The Pioneer Club: 'When you've an opportunity to improve your life, grab it', says Alan Choe

Mr Choe pointing to a model while briefing then PM Lee Kuan Yew, Mrs Lee and their son Hsien Loong on urban renewal. Mr Choe made plans for conservation even as urban development got under way.  Mr Alan Choe says the hard times his generation went th
Mr Choe pointing to a model while briefing then PM Lee Kuan Yew, Mrs Lee and their son Hsien Loong on urban renewal. Mr Choe made plans for conservation even as urban development got under way. Mr Alan Choe says the hard times his generation went through taught him how to fight for survival, to take advantage of every opportunity, to be resourceful and to make the best of any situation. He believes the young today are well poised to survive, but fears they sometimes forget their roots.PHOTO: COURTESY OF ALAN CHOE ST PHOTO: ASHLEIGH SIM
Mr Choe pointing to a model while briefing then PM Lee Kuan Yew, Mrs Lee and their son Hsien Loong on urban renewal. Mr Choe made plans for conservation even as urban development got under way.  Mr Alan Choe says the hard times his generation went th
Mr Choe pointing to a model while briefing then PM Lee Kuan Yew, Mrs Lee and their son Hsien Loong on urban renewal. Mr Choe made plans for conservation even as urban development got under way. Mr Alan Choe says the hard times his generation went through taught him how to fight for survival, to take advantage of every opportunity, to be resourceful and to make the best of any situation. He believes the young today are well poised to survive, but fears they sometimes forget their roots.PHOTO: COURTESY OF ALAN CHOE ST PHOTO: ASHLEIGH SIM

The Straits Times begins a new series today, The Pioneer Club, featuring Singaporean pioneers who made contributions in different fields.

If you have ever wondered why the first HDB flats looked the way they did, or how Sentosa-as-resort-isle came into being, Alan Choe is the man responsible. The now 83-year-old was HDB's first architect-planner and founder of the Urban Redevelopment Authority. He recalls those trailblazing times, and how hardship during the war helped give him the drive to succeed at his task. But he tells Goh Chin Lian he worries that today's generation, who have not experienced hardship, lack his generation's derring-do.

How were you brought up?

My father passed away when I was one. My mother, a seamstress, looked after four children.

When I was 12, the Japanese invaded. They looked to us as future recruits for their young army. (Fortunately) I worked at a coconut oil mill. Oil was an essential commodity.

When I was 13, I bought melon seeds to sell. One kati cost me less than $1.80. I could get almost double that.

The hard times taught me how to fight for survival, to take every opportunity, and to be resourceful and make the best of each situation.

What was it like to study architecture in Australia?

My mother, sisters and brother chipped in to finance my studies. And when I was doing the A levels at Raffles Institution, I earned money giving tuition.

In my final year at the University of Melbourne, it offered town planning in the evening. I did two courses simultaneously.

I thought town planning would broaden my knowledge in architecture. When you've an opportunity to do something that will improve your life, you must grab it or lose it.

How did you join HDB later?

One of (former prime minister) Lee Kuan Yew's major political platforms was to eradicate poor housing. His plan was to build 50,000 units (in five years).

They formed the Housing and Development Board (HDB). The HDB had no planners. The expat architects half-finished Queenstown but packed up and left.

The HDB headhunted me and created a title, architect-planner. First thing they told me: "Finish Queenstown." One way to swell the numbers was to do a lot of one-room flats. No more than 300 sq ft. No partitioning. Communal toilets. Communal kitchen.

A lift was a luxury. Every fifth floor, you had a lift so that the tenants walked two floors down or two floors up.

We also could not afford casement windows. We used louvres, with a lock. You press it down, it locks, so people cannot break in. Many locked it and could not open it. They swore at the Government for giving them "defective" things.

On (compensation for) resettlement, Singaporeans were good at improvising. On Friday, they stocked up the building material. On Monday, you saw a brand-new house, but they stained it as though it had been there a long time: "That's a house. Pay compensation." Fruit trees, the same. Suddenly you found so many papaya, pineapple, banana trees.

You planned Toa Payoh town. Anything special about its design?

We were racing against time because the Government was bent on getting 50,000 flats in the first five-year plan. It was easy to juggle the numbers: Put more one-room flats here, one-room flats there.

We had to go for a simple, repetitive design. We used concrete hollow blocks. The blocks were 15 inches (38cm) long, bricks were nine inches (23cm). Because each piece was bigger, you put up your wall much faster.

