Patience is virtue
“Are you using a Nikon or Canon?” Khew Sin Khoon, President and Group CEO of CPG Corporation, asked the photographer before the start of our interview. The leader of the infrastructure development and management services business has a passion for nature photography, and is one of the country’s most respected experts on butterflies.
In his day job, Khew leads a nearly 2,000-strong workforce in developing and managing some of Singapore’s most iconic landmarks. Changi Airport, Singapore Racecourse, the National Gallery, Gardens by the Bay, and the National University of Singapore campus are just some of the facilities CPG Corporation has been involved with.
During the course of the interview, it quickly becomes apparent that Khew’s passions for photography and butterflies are continuously intertwined in his leadership style and the business. From inspecting the flora and fauna of Singapore’s Istana presidential palace, to his small group chats with random employees, Khew says passion is at the heart of everything he gets involved with.
Career journey and leadership style
Tell us how you have reached your career journey up to this point
I was a Malaysian and was offered a scholarship to study in Singapore. I came here in 1979. I studied architecture at National University of Singapore (NUS) for five years and I joined the then Public Works Department in 1984, serving an eight-year bond. Today, when you tell people you served an eight-year bond, they ask, “Are you mad?”
But people of my era didn’t think too much about being bonded for six, eight, or even 12 years. In 1985, Singapore faced it’s first-ever recession after independence. Those were pretty traumatic times for people looking for jobs and many of my classmates went without work for a couple of years.
During my time at the Public Works Department I did all the social infrastructure projects, from schools to polyclinics to hospitals. Those were exciting nation-building years. You feel a sense of pride in the 80s and 90s in Singapore because I guess we weren’t that rich yet and we were trying to escalate the nation into a different era.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I tend to be a bit more consultative. That stems from my love of nature. I prefer a more collaborative environment where people work together and are more cordial and respectful of each other. We are a knowledge-based organisation; we shouldn’t have one man individually monopolising the entire company.
How would your staff describe you?
I think they see me as stern, but approachable. I put a lot of premium on quality and I think my staff know that I’m generally no-nonsense when it comes to delivering a product. At the same time, I do have a softer side and I try to reach out to all levels of staff once a month, or fortnightly if I have the time. These sessions are with groups of eight randomly picked employees. I ask them what they do in their free time. This question allows them to open up and I prefer this to them speaking about work to me. The sessions have been very effective because after a while, staff share their inner thoughts about the company as well as their aspirations.
HR and sector challenges
What are some key HR challenges in your organisation?
Being a multi-disciplinary company, the challenges are many-fold.
The top challenge is talent retention. In a company which depends heavily on brainwork and knowledge, people tend to want to have self-actualisation. They want to develop themselves, rather than talk about money or the projects they do. Hence, it’s a self-development kind of HR challenge. When a person finishes an exciting project, they get what they call a “cliff-hanger”. What do they look forward to in their next project? What do they want to achieve, for example, after they have finished designing Gardens by the Bay? These are issues that we struggle to deal with because we have to look for projects that challenge our people and enhance their ability to contribute to the profession and company.
The second challenge we face is that Singapore is going global. You can’t, for example, run your business in Dubai from Singapore. Clients want your people to be there and there needs to be constant and responsive interaction.
The challenge of developing our people with that global mindset is always on our minds. I think younger Singaporeans don’t like to travel as much, and don’t want to be away from their family. We have two-year international postings so we tell our employees that they will have to be away from their family. Yes, they have return arrangements but they will largely be away from Singapore.
We try to sell the idea of personal career development for employees. Singaporeans are pretty sheltered and they should get out there, see the real world, and learn about new cultures and new ways of doing things.
What’s the best way to deal with the current slowdown in the building and infrastructure sectors?
Being in this industry, we’re not immune from what is going around us, both in Singapore and in the region. Whenever we face these cyclical downturns, I focus on training because as a multinational, we need to generate knowledge within our people. That is what distinguishes us from everyone else in a very complex world.
People always have to be armed with knowledge. Learning doesn’t stop after you finish your university education.
The other strategy is based around diversity, both geographical diversity and building typology diversity. Because of our background in institutional aspects of infrastructure development, we are less impacted by the residential market. We generally focus on our core competencies in aviation, infrastructure, healthcare, education, and security projects.
How would you describe the culture at CPG Corporation?
It’s collaborative and there’s very little backstabbing or employees trying to get ahead of each other. It’s more of a family environment and being generally more caring. It can be a challenge to create a family atmosphere when you have around 2,000 employees but you create it by building micro-cultures.
If the heads of different divisions share the same values and philosophy that the company culture drives, you then get a lot more communication at the sector levels. We also have numerous family days, including a recent one on Sentosa Island to celebrate our 18th anniversary after being corporatised from the Public Works Department.
We also foster this atmosphere by encouraging a healthy lifestyle among staff. For example, we have a CPG marathon team, a badminton team, and other casual sport groups where we engage in activities together.
You are an enthusiastic student of butterflies. How did that start?
I started learning about butterflies as a kid. My biology teacher, who I regard as a good mentor, encouraged me to take up the hobby and interest beyond simply collecting butterflies. That’s how it sparked my interest in understanding the taxonomy and classifying butterflies. It still is a hobby to this day.
At different parts of my life, I also became interested in gadgets, particularly cameras. I remember my first camera was a Russian model and I paid the princely sum of MYR 35. I had to save up nearly a year for it.
Practically every weekend, I head out and engage in my passion for photography, nature, and butterflies. It’s my own impetus and motivation to get out there and go on hikes.
You’ve also written books on butterflies. Is that right?
Yes, and also a book on caterpillars! These came at a time when I had accumulated lots of knowledge of butterflies and had taken lots of pictures. In the early 2000s, someone suggested that I write a book. I met with local publishers and raised the idea of writing but with such a limited audience, they didn’t think it would be sellable.
One morning, the late Mrs Lee Kuan Yew, wife of Singapore’s first Prime Minister, came out to the grounds of the Istana. She told her staff that while the plants were beautiful, she asked what had happened to the birds and butterflies.
The National Parks Board called in experts, and I was roped in as well. I said that while the plants were lush and beautiful, they had all been heavily covered with pesticides. You couldn’t see a single leaf being eaten. When you remove the food for the insects, there’s no food for the birds. The caterpillars that feed on the plants perish, so how do you expect to see butterflies there?
It was during this journey that I met Madam Ho Ching, the wife of current Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. She asked me how to attract butterflies in her own house and then agreed to sponsor the book on the spot. She subsequently also sponsored the second edition.
I wrote two books on butterflies and a third book on caterpillars which was co-authored. Plans are afoot for another book to be published at the global level.
I’m also an Honorary Research Associate of the National Parks Board and the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum.