Alan Choe on the day LKY sent a note of praise

Alan Choe on the day LKY sent a note of praise

If you have ever wondered why Singapore's first HDBs looked the way they did, or how Sentosa-as-resort-isle came into being, Mr Alan Choe is the man responsible.

The now 83-year-old was HDB's first architect-planner and founder of the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

In Part One of our new The Pioneer Club series featuring Singaporean pioneers who made contributions in diverse fields, Mr Choe recalls those trailblazing times, and how hardship during the war helped give him the drive to succeed at his task.

Q: How were you brought up?

My father passed away when I was one. My mother, a seamstress, looked after four children.

When I was 12, the Japanese invaded. They looked to us as future recruits for their young army. (Fortunately) I worked at a coconut oil mill. Oil was an essential commodity.

My job was to cut residue into small pieces to be shared among workers as fodder for chicken. I learnt that power can come to you if you hold certain positions.

When I was 13, I bought melon seeds to sell. One kati cost me less than $1.80. I could get almost double that.

The hard times taught me how to fight for survival, to take every opportunity, and to be resourceful and make the best of each situation.

Q: What was it like to study architecture in Australia?

My mother, sisters and brother chipped in to finance my studies. When I was doing A levels at Raffles Institution, I earned money doing tuition.

In my final year at University of Melbourne, (it) offered town planning in the evening. I did two courses simultaneously. I thought town planning would broaden my knowledge in architecture. When you've an opportunity to do something that will improve your life, you must grab it or lose it.

Q: How did you join HDB later?

One of (former prime minister) Lee Kuan Yew's major political platforms was to eradicate poor housing. His plan was to build 50,000 units (in five years).

They formed the Housing and Development Board (HDB). HDB had no planners. The expat architects half-finished Queenstown (but) packed up (and) left.

The (HDB) headhunted me and created a title, architect-planner. First thing they told me: "Finish Queenstown". One way to swell the numbers was to do a lot of one-room flats. No more than 300 sq ft. No partitioning. Communal toilets. Communal kitchen.

A lift was a luxury. Every fifth floor, you had a lift so that the tenants walked two floors down or two floors up.

We also could not afford casement windows. We used louvres, with a lock. You press it down, it locks, so people cannot break in. Many locked it and could not open it. They swore at the Government for giving them "defective" things.

On (compensation for) resettlement, Singaporeans were good at improvising. On Friday, they stocked up the building material. On Monday, you saw a brand-new house, but they stained it as though it had been there a long time: "That's a house. Pay compensation." Fruit trees, the same. Suddenly you found, so many papaya, pineapple, banana trees.

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