Cheong Koon Hean

Key architect of Singapore’s cityscape and housing estates

Few people have been as closely involved as Dr Cheong Koon Hean in the transformation of Singapore’s city and housing landscape. In 2004 Koon Hean, whose public sector career began in 1981, became the first woman to head the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). She led the planning of the Marina Bay precinct, creating a signature skyline for Singapore and a vibrant live-work-play destination.

She also guided the development of other new growth areas such as the Jurong Lake District, and initiated the Architecture and Urban Design Excellence Programme to raise the design quality of our cityscape. Beyond Singapore, she played a key role in the planning of the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco City.

Six years later, Koon Hean was given a bigger role as Chief Executive Officer of the Housing Development Board (HDB), which builds and manages housing for more than 80% of Singapore’s population. She now oversees one of the largest building programmes ever implemented by HDB to meet the demand for public housing. She also launched HDB’s Roadmap for Better Living, as her vision for HDB is to build better designed, more sustainable and community-centric towns.   

Koon Hean is steering HDB towards innovative plans and designs that will provide a high quality environment. She believes that HDB, as the largest property developer in Singapore with one million flats already built, should lead the way to build homes and towns in a sustainable way. She also wants HDB towns to be well thought out and designed with good communal spaces and facilities which encourage communities to interact and forge stronger bonds.
“We need to pay more attention to public spaces, how to activate them so these are very friendly and people can congregate there,” she said in 2012. “Place-making and place management includes a vision about how people use a place. Don’t forget the people.”

The Colombo Plan scholar’s list of qualifications and awards is long: First class honours with University Medal in Architecture from the University of Newcastle, Australia; Master’s Degree in Urban Development Planning from University College London; an honorary Doctor of Architecture from her alma mater Newcastle. She has also received the silver, gold and meritorious service medals for public service.

Besides her HDB appointment, she is concurrently Deputy Secretary (Special Duties) at the Ministry of National Development. She is internationally recognised for her planning experience and sits on expert panels and boards of international planning and housing organisations.

Most people have a bias towards either the sciences or the arts; Koon Hean likes both, which is why she decided to study architecture. She subsequently developed a love for urban planning. “A single building takes maybe two or three years to complete, and is less impactful,” she once said. “Urban planning works on a much larger scale, and takes more time, but it can influence a city and a country.”

Koon Hean was Her World magazine’s “Woman of the Year” in 2010.

“Place-making and place management includes a vision about how people use a place.

Don’t forget the people.”

  • Ivy Singh-Lim
  • Khatijun Nissa Siraj
  • Neila Sathyalingam
  • Som Said
  • Theresa Goh
  • Teresa Hsu
  • Euleen Goh
  • Tan Yoon Yin