JTC stalwart sheds light on projects as agency turns 50

JTC Corporations assistant CEO David Tan, who first joined the company in 1990.
JTC Corporations assistant CEO David Tan, who first joined the company in 1990.ST PHOTO: SONG TAO

SINGAPORE - As someone who helped reclaim Jurong Island and who spearheaded the Jurong Rock Caverns project, Mr David Tan is understandably grounded.

"The questions we always ask ourselves (for our projects) are... Is it commercially viable? Is it technically feasible?" says the assistant chief executive of JTC Corporation.

These abiding questions seem to have served JTC well through the ages as it celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

The government agency was set up to develop Singapore's industrial infrastructure, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong saying at a celebratory dinner on May 25 that JTC "has played an important role in Singapore's progress from Third World to First".

Mr Tan, who joined the agency as a fresh graduate in 1990, oversees the government agency's development group and is in charge of its planning, design and procurement work.

He has been with JTC since, save for a three-year stint with the Energy Market Authority doing policy, planning and development work before his appointment as ACEO in 2010.

Mr Tan is keen to stress JTC's role as master developer and that as planners, no stone is left unturned.

This was especially important in his first task at JTC as a civil engineer, when he had to learn from scratch about reclamation works to form what was eventually Jurong Island.

It was "dinosaur technology" back then without powerful digital simulations available today, says Mr Tan as he reminisced about JTC's work close to 30 years ago.

Besides using manual calculations, he also built large physical models of the islands - measuring "about 20m by 20m" in the Jurong Town Hall carpark to assess how currents would be affected by the reclamation.

"Obviously as a young engineer there were fears, but the key thing was that we consulted quite widely," says Mr Tan, 52.

The experience put him in good stead for his leadership of the Jurong Rock Caverns project.

Prime Minister Lee, speaking at the celebratory dinner, called it a "truly ground-breaking" project and symbolic of JTC's "fine tradition of innovating and taking on new challenges".

 

Officially opened in 2014, the widely lauded underground oil storage facility, which goes 150m deep, cost $950 million.

"We went through a very long process to really determine if it was economically viable," says Mr Tan, citing overseas trips to visit other caverns and discussions with operators and potential users.

There were feasibility studies done on the rock, but Mr Tan says there remained "great uncertainties" during planning.

He quips that its failure might have been termed as "David's folly", in the same manner detractors initially labelled Jurong Industrial Estate as "Goh's folly" after the late Dr Goh Keng Swee, who planted factories there in the 1960s as Finance Minister.

"But of course I'm not Goh Keng Swee lah!"

When asked if he had sleepless nights over such a responsibility, he said he does not remember.

Later, he says: "There's always a contingency plan. We can't use it to store oil, we store water lor... we can use it as a warehouse. Once you consult, plan and have a contingency, I think you can sleep better."

Beneath Mr Tan's jovial and disarming persona lies a stone-cold resolve to see projects through. His mantra, which he recites in a formulaic manner a few times during the interview, is: "Vision, will, passion and perseverance."

This likely got him through a formative period in his career in 2001, where he was tasked to help market Jurong Island, or in his words, to "sell the land I've created".

"Engineers, you know, can't communicate that well," Mr Tan says, before revealing that he would practise in front of mirrors and with colleagues.

It turned out just fine. There are more than 100 companies on the island today.

Creating projects and seeing them till completion and beyond is an experience JTC can offer, says Mr Tan. "I tell people, if you like to be involved in the whole value chain of a development, JTC is the organisation where you can do it."

These days, Mr Tan enjoys the landscape here by cycling once a month with an interest group from the Institution of Engineers, Singapore.

Cycling reminds him of his daily commute while he was studying civil engineering at the University of Adelaide. It was where his father, also a civil engineer, studied as well.

Mr Tan says that prior to college, growing up in a city-state like Singapore, where lots of development took place, enthralled him.

"The question was: How can I be part of that... how can I build something out of nothing? That was always the desire," he says.

Today, Mr Tan's principles at work are also very much mapped out on home turf.

"I tell my sons: Make sure you have a plan going ahead. But be versatile.

"Sometimes lower your expectations. Try your best but if things don't fall into place, accept it."

His elder son, 21, has just completed his national service and will be studying medicine, while his other son, 19, just started NS and wants to do law.

Asked if he has a "master plan" for them, Mr Tan says, laughing: "No, no, no... I don't have a master plan for them at home, they will be very unhappy if I set one for them!"


Correction note: An earlier version of the story said the cost of the Jurong Rock Caverns was $1.7 billion. The latest figure is $950 million. The correct name for the "Institute of Engineers" should also be "Institution of Engineers, Singapore". We are sorry for the errors.