By Mark Cooper
Dr. Cheong Koon Hean, chief executive of Singapore’s Housing & Development Board (HDB), was presented with the J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development at a January 18 ceremony at the Fullerton Hotel in Singapore. Receiving the award, Cheong called it a tribute to the thoughtful city-building work of her HDB colleagues and those at Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority, where she was chief executive from 2004 to 2010.
The prize honors the legacy of J.C. Nichols, a Kansas City, Missouri–based real estate developer active in the early 20th century and founding member of ULI. Nichols is widely regarded as one of America’s most influential entrepreneurs in real estate and land use. Nichols Prize laureates include British architect Lord Richard Rogers, Houston-based developer Gerald Hines, and former Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley.
The Nichols Prize is a key component of ULI’s awards program, which celebrates and recognitions visionaries in urban development whose work reflects ULI’s mission of thought leadership in the responsible use of land and in creating and sustaining thriving communities worldwide.
“A shared characteristic of J.C. Nichols Prize laureates is an understanding of how their work contributes to civic pride, shaping people’s attitudes about how and where they live,” said Kathleen Carey, president and chief executive officer of the ULI Foundation, who presented the award to Dr. Cheong.
Dr. Cheong said she was overwhelmed to be recognized by so many people she admired, including Rogers, whom she described as her hero when she was an architecture student. Dr. Cheong also paid tribute to former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew’s vision of Singapore as a garden city and the importance of having long-term goals in urban planning. “Singapore is land and water constrained,” she said. “All we have is our people and our wits. It has been a massive collective effort to build modern Singapore.”
As an example of Singapore’s ingenuity, she pointed out that the land reclamation for the Marina Bay waterfront development started more than 40 years ago, saying: “That land reclamation provided the space for Singapore’s future growth and also meant we were able to protect historic districts from demolition.”
Dr. Cheong noted that the world faces a range of tough challenges, including climate change and political instability. “It requires a herculean effort by government, civic society, and business to make the world a better place,” she said. “That is why I have been involved with the ULI—because I support its mission to lead the creation of sustainable communities.”
ULI Asia Pacific and ULI Singapore are active participants in conversations about creating sustainable urban environments in Singapore and has partnered with the Centre for Liveable Cities on several projects and publications, including Active Mobility for Creating Healthy Places and Creating Liveable Cities through Car-Lite Urban Mobility.
Former and present colleagues as well as friends praised Dr. Cheong at the awards ceremony. ULI Asia Pacific chairman Dr. N.H. Seek described the recognition as “a tribute to the remarkable transformation of Singapore from a third-world port city to a modern urban metropolis.”
Tommy Koh, a Singapore-based lawyer and diplomat, joked that he was speaking in his capacity as “chairman of the Dr. Cheong Koon Hean Fan Club” and told the audience how he had worked with Dr. Cheong to present Singapore’s case in a dispute with Malaysia over land reclamation in the early 2000s. “Our friendship was formed in the heat of battle,” he said. “I was always convinced that Dr. Cheong won the case due to her solid presentation in a clear and elegant manner.”
Fun Siew Leng, assistant chief planner at the URA, spoke about Dr. Cheong’s role in the development of the Marina Bay area of Singapore. Marina Bay has become a new downtown area for Singapore, with public open space, a new office district and the iconic Marina Bay Sands integrated resort. Fun illustrated Dr. Cheong’s legendary attention to detail by recalling how she had insisted that Marina Bay should not have a single lamppost in order to open up the best possible views.
James Koh, former HDB chairman, also paid tribute to Dr. Cheong’s focus on design and detail, saying a commitment to excellence and level of expertise distinguished her early in her career in public service, Koh said. He recalled that she was appointed chief executive officer of HDB at a difficult time for the organization, when the number of completed units had dropped below the historic average. “She more than tripled the number of completions in four years with more or less the same staff numbers,” he said. “But she did not lose the emphasis on good design.”
Dr. Cheong is the first Asian recipient of the Nichols Prize since its inception in 2000. She will donate the $100,000 in prize money, supplemented by her own funding, to the National University of Singapore to establish a scholarship to help Singaporeans study urban planning.
Mark Cooper is a Hong Kong–based freelance writer and editor of AsiaProperty.
View a photo album of the event on ULI Asia Pacific Facebook page.