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A foundation built on global challenges

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Kwa Chin Soon
Senior Assistant Director (Infrastructure Division), Ministry of National Development
(Seconded from Building and Construction Authority)

Alumnus, NUS Engineering

As a child, Kwa Chin Soon was often amazed at how his dad, a carpenter, was able to create furniture from simple materials.

Chin Soon’s fascination with the art of crafting and building grew further when at 15, his family moved to Sengkang, then a developing town.

There, he witnessed the construction of the district’s first shopping mall Compass One, and watched the LRT tracks being built. Once just a barren piece of land, Sengkang soon became a bustling town filled with high-rise residential apartments and modern transport infrastructure.

Seeing his neighbourhood’s remarkable transformation was what sparked Chin Soon’s interest in civil engineering.

Today, the 34-year-old is seconded to the Ministry of National Development, as a Senior Assistant Director with the Infrastructure Division, tasked with developing a world-class built environment and creating liveable spaces for Singapore.

“Being a land-scarce nation, the criticality of space creation cannot be underestimated. To continue to grow and develop sustainably, Singapore needs to optimise the space we have through good planning, and ensure that the space continues to be highly liveable,” explains Chin Soon.

“Beyond space-optimisation, it is also imperative that we explore innovative engineering solutions to create space, such as through floating cities and underground spaces.”

Could Singapore eventually become a city built on water, or a civilisation that thrives below ground as well as above it?

The prospect of these alternate realities may be hard to imagine for the average Singaporean, but these are real possibilities for Chin Soon and his colleagues as they tackle the problem of liveable space creation in Singapore.

Chin Soon (second from left) at his Commencement ceremony in 2010

A licensed professional engineer, Chin Soon has held various portfolios in the public service, which he joined upon graduation.

From being tasked to carry out tremor analysis to ensuring building projects comply with safety standards, Chin Soon attributes the “myriad of highlights” he’s had in his career to the top-class education he received over four years at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

Going beyond what he learnt in the lecture theatres, he was able to participate in both local and international competitions that broadened his perspectives.

One of those competitions was the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation - Introducing and Demonstrating Earthquake Engineering in Schools’ (APEC-IDEERS) Earthquake Challenge. Chin Soon took part in the competition in 2008 and 2009, and his team won in the latter.

Chin Soon (second from right) was part of the NUS team that won the APEC-IDEERS Earthquake Challenge in 2009.

In studying how buildings can be designed to withstand earthquakes, he learnt an important lesson: not to overlook the actual behaviour of a structure by fixating on projections backed by theory.

“The importance of reconciling the behaviour of structures with theory struck a chord with me and grounded my approach towards engineering,” Chin Soon recalls.

As a budding civil engineer then, Chin Soon made the most of the internship and overseas exchange opportunities provided by NUS.

In his second year, he interned at Dragages Singapore, where he picked up on-site construction experience. He was tasked to plan and supervise the construction of a three-storey office building in Tampines - his maiden involvement in the actual construction of a building.

And in the following year, he went to Sweden’s Lund University – a trip that gave him fresh insights into the structural design and urban sustainability of Sweden’s built environment.

“It gave me a broader global perspective of what it means to be a civil engineer. My exchange in Sweden and the global competitions I participated in allowed me to look at civil engineering from a global lens, in terms of urban sustainability and structural safety, especially in areas prone to natural disasters,” says Chin Soon.

While Singapore may not go through different seasons like in Sweden, nor is it prone to natural disasters like Taiwan, having that broad global perspective allows Chin Soon to appreciate how built environments differ because of where they are located.

“So when we look at Singapore and how the built environment has developed, you get a better appreciation and understanding, too, as a civil engineer,” Chin Soon shares.

He credits NUS lecturers, especially Dr Pang Sze Dai, and Professor Leung Chun Fai, as major influencers for their wealth of experience and willingness to impart knowledge to him and his peers.

It was also under Prof Leung’s guidance that he was able to excel in his final year project (FYP), in spite of the challenges he faced during the course of his project. Chin Soon’s FYP had been on an experiment to determine the impact of tunnelling to nearby piles in a centrifuge lab, but his first few experiments did not produce satisfactory results. Then, with about a month to go before he had to submit his report, he found issues with the mechanism of his experiment.

“Despite the tight deadline, Prof Leung was very encouraging and explored different approaches to rectify the problems with me, guiding me throughout the process,” Chin Soon recalls. With Prof Leung’s immense help, Chin Soon managed to develop a new mechanism within a short timeframe to produce insightful results for his FYP.

Under his lecturers’ guidance, Chin Soon (front, second from left) excelled at school in his time at NUS.

He gained many valuable life lessons from his NUS experience. These lessons, together with the values he learnt during the journey, were his biggest takeaways from his NUS experience.

“I realised the importance of continuous and independent learning… It made me realise that knowledge in the curriculum was just the tip of the iceberg and it was important to constantly reach for deeper knowledge and explore real applications of this knowledge,” says Chin Soon.

“I also learnt the importance of perseverance from when I was doing my final year project - it is often the last mile in a project or assignment that is the most difficult, and many ideas fail to come to fruition without the perseverance to get them through.

“These skills have proven to be very helpful in the course of my career.”