Mr. Khew Sin Khoon is President & Chief Executive Officer of CPG Corporation and Managing Director of CPG Consultants. With over 28 years of experience working on landmark projects such as the Gardens by the Bay and the New Supreme Court Building, he shares his thoughts on leadership in Asia.

The Columnist (TC): Asia has become the region to watch in terms of its economic, cultural and social influence. What are some key influencing factors that Asia can offer to the world today?

Khew Sin Khoon (KSK): With the economies in the West under siege and continuing to face challenges in the near term, Asia’s steady and sustained growth has become a stabilising force in the global economy. About half of the world’s top 50 cities, ranked by GDP, are projected to be located in Asia by 2025. There is a growing confidence in the Asian economies as more and more countries in the region are investing in infrastructural and development projects to raise the living standards of their citizens. Examples are urban planning, transportation facilities and networks, housing, healthcare services, educational facilities, engineering infrastructure, cultural and commercial amenities and so on.

Gardens by the Bay (Bay South), Singapore (CPG)

Gardens by the Bay (Bay South), Singapore (CPG)

With the growing influence of China, India and the ASEAN economies and the opening up of new emerging markets in Asia, many opportunities await practitioners in our industry. Asia, and in particular Singapore, can share its experience in good urban planning and sustainable design with other developing countries.

Wangz Hotel, Singapore (CPG)

Wangz Hotel, Singapore (CPG)

The standard of planning and design in Singapore is recognised to be amongst the best in the emerging markets, with local developments winning international awards – evidence of the growing quality and maturity of our local architecture. Some projects by CPG include:

  • World Architecture Festival, World Building of the Year Award: Gardens by the Bay
  • Royal Institute of British Architects International Design Award 2012: Solaris
  • World Luxury Hotel Awards 2011: Wangz Hotel (Luxury Boutique Hotel Category)

What Asia can contribute would be its strong will, tenacity and creativity to deliver projects in a sustainable, financially viable and efficient manner. Singapore is also paving the way forward in urban planning and green infrastructure, which serves as a model for emerging cities to emulate.

Solaris @ One-north, Singapore (CPG)

Solaris @ One-north, Singapore (CPG)

TC: CPG Corporation designed Terminal 3 – Changi Airport, Khoo Teck Puat Hospital and Gardens by the Bay. These projects are milestones for a country because they are good indicators of development of the nation’s economy and a symbol of leadership for nations. What is CPG’s philosophy when designing big projects?

KSK: CPG’s wealth of experience as the Singapore government’s architectural and engineering authority during its formative years as the Public Works Department (PWD) gives it a strong foundation in handling complex and large projects. The know-how and track record remains very much intact, as its systems and people continue to evolve and build on the experience within the company.

CPG has the resources of over 2,000 staff in the project management, urban planning, architectural, engineering, landscape design, construction management and facilities management fields to tap on. Its history and experience parallel Singapore’s nation building years. Post-privatisation, CPG has come of age, and continues on a journey of growth, combining its valuable history and expertise with new technologies and a culture of learning and knowledge acquisition.

Singapore Changi Airport, T3 (CPG)

Singapore Changi Airport, T3 (CPG)

When designing big projects, CPG applies a collaborative and systems thinking approach. As a large multi-disciplinary practice, we can leverage on the collective wisdom of our experienced staff and combine it with the energy and creativity of our younger generation staff. We strongly believe in the design of sustainable and functionally efficient buildings that are also aesthetically engaging. We also feature a restorative and regenerative approach to reinstate damaged environments and conserve the natural surroundings in our holistic sustainable design philosophy.

TC: Today, most of Asia has reached a point of rapid development as well. What do you think is the role of infrastructure in a developing Asia?

KSK: Many countries in Asia are now facing rapid growth in the rate of urbanization as more people are moving to cities, and urban populations increase exponentially. The role of infrastructural development is very much a part of the urbanisation. As cities expand and populations grow, the strain on the engineering infrastructural networks like transportation, power, clean water, flood control, sewerage and so on, will be imminent.

At the same time, demands and expectations for good building infrastructure in a developing Asia become ever more crucial not only to meet the demand for more residential, recreational and office space, but to ensure that new infrastructure and even existing buildings, are sustainable and functional. Being functional incorporates the optimal use of space, especially in cities like Singapore where land is a precious asset.

Because of the rapid pace of development, architects and engineers have to ensure that their designs also take into consideration environmental sustainability, efficient energy use, affordability and societal needs.

Whilst city infrastructure grows and expands, there is also a critical need to retain and conserve its cultural identity and historical legacy. It is also important to unify existing and new infrastructure without compromising on a society’s cultural identity. One such example is one of our projects, the upcoming National Art Gallery, which seeks to strengthen Singapore’s position as a regional and international hub for the visual arts. The new building seeks to rejuvenate the original designs of the City Hall and the former Supreme Court. Through innovative adaptive reuse techniques, we are able to bring life to the development whilst retaining its cultural heritage.

National Art Gallery, Singapore (CPG)

National Art Gallery, Singapore (CPG)

Whilst optimising land use and creating efficient buildings, architects are often faced with the challenge of having to preserve culturally rich sites that embody a nation’s memories of the past – its cultural “soul”.

TC: What are some of the challenges that CPG Corporation faces when designing infrastructure or major projects in emerging countries? How do you surmount them?

KSK: Each country brings new challenges and issues when we take on projects in various geographies beyond Singapore’s shores. These can range from professional practice to financial governance to social, cultural, language, religious, economic differences that our staff will have to face and deal with.

Al Bateen Secondary School, Abu Dhabi, UAE (CPG)

Al Bateen Secondary School, Abu Dhabi, UAE (CPG)

Whilst many of the countries that we do business in look towards Singapore as a role model in urban planning, architectural and engineering excellence, it is important that each country’s identity and unique needs are respected and embodied in the designs that we propose. Very often, CPG will work collaboratively with the local professionals to share practices and ideas to ensure that we do not impose values and practices in our designs that are unacceptable to the particular country that we engage with. For example in India, when our architects were designing a residential development for our client, we were told that we have to understand the principles of Vastu (Indian Geomancy). Apparently if you place the entrance of the apartment at a particular location, these units will not sell as well. It is thus important for us to localise our knowledge and learn from the local industry players.

As a strategy, before CPG expands in a big way into a geography that interests us, we would normally bring on board, staff from that country who will work in Singapore with our local staff on our projects.  Ideally, a good time frame for the overseas staff to assimilate the values and practice culture of CPG would be at least two years before being assigned to work on projects in their home country.

TC: What would you say is CPG Corporation’s role in a developing Asia?

KSK: CPG stands as a multi-disciplinary practice leveraging on the Singapore brand and trustworthiness. Its experience, expertise and technical capabilities stand in good stead to handle a wide spectrum of projects from airports, hospitals, schools, residential and commercial buildings, environmental engineering, transportation engineering, urban planning and green design.

CPG’s track record of having completed a large number of public sector infrastructure projects is something that very few companies can match. Furthermore, over the past 13 years since corporatisation, we have moved into other building typologies and broken new ground in overseas markets.

The Verdure, Singapore (CPG)

The Verdure, Singapore (CPG)

Many of the senior staff in CPG, who saw the development of Singapore’s formative years, are still with us. Their experience and expertise are assets that we can share with other developing countries in Asia, who look to Singapore as a role model of an efficient and successful city. We are able to provide the thought-leadership in many areas of a developing country’s infrastructural needs.

As a group, we constantly push the boundaries of our architectural and engineering designs to meet the growing expectations of our clients and increased complexities in building and technological advances. The professional teams within our organisation are concerned and mindful of the impact modern infrastructure can have on the environment and we constantly challenge ourselves to produce solutions that enable us to co-exist in harmony with nature.

CPG has also adopted Building Information Modelling (BIM) – An intelligent model-based process involving the generation and management of digital representations of physical and functional characteristics of a building. BIM provides a shared resource for creating and managing building and infrastructure projects faster, economically and with less environmental impact throughout the life cycle of the building.

  • CPG Consultants participated in BIM Competition 2012 and emerged as the Winner of Industry – Multidisciplinary Collaboration Category & Best Team for the Innovative Use of BIM thus reinforcing our position as industry leaders
  • We are also the first architectural firm in Singapore to adopt the use of BIM

TC: Which emerging countries in Asia should we look out for in the next 5 years?

KSK: The opening up of ASEAN countries like Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam as well as the increasing development of Indonesia and Malaysia have generated a spectrum of opportunities in Asia.  These emerging and developing economies would be countries to watch out for in the medium term.

TC: CPG has just been acquired by China Architecture Design and Research Group, what will be CPG’s role and vision moving forward?

KSK: CPG’s illustrious history in being largely responsible in shaping modern Singapore’s skyline, combined with China Architecture Design and Research Group (CAG) – China’s biggest diversified stated-owned architecture and engineering design company (with a staff force of over 5000) will enable us to venture into new markets to become a world-class leader in the international arena by complementing each other’s skill sets. CPG’s specialised expertise in airports, healthcare facilities, educational projects, environmental and transportation engineering is already beginning to be tapped upon for China projects.  At the same time, CAG is sharing their best practices and experience gleaned from their involvement in major projects that underpinned China’s impressive development in the past two decades.

Hohhot Victory Mall, Inner Mongolia, China (CPG)

Hohhot Victory Mall, Inner Mongolia, China (CPG)

CAG’s strategic acquisition of CPG would also be to further grow and consolidate CPG’s position as a Singaporean company and brand that has built a strong reputation in the international markets outside China.

TC: What fuels your passion for nature, and in particular, butterflies? Do you think we should strive for bio-mimicry in architecture design?

KSK: My passion for nature started at a very young age when my “playground” consists of forests and nature reserves during my growing up years. Observing and photographing butterflies and to be outdoors during my free time, are my hobbies and a form of relaxation for me. The beauty of Mother Nature’s creations that surround us is something that cannot be taken for granted. Man has manipulated and destroyed much of the environment in his quest for advancement and a better life. However, there is much that can still be done to co-exist with nature harmoniously without having to make significant compromises.

Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, Singapore (CPG)

Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, Singapore (CPG)

Nature itself provides many learning opportunities. Bio-mimicry in design is one such example. The fundamental belief in learning from nature comes from the notion that nature adapts and evolves to survive most efficiently in a constantly-changing environment. If we can learn from this, then we can embody some of this resilience and tenacity that nature can teach us into our design philosophies to create more sustainable designs in our architectural creations.

TC: Who inspires you in terms of leadership and why?

KSK: To me, leadership is about holding true to your values and being yourself. Whilst I admire inspiring and charismatic leaders all across the globe, I hold the opinion that leadership and leadership styles have to adapt to the environment in which the leader leads, and evolve constantly with time to be effective.

This interview was conducted for The Columnist, a newsletter by Consulus that offers ideas on business, design and world affairs. The views expressed in this article are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of Consulus.