, but we did not bring in the polluting industries. Instead, we selected much cleaner industries. This is long-term planning approach, and of course there are trade-of choices that we have to make economically plus many other decisions.

The next level of decisions that is very important when you talk about long-term planning is prioritizing the infrastructure. No government has enough money, but you need to decide what is the most important for you, and you will make the right choices if you look very long-term. If you look very short-term and worry about the next election, you may not make the right choice. In Singapore, we chose to invest in infrastructure that would help create economic growth. We have not spent money on things that do not help the country or the economy, and we have been quite disciplined.

The other investment that we have made right from the beginning of the creation of Singapore and which have been very important was to invest in housing. We made sure that our people had good and affordable housing. Today the home ownership in Singapore is more than 90%, and the share of rental housing is very low. These state policies have very important for social stability and building the sense of nationhood. I think that Singapore’s long-term approach to planning and public housing has been two very important pillars for us to develop to where we are today.


Bio of Dr. Cheong

Dr. Cheong Koon Hean was appointed the Chief Executive Officer of HDB in August 2010, overseeing the development of public housing which houses some 82 % of Singapore’s population. Prior to this, she was CEO of Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) in Singapore for 6 years, during which she spearheaded the major transformation of Marina Bay and development of new growth areas at Jurong Lake District, Kallang Riverside and Paya Lebar Central. She also initiated the Architecture and Urban Design Excellence Programme and set up URA’s international consultancy arm.


Dr. Cheong is a Colombo Plan scholar who graduated with 1st Class Honours and University Medal in Architecture from the University of Newcastle, Australia. She also holds a Masters Degree in Urban Development Planning from University College London and has completed the Harvard Advanced Management Programme. She was subsequently conferred a Doctor of Architecture honoris causa by the University of Newcastle as well as the Convocation Medal for professional excellence by its Alumni. Dr Cheong was also awarded the silver, gold and meritorious service medals by the President of Singapore for outstanding public service. Dr Cheong sits on the boards of the HDB, JTC Corporation, National Heritage Board and Jurong Port and is a board trustee of the international Urban Land Institute.


Link to the Housing Development Board of Singapore