02 Oct 2012

People - OS Hotshot

Mr Tai Lee Siang, Group Managing Director, Ong & Ong Pte Ltd

DC Universe superhero the Green Lantern may be out of this world literally speaking, but Singapore boasts our very own champion who says there’s more to be done in greening our city state.

Stanley Leong

DC Universe superhero the Green Lantern, possesses a powerful ring and lantern that gives him great control over the physical world as long as he has sufficient willpower and strength to wield it. This fictional character may be out of this world literally speaking, but Singapore boasts our very own champion who says there’s more to be done in greening our city state. He is upcoming SG Buzz speaker, Mr Tai Lee Siang, Group Managing Director of Ong & Ong Pte Ltd, an architectural firm and design house.

“Our green is at best only 20 percent. I’m saying that it should be a 50:50 ratio…that means that in high-rise situations, you’ve got to devote a lot more space to greenery - on rooftops and many more sky gardens. Any roof you see should be covered by gardens or nature,” he says, sharing his vision of the Singapore of tomorrow. Incidentally, Mr Tai is also the President of the Singapore Green Building Council.

When quizzed if he had spoken to the HDB, he reveals he hasn’t as he was still finalising his own theories. However he has raised this at several forums and Mr Tai is aware of the commonly-expressed concern about the cost. His terse reply: “Look. You can choose not to do it. It is not going to cost you, but the next generation and more. So we either choose to do it now or we don’t, and just let our children or grandchildren suffer.”

Green and Gratifying

The balance between nature and the environment isn’t a “good-to-have”, he says. “Greenery cannot be just something for decoration. We must be able to get some research and study going to identify the true benefits of greenery, quantify it and help people understand.”

Mr Tai is currently working on a couple of housing projects, one of which is a 30-storey block near the city that will be launched soon. You can almost hear the pride in his voice when he tells you “this would be one of the nicest ones to look out for” after two illustrious decades of his career.  Alongside residential developments, he’s also designing “a very green shopping mall” that will be unrivalled in the amount of plants it will have. It will be sited at the former Sime Darby building at Bukit Timah.

A design mock up of the Audi building by Ong & Ong.  

With Singapore three years shy of her golden jubilee in 2015, is there anything in the built environment in her relatively short history that’s worth celebrating? My scepticism was shortlived by Mr Tai’s response: “The beauty about Singapore is that you don’t just see the most exciting parts; you actually should also see the rest of the island where we have our beautiful public housing, the beautiful parks and all these things…I think Singapore life is so fast and we are all concerned about the cost of living, about everything else but the beautiful things on the island (that) we don’t pay attention to it, missing out on the beauty of the island and surroundings that we have”.


Defining ‘Design’ & Crafting ‘Creativity’

Design is more than just the beautification of something; it goes beyond aesthetics. Mr Tai says there are three key components of design - the aesthetics, the user-experience and the aspect of invention or innovation. All three have to score well before the design can be said to be good. So what is Mr Tai’s personal pick for he deems to be the greatest architectural structure standing today? The Ronchamp Chapel in France, designed by a modernist architect in the 1940s and built completely from concrete. What fascinates Mr Tai would be how the structure is built “in such a complex shape showing that concrete can be a very fluid material that can form complex volumes and shapes” and how it’s beautiful interior “with day lighting that is out-of-this-world”. 

So for a creative like Mr Tai, when and where do ‘out-of-this-world’ ideas ignite? In moments of quiet and isolation one would think, but no. An idea may spark for the past president of the Singapore Institute of Architects while having a shower or tucking into food but “it only gets better when I start to sit down with the teams and we start verbalising the ideas. We talk and the things that I imagined earlier gets changed and transformed into something that is different because of the input from another person. So I don’t think the most creative environment is one where you work alone. I think the most creative environment is one that stimulates interaction”.


All In The Family

The father of two daughters describes creativity in the corporate world as a “strange ghost that pops up here and there, and you don’t know whether to exorcise them or welcome them”. But one thing is certain – he breeds them, and together with his painter wife, has passed them on to their two daughters. Currently based in London, both have carved out careers in the creative fields - one in fashion and the other in the culinary industry.

“Both of them asked me: ‘Hey dad, can I just stay in London after studying?” to start their business. I said, ‘Yes you can, but why?’ They say that the environment there is very encouraging, in the sense that you can do just about anything and people will pat you on the back and say, ‘Well done! Keep trying!’ Then I ask myself why it is not possible in Singapore. Is it that we have too many rules? I think to some degree, yes. I think we still find ourselves living in a very small space. If there are no rules, we will find that it is very hard to manage. Boundary lines have to be set otherwise somebody will step on somebody else’s toes. With more rules doesn’t mean that there is no creativity. I think it is about having a system where rules can be modified, can be challenged, can be openly adjusted. I think that’s where Singapore is going to head towards.”

While Mr Tai appreciates the need for rules in a city state like Singapore, rules, he says, have to be more dynamic than in the past and reckons he’s found “some of the more enlightened leadership in agencies and statutory boards starting to be more open-minded”. “We can’t be like London or New York where rules are very lax because we’ve got no second chance. If we make a wrong step in setting the rules, we could find Singapore’s survival completely threatened,” he says, like a doomsday warning.

Just like his daughters in London, you may be pursuing your studies at institutions of higher learning or are a working professional. While Mr Tai isn’t giving them an ultimatum to return to Singapore some day, he encourages them to return and see what Singapore has to offer. “There are things that you learn here that you won’t learn overseas. The solutions overseas may not work here (and) may not work in Asia. Singapore is the perfect leading light for many Asian countries. Solutions that will work in Singapore will work in a lot of other countries.  So I say it is important that after learning the fundamentals (and) the good things when studying overseas, it is good to spend time back in Singapore. If your eventual target is to serve the market in Asia, Singapore is the perfect place to start. I think the way things are going in the markets in Asia in the next 10 years, you don’t want to be stuck in a place where you have no jobs,” Mr Tai advises. And if Asia's the place to be, or for that matter, home, then one ought to pay heed to the words of Singapore's very own 'Green Lantern'.

Meet Mr Tai in person as he speaks at SG Buzz in San Francisco on 16 Nov 2012 (Fri). His talk will be followed by a Q&A segment and a buffet dinner. Click here to register today!