Howe Yoon Chong



Howe Yoon Chong (b. July 1923, China–d. 21 August 2007, Singapore) was the first chief executive officer (CEO) of the Housing and Development Board (HDB) when it was established in 1960 and head of the civil service from 1975 to 1979. After a civil service career spanning some 30 years, he entered politics and was elected the member of parliament (MP) for the Potong Pasir constituency in 1979. During his five-year political career, Howe was minister for defence and then minister for health. Besides playing a key role in the early public housing programmes, he was also instrumental in the development of Singapore’s first container terminal, Singapore Changi Airport and the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system. Significantly, Howe also led the Committee on the Problems of the Aged, which published an influential report in 1984 that shaped government policy towards addressing the challenges of an ageing population in subsequent decades.

Early life and education
Howe, a Hakka, was born in China in July 1923.1 He migrated to Malaya with his family at a young age and received his early education at St Francis Institution in Malacca from 1933 to 1940.2 Although his father was a liquor merchant, Howe had to contend with hardship and poverty during his childhood as his family had lost their fortune during the Great Depression in the 1930s.3

After completing his education at St Francis Institution, Howe continued his studies in Singapore at Raffles Institution and then Raffles College.4 In 1948, he was awarded the Raffles College Exhibition for good academic performance and graduated the following year with a diploma in arts.5 Then in 1953, he obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics with honours from the University of Malaya (now the National University of Singapore).6

Civil service career
Howe joined the civil service in 1949. He first worked in the Education Department of the City Council followed by the Department of Broadcasting as a listener research officer for Radio Malaya and then as an administrative officer for the colonial secretariat.7 Appointed a police magistrate in 1953, he subsequently served as secretary to the Public Service Commission from January 1957 until September 1959 when he became deputy secretary to the Treasury.8

Howe decided to submit his resignation from the civil service six months after the People’s Action Party (PAP) came into power following the 1959 general election because he thought that the new political leaders did not want his services. However, he was persuaded to withdraw his resignation and remain in the civil service after a long chat with then Minister for Finance Goh Keng Swee, who assured him that he would be left alone to do his work.9

In February 1960, Howe became the first CEO of the newly established HDB,10 and served as its chairman from 1966 to 1969.11 In addition, Howe was permanent secretary to the Ministry of Finance’s Economic Development Division from 1 April 1962 to 10 November 1963 and subsequently permanent secretary to the Ministry of National Development from 11 November 1963 to 1969.12

Howe continued to hold a number of top positions in the 1970s. From 1970 to 1979, he was chairman and general manager of the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) as well as chairman and president of the Development Bank of Singapore (DBS).13 He became head of the civil service in July 1975 and was appointed permanent secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office the following month.14 During this period, Howe also served as chairman of the Sentosa Development Corporation until 1979.15

Political career
Lee Kuan Yew – Singapore’s first prime minister – and Howe were schoolmates at Raffles Institution.16 In as early as 1953, Howe had been approached by Lee, then a practising lawyer, to enter politics and help end colonial rule in Singapore. While Howe was keen to see the end of British rule in Singapore, he declined Lee’s invitation to join politics as he felt that Singapore had to have a proper and stable civil service administration and he saw himself as part of that administration.17

The invitation to enter politics was extended to Howe again several times thereafter, but he continued to decline on the grounds that he had an important role to play in the civil service.18

In 1979, Howe finally acceded. Having reached the official civil service retirement age of 55 in 1978, he was at long last persuaded by Lee, who was then prime minister, to enter into politics in order to impart his experience to a younger generation of political leaders.19 In January 1979, Howe was introduced as a PAP candidate for the by-election to be held later that year. At the same press conference announcing his candidacy, Howe shared openly that he hoped to serve no more than five years as a politician.20

