Veteran engineer is conferred Dutch knighthood for raising awareness of polder technique

Surbana Jurong's Chia Way Seng was conferred the honour in recognition of his raising awareness of the polder technique. ST PHOTO: SYAMIL SAPARI

SINGAPORE - A self-described "kampung boy" from Bukit Panjang, veteran engineer Chia Way Seng, 64, never thought that he would one day receive a knighthood.

In April, the director of reclamation at Surbana Jurong's coastal engineering team was conferred the honour by Dutch royalty, in recognition of his work in raising awareness of the polder technique.

A polder is a low-lying tract of reclaimed land that is protected from the sea by structures known as dikes.

Mr Chia was conferred the Knight in the Order of Orange-Nassau, which is accorded to those with longstanding meritorious service to society, in a ceremony at Raffles Hotel on April 27.

There are about 3,500 recipients of the Dutch knighthood globally.

When he was younger, Mr Chia, a Bukit Panjang English School and Raffles Institution student, took the less conventional route when he enrolled in Singapore Polytechnic for a diploma in civil engineering.

He knew then that he wanted to gain more technical skills, he said.

He worked for two years as a technical officer before saving enough to finance his first-year studies at the University of Texas, where he pursued civil engineering.

After graduation, he became a civil engineer with the Housing Board, and in 1999, at the age of 41, he received a scholarship to do a master's degree in hydraulic engineering.

Mr Chia decided to do it at the International Hydraulic Engineering Delft Institute for Water Education in the Netherlands.

A significant part of the Netherlands is below sea level and the country has been honing its land reclamation technology and using polders since the 14th century.

In 2003, Mr Chia joined HDB Corp, now part of Surbana Jurong, a Singapore-based global urban, infrastructure and managed services consulting firm, working with its reclamation team.

With significant parts of Singapore at 4m or less above average sea level, the country is at risk when sea levels rise due to climate change.

Poldering is being used for the first time in Singapore in a project with the Dutch to protect Pulau Tekong from rising sea levels.

Mr Chia is an adviser to the coastal engineering team managing the exercise, having handed over the project manager reins before the Covid-19 pandemic.

As at April, the project, which was announced in 2016, is more than halfway completed and is expected to be completed around the end of 2024.

Mr Chia (centre) at Surbana Jurong with his polder project team Mr Poh Khian Meng (left) and Dr Muthusamy Karthikeyan. ST PHOTO: SYAMIL SAPARI

The reclaimed polder land will add 810ha - the size of two Toa Payoh towns - to the north-western end of Pulau Tekong.

The dike around it will measure 10km long and stand about 7m above the polder land.

To tap Dutch expertise, Professor Emeritus Kees d'Angremond, an alumnus of the Delft Institute, was invited to Singapore in the early 2000s.

Prof d'Angremond, who nominated Mr Chia for the knighthood, said: "He contributed not only to the acceptance of the polder concept in Singapore, but he also resolved many potential misunderstandings between all involved."

Mr Chia, who had always looked up to Prof d'Angremond as a mentor, praised the Dutchman for being open.

"I find him very approachable and very willing to share his experience. He already had over 40 years of experience when he joined us, including having spent time in Singapore," said Mr Chia.

Of the knighthood, he said: "It's not only an honour for myself, but my country, my organisation and the past organisations I've worked for."

Mr Chia, who is married with two sons, hopes his achievement will inspire young people to take up engineering. He plans to continue learning and contributing to the field.

"The beautiful thing about engineering is that it is never the same. Each project requires different thinking, planning and design, while balancing the needs of all stakeholders."

Correction note: An earlier version of this story said that Mr Chia was the first Singaporean to receive the Knight in the Order of Orange-Nassau. This is incorrect as there have been previous recipients in the past.

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