Changi Airport’s construction was expected to take 10 years. A pioneer civil servant was asked to do it in just 6.

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Mothership | June 25, 2022, 10:17 AM

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Sim Kee Boon was one of Singapore’s pioneer civil servants, having joined the civil service even before independence, in 1953.

From 1975 to 1984, Sim was permanent secretary (communications) and concurrently permanent secretary (finance). During this time, he was tasked with coordinating the construction of Changi Airport. Following the airport’s construction, Sim served as the chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) from 1984 to 1999 where he continued to raise the standards of Changi Airport.

Sim was also known for transforming Keppel Corporation’s massive S$845-million debt into a S$5.1-million profit, within two years of joining the conglomerate in 1984 as its executive chairman.

Here, we reproduce an excerpt from the book The Last Fools: The Eight Immortals of Lee Kuan Yew about how Sim had to build Changi Airport within six years, where 10 years was the norm for such a development. Sim also made up for his lack of experience in building an airport with an obsession to detail, down to the toilets and ensuring the first passenger bag can be retrieved within 12 minutes of landing.

Edited by Peh Shing Huei, The Last Fools is published by The Nutgraf Books and you can get a copy of it here.

By Derek Wong

There are landmark developments, and there is Changi Airport. This was not a Marina Bay Sands or Jewel Changi Airport that was built on the shoulders of inherited infrastructure and with billions in state coffers should things go awry.

In building Changi Airport, the Republic of Singapore, barely a decade into its independence and still finding its way in the Cold War geopolitical arena, would be taking a bold long-term risk.

There was just one problem. Singapore had never built an airport of such scale!

Phase 1 of Changi was to consist of a runway, 45 aircraft parking bays, a column-free hangar for three jumbo jets, a fire station, workshops, an airfreight complex, two cargo agent buildings, as well as the iconic 17-storey control tower. Quite the list.

Changi Airport had to be built in six years

If that wasn’t daunting enough, the airport had to be built in record time for Singapore’s economy to take off as quickly as possible.

Six years was given, where 10 years was the norm for such an undertaking. Planning, designing, and construction had to be done simultaneously.

The Cabinet turned to Sim Kee Boon, then the Permanent Secretary of Communications, to provide the wind beneath the wings. He had at the time already clocked a head-turning 20-year career in the government, with stints as the administrative head honcho at the finance and national development ministries.

The only thing was, he had never built an airport.

What’s the worst that could happen, asked the bullish civil servant. "I came to the conclusion that the worst the government could do to me if it didn’t turn out well was to sack me," he told The Straits Times in 1999. "Luckily, it turned out quite well."

He had only a short runway to ascend to the altitude of an aviation aficionado.

Sim made up for his lack of airport-building experience by poring over the details

"What were the requirements of a modern airport? We sent two teams around the world to find out. I headed one of them. We looked at the airports and the ideas, learnt what was useful and important, as well as mistakes we should avoid," he said in From Ground Up, a commemorative publication of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) published in 2006.

Among those studied were Europe’s best airports in Heathrow, Frankfurt, and Amsterdam. The teams got inspiration by studying their master designs and adapted them for local conditions.

Former CAAS Deputy Director-General Ho Beng Huat recalled in the same book: "Mr Sim told us 'Ask yourself what you should copy, but also take note of what not to do!'"

As if replication was not robust enough, Sim was determined to make up for inexperience with laser-guided questions.

Ng Wee Hiong, another former Deputy Director-General at CAAS, said in From Ground Up that Sim was unrelenting in his queries. "He would ask: 'If I push this switch, what does it mean? What should happen? Will it work?' When we reported that something was X per cent complete, he would ask: ‘What does that mean?’ He wanted a 100 per cent response on systems."

This dogged desire for detail was experienced by many under Sim’s charge.

Former Changi Airport Group Chairman Liew Mun Leong, who was a young engineer when the mammoth project was built, said:

"He was a Permanent Secretary but approached the task as a layman. He asked a lot of questions. It really put us to the test, and no matter how prepared we were, we could not always answer him."

But instead of irritation, his officers felt a deep sense of loyalty and were inspired.

