A GREATER PURPOSE

With scrupulous attention to detail and
the desire to provide what users really need,
a new generation of engineers is helping
to build the infrastructure that will
allow Singapore to scale new heights.

B ackpacking around Southeast Asia after completing his National Service, Mr Cheong Jiawen was particularly struck by one fact: running water, electricity, housing and education – basic amenities in Singapore – are, in truth, luxuries that many communities in the region can little afford.

During his summer breaks as an undergraduate, Mr Cheong also volunteered in orphanages in China, Russia and Tanzania, and observed more of such hardships. This helped him realise the larger purpose of engineering. “I understood then that it isn’t just a job or career,” he says. “As engineers, we can build things that people really need, and use our skills to help improve lives.”
That’s his mission now as an engineer with the Mechanical and Electrical Engineering (M&E) Department at JTC Corporation. Mr Cheong joined the agency in 2013 after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Duke University and a Master’s in management science and engineering from Stanford University. “I work on everything that moves and requires electrical power in a building,” he says. “This covers lighting, air-conditioning, plumbing and fire protection systems.”

Once Ground Zero for Singapore’s manufacturing revolution, Jurong is now part of a new wave of future-oriented industries. Two years into his role, Mr Cheong, 27, has worked on projects such as Fusionopolis Two, which comprises clean-rooms, dry and wet laboratories as well as office space; and JTC Space @ Tuas, a pioneering facility that combines factory space with dormitories.

One project that’s close to his heart is the JTC Launchpad @one-north. As a student at Stanford, Mr Cheong loved Silicon Valley’s start-up culture, and he was thrilled to have the chance to work on an innovation hub. Comprising three mid-sized blocks, Launchpad is home to a colourful collection of new media and biomedical start-ups.

“The project team had grand plans for Launchpad such as more breakout spaces and a cafeteria,” he says. “But speaking to the start-ups, we realised that affordability was their chief concern. So we developed a quality project minus the frills, to keep their costs down.”

The JTC Food Hub @ Senoko was another project that saw Mr Cheong applying his know-how to help users. The building has shared cold-room facilities, but when Mr Cheong was designing this system, he had no way of knowing what the refrigeration needs of future tenants might be.

For most engineers, the easiest way around this problem is to design for the maximum load. But not for Mr Cheong. Doing so would lead to unnecessary spending and energy waste. So his team helped develop a flexible configuration that allows for expansion, a design that resulted in savings of some $5 million.

“He’s a rare find,” says Mr Yee Peng Huey, Deputy Director of the M&E Department. “When he goes into a building, what he looks for are ways to improve systems and to reduce costs and the impact on the environment. Engineering needs more people like him – problem-solvers who have the drive, energy and curiosity to make a difference.”

Mr Cheong hopes to put his skills to good use in the developing world, whether it’s to build schools or other facilities and infrastructure to improve lives. But for now, his focus is firmly on Singapore. “We’re doing exciting things here and providing the foundation that our industries need to succeed,” he says. “That’s what keeps me going!”