“Shall we start?” Dr Cheong Koon Hean, the former head of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) asks, smiling. Sitting across from me in her office lounge, she is the picture of poise in a black shift dress and fuchsia jacket.
From her take-charge manner and the handwritten notes she has prepared for our interview, it seems that the chief executive of the Housing and Development Board (HDB) is a woman who believes in getting the job done—and done well. But I cannot detect the slightest hint of bulldozing. Instead, she sips her tea and smiles, urging me to go ahead and ask away.
I recall what internationally renowned architect Moshe Safdie, who worked closely with Dr Cheong to design and build the Marina Bay Sands integrated resort, told Her World: “She is firm about what she wants, but she always achieves it with a smile.”
Perhaps it could be said that our city – in particular, the spectacular structures surrounding the gleaming waters of Marina Bay – was built on a foundation of Dr Cheong’s smiles. When Sars struck in 2003, the Marina Bay project – poised to be the sophisticated yet sustainable sister to oh-so-serious Shenton Way – was hit by a dismal economy. And this was after four decades of planning and reclamation works.
Dr Cheong, who is in her 50s, recalls: “Businesses stalled. Nobody had confidence to invest anywhere.” Billions were at stake, but the then-chief executive of the URA was undaunted. Instead of sitting tight and waiting for a turnaround, she led a marketing blitz to sell Marina Bay to sceptics here and overseas. She and her team showcased its plus points, like its high-quality infrastructure, to the world at major real estate forums like Mipim in Cannes and CityScape in Dubai.
More crucially, they cranked up their creative juices to convince potential investors to give the project a chance, such as offering developers site flexibility and the option to develop in individual phases so they did not have to pay so much upfront.
Dr Cheong explains: “Such flexibility was critical to assure investors that we would share the business risks with them. The Government also pumped in millions of dollars to build up infrastructure at Marina Bay. We had to show that we were fully committed to the project.”
Her efforts paid off. By 2008, Marina Bay was no longer a hard sell. It was an emerging icon. Residents moved into The Sail, Singapore’s tallest condominium. Marina Barrage, built across the mouth of the bay, was opened and Singaporeans flocked there to fly kites, row boats or enjoy picnics. The world took notice, too—the first Formula One Grand Prix was staged at night, with an eye-catching floodlit track running through the city.
For Dr Cheong, 2010 was the year of milestones. She watched the most iconic of Marina Bay’s structures become concrete reality. The three towers of Marina Bay Sands rose into the sky as Singaporeans watched in awe. The 3.5km Waterfront Promenade linking Bayfront to Marina Centre saw families and lovers alike strolling by the gleaming waters. The Float@Marina Bay hosted the opening and closing ceremonies of the inaugural Singapore Youth Olympics.
Yet Marina Bay is still in its infancy, Dr Cheong says. “There is still a need to guide its growth by building up the buzz in the area. We did that by gathering stakeholders together to ensure social sustainability.” That’s how hundreds of “wishing spheres”, an art installation, appeared on the waters of the bay, for instance. “We wanted to create a meaningful tradition for all Singaporeans to pen their wishes and hopes for the New Year.”