Engineers are 'unsung heroes' of society
Changi Airport chairman worries over falling interest in engineering in S'pore
To keep our public infrastructure projects going, Singapore will need 1,000 more engineers every year for the next few years.
But interest in the profession has been sliding - something that, if not addressed, will be detrimental to Singapore, said Mr Liew Mun Leong, the chairman of Changi Airport Group and Surbana Jurong.
"We have first-class apartments, bridges, roads, airport, harbour and MRT.
"If we don't have enough engineers, or only have second-grade engineers, who is going to do all those things?" the 71-year-old lamented.
He was speaking to TNP before receiving the IES (Institution of Engineers, Singapore) Lifetime Engineering Achievement Award 2017 on Tuesday night.
"Maybe, in a way, awards like this are interesting because they (bring to) surface people like me who do what I do," he said.
"The students read only about bankers who make millions of dollars, or the people who have glamorous jobs.
"But engineers are invisible. I call them the unsung heroes in society. How do you make them sing louder about the profession?" he wondered.
One way could be to arrange for students to visit construction projects to "put life into subjects".
Mr Liew said: "If you want to convince people to go into shipbuilding, then take them to a shipyard to see what is happening there... To build it is really another story you could interest the students in before they choose a course."
The veteran engineer's own path was inspired by his late father, a lathe turner in a shipyard who had looked up to his British engineering boss.
Mr Liew became one of the pioneer engineers behind Changi Airport's first runway in 1975.
He was involved in the construction of Terminal 1 and later headed the construction of Terminal 2.
Little wonder, then, that those years made up some of the more memorable moments in the earlier part of his career.
Said Mr Liew: "With some modesty, we are the most awarded airport in the world.
"I am proud that my initial time as an engineer was spent on this project. So obviously when you have done something like this, which is world class, it will be memorable."
Even as he moved on to the corporate world, Mr Liew never veered too much from his field.
For a few years, he managed a specialist engineering company, before moving on to found and lead real estate giant CapitaLand. His technical expertise as an engineer meant he knew how long it would take to build a mall, for instance, and how much it would cost.
"And you probably understand quality better than a non-technical person," he added.
Being analytical, logical, numeric and pragmatic - an engineer's attributes - became second nature in his management style too.
"More importantly, engineers do things with paranoia in mind. That enriches my analytical skills and thinking philosophy.
"People ask me, 'Why are you so paranoid?' I tell them it is because things can fail," he told TNP.
This "paranoia" extends to his personal life.
For the past 30 years, Mr Liew has made it a point to arrive at the airport two hours before his flight. He also accounts for a traffic jam in his travel time, most recently using Google Maps.
He said: "I do all these things to make sure I am never late. As an engineer, you think through the whole working process."
After a slight detour, Mr Liew is now back at Changi Airport as its chairman, working on Singapore's largest development project.
"Have you seen the Terminal 4? It is beautiful," he said of the airport's latest addition, which will open on Tuesday.
"From the time you take your tickets for your seats, to the baggage, to security, then entering the plane - all these are seamlessly done through technology. That is one of the biggest breakthroughs in airports in this part of the world," Mr Liew said proudly.
So far, the man with many hats has not entertained any thoughts of retiring.
"Why should it be that when you reach 60 or 65, you drop down the cliff of emptiness and do nothing? I don't subscribe to that idea.
"Society has invested so much in you, your education, career, and everything," he said.
"If you stop thinking, you will get dementia. Your brain needs to think. If your brain stops, you are finished."
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