SINGAPORE (EDGEPROP) - Not only is real estate industry veteran Ong Choon Fah the CEO and head of research and consulting at property consulting firm Edmund Tie, she has also been active in championing the responsible use of land over the years. In July, she was appointed the Singapore Chair for the Urban Land Institute (ULI).
The global, independent non-profit has the oldest and largest network of cross-disciplinary real estate and land use experts in the world. “The mission of ULI is to provide leadership for the responsible use of land and to create thriving and sustainable communities worldwide. So that really resonates with me,” Ong says.
Ong: Ultimately, real estate is about people and we are in an amazing industry where we can make a difference, one step at a time (Credit: Albert Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
With a real estate career spanning more than 25 years, she has advised on the master planning of land parcels in Medini, Iskandar Malaysia (930ha); Vientiane, Laos (44ha) and Mauritius Airport City (17ha). At home, she was involved in the Gardens by the Bay project (101ha).
Recalling her experience, Ong says in the early 2000s when Gardens by the Bay was still just an idea, there were not many places in the Central Area where Singaporeans could be close to nature besides the Singapore Botanic Gardens. “We want our children to not just go to malls, but also to have places that let them run about and be close to nature,” she says.
In land-scarce Singapore, Ong notes, it can be difficult to justify allocating land use to a park versus selling it off in the Government Land Sales (GLS) programme. She says: “At the end of the day, sustainability is also about economic sustainability. You can’t just build a park that is not economically sustainable. This means you have to come up with taxpayers’ money.”
To ensure economic sustainability, the planning committee decided to price admission to Gardens by the Bay at $12 for Singaporeans or “roughly around the same price as a movie ticket”, she says. This ensures that the attraction remains accessible to the public.
Focus on wellness
Central to her ethos, Ong believes that when thinking about real estate, one should first consider the people they are catering for. This belief is manifested in Edmund Tie’s office at UIC Building on Shenton Way. The firm was previously located at Shaw Tower for more than 20 years. “In the 1970s, [Shaw Tower] was an amazing building, but now it’s like a grand old dame,” she says.
Over time, Ong noticed that the aircon ducts required more frequent cleaning and many of the firm’s staff were falling ill. She also felt “guilty” that only her office had windows with views of the outside, and made it a point to leave her door open and shades raised so her staff can enjoy the views too.
In 2017, the firm shifted to its current premises. There, everyone in the open-plan office can benefit from the unobstructed sea view. Each employee has a 1.5m-long desk; for those who prefer standing while they work, adjustable desks are also an option.
The floor-to-ceiling windows allow all Edmund Tie employees to enjoy an unobstructed sea view (Credit: Samuel Isaac Chua/ EdgeProp Singapore)
The company has also done away with personal wastepaper baskets, opting instead for common recycling bins and paper shredders in designated areas around the office. The idea is to get employees out of their seats to walk to the bins, which keeps them active and fosters interaction among staff, says Ong. The office is also wired for hot-desking so staff can work from anywhere.
These design elements have paid off. Ong recalls that when the company was at Shaw Tower, during exit interviews, the physical work environment was always cited as a reason for leaving. “[At the new office], my staff feel happier so our retention rate is a lot higher,” she says.
The Edmund Tie office has adjustable desks for those who prefer standing while they work (Credit: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
Apart from Edmund Tie, Ong highlights, developers are also looking at how they can promote wellness within their spaces. At the same time, buyers are also becoming more discerning. As a result, developers are now fitting out commercial and residential projects outside the Central Area with features that one would typically find only in the prime areas.
“That’s become the new normal,” she says. “Developers actually think about how the occupiers use that space.”
In particular, this is a common theme in this year’s project submissions for EdgeProp Singapore Excellence Awards, Ong notes. Into its third year, the Awards benchmarks outstanding quality in property development. This is the second year that Ong is serving as a judge on the panel.
Learning through mistakes
Whether it is sustainable land use or designing for wellness, Ong observes that the common denominator is putting people first: When it comes to real estate, not everything can be directly translated into dollars and cents.
“If you do good, you’re actually brand-building. People trust your brand, that you are client-focused and that you are aligned with them,” she explains.
In addition to providing a better work environment, Ong hopes to strengthen Edmund Tie by nurturing the company’s next generation of leaders. To do this, she fosters a safe environment for staff to innovate by giving them opportunities to try new ideas and accepting that people make mistakes.
“If you don’t make mistakes, you’ll never have the courage to innovate. Of course, this is a calculated risk,” she says. “Sometimes it’s very painful when you know that it is not quite the right thing to do, but you have to let people experiment and come to their own conclusions.”
To her, learning is not restricted to a top-down approach. Instead, Ong is always happy to learn from her staff. “It’s not just the older people mentoring their juniors, but it is also the juniors and young people mentoring me,” she observes.
Ong reveals that she owes much of her career success to mentors who took a chance on her. She vividly remembers her first job as a valuer, when she was tasked to assess the value of a cold store in Pasir Panjang. She was stumped. As part of her studies, she had learned that there are three methods of valuation – comparable, income and cost. However, she could not apply any of these methods as there was not enough information and data. She then turned to her mentor and industry expert, MH Goh of MH Goh, Tan & Partners (now Colliers International), who gave her the guidance she needed to complete the valuation.
Ong also remembers Douglas Hiorns, the late general manager of Bukit Sembawang, who granted her an interview when she was researching her dissertation for graduate school. She had written letters to developers requesting interviews with them but only Hiorns responded. “I was a nobody…and he granted me the interview,” she says. “I will never forget his kindness to me.”
Now, Ong wants to pay it forward. “There’s always an opportunity to give back, and you must not be afraid to share with people,” she says. “Real estate is not about bricks and mortar. Ultimately, real estate is about people and we are in an amazing industry where we can make a difference, one step at a time.”
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