In the by-election held on 10 February 1979, Howe beat Chiam See Tong, then an independent candidate, and won the Potong Pasir seat for the PAP by garnering 66.9 percent of the votes.21 In the following year’s general election held on 23 December, he again contested against Chiam, who was then representing the Singapore Democratic Party. Howe repeated his victory with a 59.1-percent majority of the votes, thus retaining the Potong Pasir seat and remaining as MP for the constituency.22

Howe was sworn in as the minister for defence on 12 February 1979.23 Then on 1 June 1982, Howe switched portfolios with Goh Chok Tong and became the minister for health.24 Howe also served concurrently as deputy chairman of the Economic Development Board between 1979 and 1984.25

After serving as an MP and minister for five years, Howe retired from politics in 1984.26 He returned to DBS as its chairman and CEO from 1985 to 1990. Thereafter, he served as executive chairman of Great Eastern Life Assurance between 1992 and 2000 as well as president and CEO of The Straits Trading Company between 1992 and 2007.27

Key contributions
Public housing
As the first CEO of HDB, Howe was instrumental in rolling out the board’s first wave of public housing programmes in the 1960s. Some 21,000 flats were built within three years to supply affordable public housing and ease the acute housing shortage problem by relocating squatters.28 Howe was also involved in the resettlement of families displaced by the Bukit Ho Swee fire in 1961 into newly built HDB flats.29

Singapore’s first container terminal
During his tenure as PSA’s first chairman, Howe made a strategic move to build Singapore’s first container terminal. At the time, the technique of using containers and container ships to handle cargoes was relatively new and shipping experts were sceptical of the demand. Constructed against the advice of professionals, the terminal became operational in 1972. Even though business was slow in the 1970s, Howe’s far-sighted decision gave Singapore a first-mover advantage when container trade rose in the 1980s. Singapore became the world’s busiest port by shipping tonnage in 1982 and the world’s busiest container port in 1990.30

Singapore Changi Airport
In the 1970s, Howe was appointed chairman of a special committee to study the feasibility of relocating the airport from Paya Lebar to Changi. He recommended scrapping the expansion plan for a second runway at Paya Lebar Airport and assured the cabinet that a new international airport could be built at Changi by 1981 to meet Singapore’s increasing air traffic needs. Under his direction, land was reclaimed, the old British Royal Air Force runway widened and extended, and a terminal built.31 On 1 July 1981, Changi Airport became operational and replaced Paya Lebar Airport as Singapore’s international airport.32

MRT system
Howe also played a key role in the development of the MRT system. In as early as the 1970s, Howe had envisaged that bus services would become inadequate for the populace. He was strongly in favour of the MRT as the backbone of Singapore’s public transport system and was against the all-bus alternative proposed by Goh Keng Swee.33 After more than a decade of careful study, the government decided in 1982 to build the MRT system.34

Committee on the Problems of the Aged
From 1982 to 1984, Howe headed the Committee on the Problems of the Aged, a 12-member high-level committee that looked into the issues of Singapore’s greying population.35 In 1984, the committee produced a 54-page document that became widely known as the Howe Yoon Chong Report.36 The report proposed a number of long-term strategies to prepare for Singapore’s ageing population, including a recommendation to increase the withdrawal age of the Central Provident Fund (CPF) from 55 to 60 to reduce the likelihood of inadequate savings for old age. The recommendation stirred a huge controversy and was eventually shelved.37

Over the following decades, the Howe Yoon Chong Report remained one of the most important documents in guiding government attempts to address the challenges of a greying population.38 Many subsequent policies and strategies formulated for the well-being of senior citizens, such as efforts to retain them in the workforce and the introduction of the CPF Minimum Sum Scheme, can be linked back to the report.39

Others
During Howe’s term as defence minister, he helped to build up the strength and capability of the Republic of Singapore Air Force and paved the way for its development into a high-technology military force.40

While he was the chairman of DBS, Howe helped to set up the Mendaki Growth Fund, a unit trust scheme for the Malay community in Singapore which was launched in 1991.41

