Saturday, March 13, 2010

Building Singapore, brick by brick

CONSTRUCTION has been a flourishing industry right from the earliest days of modern Singapore.

Pioneering building contractors in the 19th century included Lim Loh, who built the Victoria Memorial Hall and the old Parliament House, and Naraina Pillai, the man behind Sri Mariamman Temple, the first Hindu temple here.

Immigrant labourers who assembled this city, brick by brick, included Indian convicts brought over by the British, and samsui women from China with their red roof-like headdresses.

One milestone for the construction industry in colonial Singapore was the setting up of the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) in 1927 to build low-cost housing.

Another milestone was the formation of the Singapore Chinese Contractors Association in 1937 to improve work relations among local contractors and ensure regular supplies of building materials. After World War II, the association changed its name to the Singapore Contractors Association to reflect its multiracial membership, and today it is known as the Singapore Contractors Association Limited.

By 1960, there were 400 contracting firms here employing 4 per cent of the total workforce, according to National University of Singapore building professor George Ofori’s book, Managing Construction Industry Development.

The 1960s saw the start of a building boom as Singapore began rapid urbanisation under the People’s Action Party government.

The Housing Board was formed in 1960 to replace SIT. In five years, the HDB built 50,000 homes, more than double that ever built by its predecessor.

To achieve this, then HDB chairman Lim Kim San broke the hold of contractors’ cartels and their price-fixing by allowing anyone to tender.

HDB also adopted standardised specifications and construction methods – still its modus operandi today – to make the flats easier to design and faster to build.

The 1970s was the decade of major civil engineering and high-rise projects like the Benjamin Sheares Bridge, DBS Building and the first passenger terminal at Changi Airport.

The industry here saw an influx of large foreign construction firms, mainly Japanese. They employed or worked with Singapore contractors on these projects.

As some Singapore firms expanded and grew in the 1980s, they formed major joint ventures and partnerships with international firms. Key projects included highways, port development and the building of the Mass Rapid Transit.

The Construction Industry Development Board (CIDB), a statutory board, was set up in 1984 – a time when the industry was becoming increasingly overheated and reliant on transient, low-skilled foreign labour. CIDB launched schemes to upgrade workers’ skills and develop the capabilities of construction firms.

The 1990s were growth years, with construction demand peaking at close to $25 billion in 1997, just before the effects of the Asian financial crisis were felt.

The resulting building slump led to the Construction 21 review of the industry in 1999, which sought to raise productivity, reduce the dependence on foreign workers, and improve on-site safety.

In 1999, the CIDB was merged with the regulatory body at the time, the former Public Works Department’s Building Control Division, to form the Building and Construction Authority (BCA).

The BCA both regulates and develops the construction industry.

The last few years have seen a renewed wave of soaring growth, led by a spike in private sector demand, with the two integrated resorts and a bumper crop of residential and commercial projects.

Construction gross domestic product (GDP) saw double-digit increases between 2007 and last year. A high of $34.6 billion worth of contracts was awarded in 2008.

Construction demand for this year is projected by BCA at between $21 billion and $27 billion. The bulk of the demand is expected to come from the public sector.

The construction industry today remains a major engine of economic growth. It contributes about 6 per cent of Singapore’s GDP, and employs 360,000 people, or roughly 12.2 per cent of the workforce.

Source: Straits Times, 13 Mar 2010

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