Who moved our airport – Lee Kuan Yew or Howe Yoon Chong?

Amidst the number of future initiatives unveiled by PM Lee Hsien Loong during his National Day Rally speech was the plan to upgrade Changi Airport.

Besides the building of two new terminals, the literal jewel in the crown would be the new gardens built at the current carpark site next to Terminal 1.

In his speech, PM Lee credited his father, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, for having the foresight to move the civilian airport from its previous location in Paya Lebar to Changi, where the airport has since thrived and become internationally renowned.

PM Lee said:

“And we have Changi Airport today because in the 1970s, forty years ago, Mr Lee Kuan Yew had the vision to imagine the old RAF Changi Airbase becoming an international airport to replace Paya Lebar and he pushed for it against the advice of experts who recommended expanding Paya Lebar, building a second runway in Paya Lebar. Can you imagine? One runway in Paya Lebar, already aeroplanes coming in and going out over so many houses. (What more) two runways in Paya Lebar?

“But Mr Lee said no, study, study, study again. Got Howe Yoon Choon [sic] to lead it who pushed it and made it happened. And I think we owe it to them and we are grateful to them.”

This statement applauding the senior Lee’s foresight must have reinforced his position as the visionary leader and father of modern Singapore. While his many contributions to the development of modern day Singapore are without a doubt invaluable, I was unsure if moving the airport from Paya Lebar to Changi was his brainchild, and that Howe Yoon Choong, the former Defence Minister, was merely taking instructions from Mr Lee.

Mr Howe’s pivotal role in the matter was reiterated and honoured in 2012 and 2013, by a minister and by the Changi Airpot Group, respectively.

In a speech – in May 2013 – by former minister Lim Boon Heng at the 5th Howe Yoon Chong PSA Scholarship Award Ceremony, he lauds Mr How Yoon Choong as a decisive man who worked based on strong convictions:

“Mr Howe Yoon Chong also played a pivotal role in the development of Changi Airport.

“Back in 1975, Mr Howe had the foresight to push for a new airport to be built at Changi rather than to follow expert opinion to expand the existing airport at Paya Lebar with a second runway. The land at Changi was reclaimed from the sea, an international terminal built from scratch, and the new airport began operations on schedule in July 1981.

“Again, the younger generation of Singaporeans will face this kind of decisions to be made, whether to make that move, because it’s a lot of money, and if that move proves wrong, you lose a lot of money. But Mr Howe was certain that it was right and he pushed for it and he convinced then-Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew.And from personal experience, if anybody wants to convince Mr Lee Kuan Yew, you’ve got to be very strong in your convictions and sure of yourself.”

So, according to Mr Lim’s version of the story, it was Mr Howe who should be credited with having the foresight to move the airport to Changi from Paya Lebar. Mr Lee Kuan Yew, in fact, did not seem to be for the idea and apparently had to be convinced otherwise.

Mr Howe’s pioneering role in the matter was also honoured in 2012 by the Changi Airport Group, when it launched the CAG-Howe Yoon Chong (CAG-HYC) Book Prize, a support programme under the Changi Foundation.

The Group’s press release said:

“As we mark the completion of the upgrading for T1, we fondly remember Mr Howe, a pioneer of Changi, for his spirit of true grit in surmounting difficult and challenging circumstances.  Despite the views of experts, Mr Howe determined that Changi Airport was doable within the timeframe set.  As it turned out, his assessment proved to be an astute and accurate one.”

What transpired and who actually was responsible for the establishment of Changi Aiport is a confounding one, given the apparent different accounts.

What is perhaps certain is that Mr Howe played a more pivotal role than just taking instructions from Mr Lee Kuan Yew to “study, study, study again.” Mr Howe, in fact, pushed for the airport to be moved to Changi.

This then raises a number of questions: Have we Singaporeans become conditioned to credit Mr Lee Kuan Yew for every Singaporean success story by default, neglecting the efforts of the rest of the old guard? Are we taking everything our national leaders say to be infallible and always accurate?

Perhaps historians could shed some further light on how Changi Airport came about?

“Whether we have been extravagant in investing in an airport of this size and level of sophistication is a question worthy of a rhetorical rejoinder. Can Singapore ever afford not to have such an airport?”
Howe Yoon Chong, then Minister of Defence on the official opening of Changi Airport on in1981.

This article was contributed via the Readers’ Contribution under the moniker “Tau Huay”