New leader, new chapter for eco-city

Transforming the place with small victories

Tianjin Eco-city incoming head Liew Choon Boon (left) and outgoing chief executive Ho Tong Yen taking a stroll in the development, meant to be a model of sustainable growth for a rapidly urbanising China.
Tianjin Eco-city incoming head Liew Choon Boon (left) and outgoing chief executive Ho Tong Yen taking a stroll in the development, meant to be a model of sustainable growth for a rapidly urbanising China.ST PHOTO: ESTHER TEO

Ahead of a visit by President Tony Tan Keng Yam to the Tianjin Eco-city next week - the first by a Singapore President - a leadership changeover is taking place in the Sino-Singapore project now in its seventh year. The Straits Times' China correspondent Esther Teo speaks to outgoing chief executive Ho Tong Yen and incoming head Liew Choon Boon about the progress so far and what lies ahead.

WHILE most might focus on iconic landmarks to signal the milestones of the Tianjin Eco-city (TEC), it is the small victories such as the opening of the first restaurant that Mr Ho Tong Yen recalls as some of the defining moments of his 4 1/2 years at the helm of the project.

"They sound like baby steps but they're very important for a city that's coming up," he said.

"To the outside world, it may be no big deal, but for us, the first restaurant and barber (shop) that opened in 2012 were important milestones."

NEW PASTURES

My family and I enjoyed the experience of living in Tianjin... But after 41/2 years in Tianjin, I look forward to returning home and starting a new chapter in my life.

- Mr Ho Tong Yen

With only about 1,000 residents in the eco-city then, Mr Ho would hold parties at the eatery to support the nascent business as the brand-new city was finding its footing.

Mr Ho, 44, a former press secretary to Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong and an economics graduate from the University of London, has also become a regular customer at the barber shop, sporting a neatly trimmed 30- yuan (S$6.50) haircut at the interview with The Straits Times last week.

Tiny steps like these led to the transformation of the project site from a saline wasteland that served as a dumping ground for toxic industrial waste, to a green city that now boasts 2,000 registered firms and a population of 23,000 - with the population more than doubling from a year ago. The TEC, meant to be a model of sustainable development for a rapidly urbanising China, is the second government-to-government project between Singapore and China, after the Suzhou Industrial Park, which started in 1994.

While construction on the project in the northern port city of Tianjin began in 2008, it faced a slow start due to the site's challenging conditions and Beijing's implementation of nationwide home-purchase restrictions that dampened housing sales.

But with the curbs being lifted last year and with the city taking shape - with schools and a hospital being built in the 8 sq km start-up area - Mr Ho, who steps down at the end of this month as chief executive of the master developer of the entire 30 sq km site, is "very confident" about its future.

"If you look at the other eco-city projects that started around the same time, I would say the TEC is the most established and developed," said the father of a 17-year-old boy and two girls, 15 and 12, all of whom studied at an international school in Tianjin.

Eco-features such as potable tap water and a pneumatic waste collection system are already up and running.

While Mr Ho - whose mother is a retired Chinese teacher and grew up speaking Mandarin at home - was contracted for only a three-year term, he agreed to extend his stint to provide greater continuity to the project during a challenging phase.

"I found the work in TEC challenging, meaningful and rewarding. Many colleagues in my company identify strongly with the vision of trying to build a practical model of sustainable urbanisation which can be replicated in other parts of China," he said.

A seasoned diplomat with overseas postings, including to Singapore's Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York and the Singapore Trade Office in Taipei, Mr Ho will take up a new role as general manager of group corporate communications at Keppel Corporation from July 1.

But his time in Tianjin will be remembered fondly.

"My family and I enjoyed the experience of living in Tianjin. On long weekends and holidays, we would visit places like Beijing, Hebei, Inner Mongolia, Shanxi, Shandong - all of which are a short drive away. We also acquired a taste for northern Chinese cuisine," Mr Ho said. "But after 41/2 years in Tianjin, I look forward to returning home and starting a new chapter in my life."

esthert@sph.com.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 22, 2015, with the headline 'Transforming the place with small victories'. Print Edition | Subscribe