Bharati Jagdish goes On The Record with Liew Mun Leong and quizzes him about whether higher passenger fees are the best way of helping to fund Changi Airport's expansion.
Liew Mun Leong is Chairman of Changi Airport Group and Surbana Jurong. (Photo: Surbana Jurong)
SINGAPORE: There is no doubt that Liew Mun Leong has had an illustrious career. The current chairman of Changi Airport Group (CAG) was also the founding President and CEO of CapitaLand Group, a public listed real estate company, between 1996 and 2012.
At 72, you might think that he would look back on his achievements and decide it is time to call it a day. But he famously says in practically every interview that he does not believe in retirement. He tells me the same thing, “For sure, you will turn senile if you stop doing work.”
His statement is influenced by what happened to his late father.
Mr Liew and his brother felt that they could provide for their father and persuaded him to retire at 67 from his job as a lathe machinist. His father, he says, became senile, declined and passed on.
Mr Liew clearly regrets this.
Hence, in addition to his chairmanships at CAG, Surbana Jurong and Pavilion Gas, he is Provost Chair and Professor (Practice) pro bono at NUS Business School and the Faculty of Engineering.
His sprightly manner belies his years and he maintains a glint of excitement in his eyes during our interview. Talking about his work and life often has that effect on him, he says.
“I WENT TO A GANGSTER-INFESTED SCHOOL”
Trained as a civil engineer, he spent 22 years in the public service developing Singapore's Changi Airport, military airports and establishments.
In the private sector, over a span of 21 years, he led 10 publicly listed companies in four countries.
He achieved all this with what could be called a “modest” education.
“I always get quite upset when people ask me if I was in Raffles Institution or whether I went to Cambridge or Oxford. I say, ‘No. I went to a gangster-infested school called Queenstown Technical School.’ In those days they were all gangster schools and I didn’t get a scholarship to Cambridge or Oxford or Harvard but I think what’s important is you have the fundamental training and you are prepared to use common sense and pragmatism to do things.”
He graduated from the National University of Singapore, but when he went on to be a civil engineer building camps for the Ministry of Defence, he noticed he stood out.
“When I joined the Ministry of Defence, I was the first civil engineer there and I was swamped by scholars. Almost everybody is a scholar. I’m one of the few non-scholars.”
He didn’t let it bother him though.
“I told myself that I have no fear of them. Why should I? It’s about your own confidence level, your own thinking that you can deliver.”
His career choice to be an engineer was inspired by his father.
“He admired engineers when he worked as a machinist. He was just a workshop person. The engineers were the ones who gave workers overtime pay and instructions and could remove you if they chose. At that time, they were typically British and he would come back and tell us how great they are. They were like God to him. So I said, ‘I can be God also'."
Liew Mun Leong with the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew at Changi Airport. (Photo: Changi Airport Group)
ARE HIGHER FEES AND LEVIES AT CHANGI AIRPORT JUSTIFIABLE?
His civil engineering skills enabled him to build Changi Airport’s first runway.
Today, Changi Airport has won numerous accolades and been named the world’s best airport several years in a row.
However, recent news that travellers flying out of Changi Airport will have to pay more in passenger fees and levies from Jul 1 to fund a major expansion of the airport, including the building of Terminal 5, has invited criticism.
The expansion is needed to keep up with growth and maintain Changi’s regional hub status.
It will mean that airlines will also see increased costs. Landing, parking and aerobridge fees, which are applicable to all flights at Changi Airport, will increase by 1 per cent from Jul 1. It will be further increased by 1 per cent a year until 2024, when a review will be conducted.
The bulk of the costs will be borne by the Government and CAG, which operates the airport, but even this has not placated travellers and airlines.
As chairman of CAG, he feels the charges are justifiable.
“The project costs tens of billions of dollars. It’s an astronomical amount and it’s really a strain on the budget. So the Government has to work out how to finance this tens of billions of dollars. Fortunately we have built up a strong balance sheet but that’s not enough and if we have to get grant to get it done, it will also be a big strain on the reserve, on the overall budget. To me, the public who is using it is gaining a lot and we must start to learn how to pay for it.”
Others such as Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) and those in Dubai and the United Arab Emirates have introduced similar charges to fund their own growth plans.
But the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has spoken up against this, saying it opposes pre-funding.
“You can start charging when it’s built but then there will be a big hole first in our budget. We are already building the third runway and we will use the third runway in three years or so. We need to share the burden of this big huge budget with the public who is using it,” he says.