Awards
Howe was awarded the Malaysia Medal and Meritorious Service Medal in 1963.42 Then in 1968, he became the first recipient of the Distinguished Service Order.43 In the following year, he was awarded the Eisenhower Fellowship, an exchange scholarship programme to the United States. Howe was the first Singaporean to be awarded the fellowship.44 In 1971, the University of Singapore conferred on Howe an honorary Doctor of Letters degree in recognition of his achievements in the areas of low-cost housing, urban renewal and city planning during his time at HDB.45

Death
Howe suffered a stroke on 30 July 2007 and passed away in hospital a few weeks later on 21 August.46

Family
Howe was married to Wan Fook Yin and he had three children.47

Key civil service appointments
Feb 1960: Appointed CEO of HDB
1 Apr 1962–10 Nov 1963: Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Finance, Economic Development Division
11 Nov 1963–1969: Permanent Secretary, Ministry of National Development.
1966–1969: Chairman, HDB
1970–1979: Chairman and general manager, PSA
July 1975–1979: Head, civil service48
11 Aug 1975–1979: Permanent secretary, Prime Minister’s Office49

Political appointments
1979–1984: MP for Potong Pasir constituency
12 Feb 1979–31 May 1982: Minister for defence
1 Jun 1982–1984: Minister for health

Other key appointments
1970–1979: Chairman and President, DBS
1985–1990: Chairman and CEO, DBS
1992–2000: Executive Chairman, Great Eastern Life Assurance
1992–2007: President and CEO, The Straits Trading Company

Awards
1963: Malaysia Medal and Meritorious Service Medal
1968: Distinguished Service Order
1969: Eisenhower Fellowship
1971: Honorary Doctor of Letters, University of Singapore



Author

Cheryl Sim



References
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36. Chua, L. H. (2007, August 24). Would Howe Yoon Chong have approved? The Straits Times, p. 27. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Yap, S., Lim, R., & Leong, W. K. (2010). Men in white: The untold story of Singapore’s ruling political party. Singapore: Straits Times Press, p. 367. (Call no.: RSING 324.25957 YAP)
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42. Howe Yoon Chong. (1979, June). In Biographical notes of the president, prime minister and ministers. Singapore: Publicity Division, Ministry of Culture. (Call no.: RCLOS 328.59570922 BIO); Ghazali receives Singapore Malaysia medal. (1963, September 17). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
43. Top job for Howe in PM’s office. (1975, August 10). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Chern, A. (2015, August 13). Singapore badges of honour. The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
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46. Loh, C. K. (2007, August 23). ‘A civil servant without compare’. Today, p. 4; Lin, K., & Lee, H. C. (2007, August 22). Ex-minister Howe Yoon Chong, 84, dies. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
47. Lin, K., & Lee, H. C. (2007, August 22). Ex-minister Howe Yoon Chong, 84, dies. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
48. Howe Yoon Chong. (1979, June). In Biographical notes of the president, prime minister and ministers. Singapore: Publicity Division, Ministry of Culture. (Call no.: RCLOS 328.59570922 BIO); Two are sworn in at the Istana. (1979, February 13). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
49. Republic of Singapore. Government gazette. (1975, August 8). (G.N. 70, N.N. 2403). Singapore: [s.n.], p. 3334. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 SGG); Howe Yoon Chong. (1979, June). In Biographical notes of the president, prime minister and ministers. Singapore: Publicity Division, Ministry of Culture. (Call no.: RCLOS 328.59570922 BIO); Two are sworn in at the Istana. (1979, February 13). The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



The information in this article is valid as at 21 March 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

 

Subject
Law and government>>Political process>>Leadership
Politics and Government
Law and government>>Public administration>>Cabinet (Government Councils)
Politicians--Singapore--Biography
Howe, Yoon Chong, 1923-2007
Personalities>>Biographies>>Political Leaders
Politicians
Cabinet officers--Singapore--Biography
Personalities