Our first design was just to pack in the numbers. There was little (scope) to talk about architectural design. But we wanted to strive for something liveable and functional.

Why was there a need for urban renewal in the city centre?

People who escaped the Japanese Occupation came back to the city centre where employment was. They crammed into two- and three-storey shophouses in Chinatown which were sub-divided into cubicles for eight times more families.

Urban renewal must have private participation. You can't clear everything for public housing. Good sites, you want to generate economic development.

How did you do urban renewal here?

Nobody could afford to buy large numbers of sites. As a result, there was no meaningful development. Cathay Building, Asia Insurance Building, 7th Storey Hotel and Southern Hotel were built long ago.

I said if I had the right to sell the land, I could finance it. The first site, People's Park Complex, I wanted for multi-purpose use: housing, shopping. I also wanted three hotels in Havelock Road. Singapore needed hotels for tourism.

I told the Government you must, in the first sale, give incentives to make sure they make money, so word would go around. Reduce property tax. Give easy repayment on land.

How did you avoid the criticism of cronyism, as in the US?

It was an open public tender. You must have a ministerial committee to oversee: When I make the recommendation to award (the tender), they must approve.

Those days, architectural practice depended on the architect or his parents knowing important people. Young architects never got a chance to rise.

We also looked into the quality of design. Highest land price might not win if the design was not acceptable.

If I had seven projects offered, at least 30 architects would be involved in design. That stimulated interest in architecture.

How about conservation?

Halfway through urban renewal, learning from the Americans where they accused the authorities of sending in the bulldozer, I realised we should think about conservation.

I recognised Sultan Mosque, Bussorah Street had something to preserve. Likewise, Chinatown and Serangoon Road. I prepared the plans, hoping one day to put forward the case. One day (in 1967) I got a note from Lee Kuan Yew asking: "Have we thought about conservation?" I sent to him the folio I prepared.

He sent me a note telling me he was very happy to see somebody in his fold thinking ahead to preserve what little we had. Within that year, I had a gold medal (for Public Administration, a National Day award).

What were your challenges in planning Sentosa?

Dr (Albert) Winsemius, a United Nations expert invited to help restructure our economy, told me when I was general manager of the Urban Redevelopment Authority that the Government was awarding Sentosa to an oil company. He thought it was wrong to have another Bukom Island (refinery) next to Singapore.

The only thing I could think of was to turn it into a tourist island or green lung. I did a short paper. A week later, he called me up: "Good news, Alan. We won!"

I was asked to plan Sentosa. We were able to sell land for private development, which enabled us to generate a lot of income. We sold sites to Beaufort Hotel, Shangri-La Hotel, Asian Village and the equivalent of Big Splash.

I devised a scheme where they paid me a lump sum, which was a fraction of what the land was worth. In exchange, I took 20 per cent of gross takings as long as the project continued.

How do you feel as you look at the Singapore you planned?

I planned Shenton Way so that the blocks were staggered and everybody had a share of the view of the sea. There was a continuous shopping walkway and cover because of weather. But today, it's all torn down. That's a sad thing.

My masterplan for Sentosa was very different from what was built. I play golf there. When I go to Hole No. 2, I look down and I see architecture with all kinds of funny designs. My friends, to irritate me so that I hit a bad shot, say: "Alan, what's your doing?" They know I get stirred up.

Have your children followed in your path?

None (of the five) has. They could see the father had no time for anything else except work. I have six grandchildren. They were born with all the goodies. They have not seen a day of hardship like I did during my time. Everything's glowing, everything's so peaceful, jobs are plenty.

But there's a danger that when hard times come, they might not have the ability to galvanise themselves to withstand hardship and see things through in the same way as the older generation.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic?

I am both. The young are well-educated and well-heeled to know where opportunities lie. I think they will survive.

But my bigger fear is they forget sometimes where they come from. All things have a hard start and you must remember where your source of water comes from.

My generation had to improvise and do a lot of things on our own. We did not have the luxury of the Internet, ability to travel or read a lot. Notwithstanding that, we dared to do things. We had leaders who dared to back us. They, like us, were groping around. What we did in Singapore, we were one of the first to do it: public housing, urban renewal.

We became the trailblazers for many countries, all because we dared to do things. We had the spirit where if you didn't do it, you'd never be able to do anything.

chinlian@sph.com.sg