Sim thought of his own bad travel experiences when overseeing Changi Airport’s construction

Changi Airport gave Sim a vast canvas to paint his vision. Because of his own unpleasant brushes overseas, he was unabashed about mollycoddling passengers passing through Singapore.

Once, he found himself stranded at a regional airport when he had to make an important phone call, but he had no change.

Attuned to the pains of a hapless foreigner unaccustomed to local phone systems, Sim made sure passengers could make free calls in Singapore in the transit area of Changi Airport, after negotiating with the relevant body.

This meant a seamless air-conditioned experience from touchdown to the moment a weary traveller’s head touches the pillow of his hotel bed.

Hot and stuffy aerobridges were switched out for air-conditioned ones, while taxi queues were incorporated into the cool confines of the building.

Sim was also known for instituting the "12-minute rule," where the first bag has to be ready for retrieval 12 minutes from when the aircraft lands.

His extensive involvement branched out to trees. Then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s instructions were that he wanted a "jungle" on the drive to and from the airport, to make for a pleasant, green journey for travellers.

Liew said telexes – electronically-transmitted messages that preceded faxes – were sent to Sim every day, detailing how many casuarina and rain trees were planted.

Once, an ugly block of grey, a flight kitchen, broke the stretch of green.

Sim demanded that everything and anything be done to solve the problem. Earth was literally moved: the solution was a mound of compacted soil with big trees planted atop for smooth visuals from the road.

Besides introducing nature into its architecture, Sim also made sure that Changi Airport heeded the call of nature.

It probably has the best toilets across airports worldwide, with its paper towels (dryers don’t work as well in a humid climate), one-to-one allocation of cleaner to lavatory, and lavish, odourless spaciousness.

It was possible only because Sim – whose grandfather was a night soil collection supervisor – was obsessed with toilets.

Indeed, the airport’s every business – private or public – was in Sim’s crosshairs.

Said Wong Woon Liong, former CAAS Director-General, in From Ground Up: "He was a big-picture man. Yet at the same time, he could zoom in quickly on details that mattered. From the height of toilet bowls to the texture of trolley handles, he was fastidious about getting details right."

He was also willing to take the risk of splurging for the airport

He dared to splurge to make Changi the best – in a shrewd manner, of course. In austere times during the global oil crises of the 1970s, rulers of the day could not be seen squandering wildly, especially when Singapore was still far from first-world status.

"Government buildings in the old days were very simple. But Changi’s interior was like a hotel’s," said Ho.

“As a civil servant, he (Sim) had to have courage to get this done. He ran a big risk of having the public accuse the government of wasting money.”

When Sim could, he became a top-notch wheeler-dealer. Huge TV screens – a luxury before the turn of the century – peppered lounges in Changi Airport for passengers to be entertained between flights.

They were obtained for free, adroitly negotiated by Sim as he promised suppliers free advertisements in exchange.

Quite simply, when it came to Changi, Sim would find all ways to get his way, including agreeing deals never seen before in the government.

On the day of the airport’s opening, its flight information system crashed

Airport folklore has it that Sim stayed in the airport for two weeks before its official opening to make sure there wasn’t a single hitch. The systems were assiduously debugged and taxi drivers familiarised with the road layout in the months leading to the move.

However, on D-Day, the computerised flight information system crashed for the first time. Sim sprang into action, overseeing the mad scramble as staff updated flight details via walkie-talkies, blackboards, and chalk.

One can only imagine his ire as he made an urgent call directly to the United States Ambassador and asked him to instruct the American vendors to rectify the situation.

Despite the hitches, or what Sim called a "few pimples here and there," the launch was a great success.

On the morning of Jul. 1, 1981, six years after the first spade hit the ground, Changi Airport welcomed its first flight.

The 140 passengers on SQ101 from Kuala Lumpur were greeted by 15 Mandarin Hotel hostesses clad in elegant crimson cheongsams. The grand plan had finally taken off, and on time too.

"I was lucky to be entrusted with the (Changi Airport) job," said Sim in 1999. "But I hadn’t expected it to be so big and complicated."

Changi became Sim’s calling card to authoritatively subdue inconceivably gargantuan jobs.

Top photos via SMU, Changi Airport/Facebook