Saturday, October 11, 2008

Howe Yoon Chong

Howe Yoon Chong was a in the Cabinet of Singapore and a Member of Parliament for from 1979 to 1984. He was key in developing Singapore's infrastructural and financial framework, including the system, Singapore Changi Airport and public housing. In 1984, during his term as , in order to address issues raised by a greying population, he made the controversial proposal to raise the age for the withdrawal of Central Provident Fund savings from 55 to 60 years in order that Singaporeans might have more money to live on in their old age.

Howe, who graduated from the in 1953, also served as a senior , holding the posts of of the Housing and Development Board ; Chairman of the Port of Singapore Authority , Permanent Secretary in the 's Office and Head of the Singapore Civil Service ; Permanent Secretary of the and Ministry of National Development ; and Deputy Chairman of the Economic Development Board . In addition, he served as Chairman of the , and The Straits Holding Company .


Early life and education

Born in China in 1923 of Hakka origin, Howe Yoon Chong was the son of a liquor shop owner who migrated to Malacca, British Malaya. Howe received his early education at St. Francis Institution in Malacca from 1933 to 1940, and was once a schoolmate of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew at Raffles Institution in Singapore. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts with in Economics from the University of Malaya in Singapore in 1953.

Civil service career

Howe worked in the civil service for almost thirty years. He began his career as a teacher, then was a broadcaster for a period before taking the post of an administrative officer in the . Later, Howe was appointed as a and then secretary to Singapore's Public Service Commission.

In 1960, Howe became the first Chief Executive Officer of the Housing and Development Board . From 1970 to 1979, he was the Chairman and of the , the first Chairman of the Port of Singapore Authority , the Permanent Secretary in the 's Office, and the head of the Singapore Civil Service. From 1979 to 1982, Howe became the Permanent Secretary for the and the Ministry of National Development. He concurrently served as the Deputy Chairman of the Economic Development Board from 1979 to 1984.

During his tenure as a senior civil servant, Howe played a key role in several of Singapore's iconic infrastructural projects like the , Singapore Changi Airport and public housing.

Known by his civil service's colleagues as a fierce, tough-talking man, Howe debated vehemently with former Goh Keng Swee over whether to build the MRT system in Singapore. Howe was strongly in favour of the MRT as the backbone of , while Goh proposed a more economical all-bus alternative.

Howe fought strongly against the extension plans for a second runway at Paya Lebar Airport, and advocated the building of a new international airport in Changi. This was despite the Cabinet's decision for the go-ahead in 1972, based on a British expert's report that it would cost less to expand Paya Lebar Airport and that there was not enough time to get Changi built up to meet increasing traffic needs. Howe gathered a team to , widened and extended the old Royal Air Force airstrip to take Boeing 747s and build the terminal. In August 1981, operations stopped overnight at Paya Lebar Airport and restarted the next morning at Changi Airport. Howe's role in setting up Changi Airport won him credit in Lee Kuan Yew's memoirs.

Howe also fast-tracked the public housing programme while serving as the HDB's CEO under then-chairman Lim Kim San in the early years, solving the chronic housing shortage in the 1960s. As Chairman of PSA, now known as PSA Corporation, Howe went against the advice of professionals to build Singapore's first container terminal in the early 1970s.

Political career

Howe's first call to enter politics came as early as 1953 from Lee Kuan Yew, then a practising lawyer. and duly served as the Member of Parliament for the constituency until 1984.

On 12 February 1979, Howe was sworn into the Cabinet as . Directness being his hallmark, just six months after becoming Defence Minister Howe said that those who dodged ought to be looked upon as "pariah" in the community. which he chaired, was eventually dropped. However, the report that took 20 months to finalise remains an important document with its forward-looking strategies to support Singapore's . Taking up the suggestions in the report, the Singapore Government subsequently introduced the Minimum Sum scheme. This allows workers to withdraw some of their CPF funds at age 55, setting aside a certain minimum sum which can only be withdrawn at retirement age, currently at 62 years. To encourage the employment of aged workers, the CPF contribution rates for both employer and the aged employee were cut in July 1988. and from 1992 to 2007 the President and CEO for The Straits Holding Company, an investment . He was also Chairman of the and Rendezvous Hotels & Resorts International.

On 21 August 2007, Howe died in Singapore from a stroke after having been hospitalised for three weeks. Howe's funeral was held at Mandai Crematorium on 24 August.


In 1963, Howe received a Malaysia Medal and a ''Pingat Jasa Gemilang'' . For his contributions to Singapore, Howe was awarded a Distinguished Service Order in 1968. In 1971, the National University of Singapore awarded him with the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters .

Howe was also an Honorary Fellow of the Academy of Medicine, Singapore, and an Honorary Life Member of the Young Men's Christian Association of Singapore.

Personal life

Howe was married to Wan Fook Yin. They had three children – two sons, Tet Sen and Tze Sen, and a daughter, Hwee Siew – and two grandchildren.


*''As a person, you would have like him. He was a very genuine man and I respected him for that. But I always remember him as a man who was not a politician. He spoke his mind. He did not sugar-coat.'' -- Former MP Tan Cheng Bock

*''I remember when he was MP for Potong Pasir, his voters came and asked him for all sorts of things. Some asked him to lower the CPF withdrawal age from 55 to 50. He scolded them: 'You all don't know what is good for you'. Somebody went to tell him he shouldn't scold his voters like that!'' -- Sim Kee Boon, on Howe when he first entered public service.

*''Yes means yes. No means no. But when he said yes, he would go out of his way to help his residents.'' -- Teo Chong Tee, MP for Changi from 1976 to 1996, on Howe's firm management style.

* 'He stood for honesty and integrity...If someone made a wrong decision but at all times had told the truth, he would say, 'That's okay.'' -- Ms Elsie Foh, managing director of DBS Bank on Howe when he was once chairman of DBS.

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