Khew Sin Khoon: ‘Butterfly Man’ and sustainability advocate

SINGAPORE (EDGEPROP) - President and group CEO of CPG Corp, Khew Sin Khoon, is known in some circles as the “Butterfly Man” owing to his avid interest in the insect which began when he was a boy. He enjoys going deep into the nature reserves of Singapore or trekking in the jungles of Malaysia, camera in hand, hoping to photograph a rare species. Recently, he was up in the mountains and forest reserves of Chiang Mai in Thailand, with his fellow butterfly enthusiasts. “We were hunting for butterflies,” he says.


Khew: Sustainability is at the core of what we do here – sustainable building designs and greening projects (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)


Khew even started an online group, ButterflyCircle, in 2006, and maintains a blog on the study of butterflies. He pioneered free-ranging butterfly trails at Alexandra Hospital, Butterfly Hill at Pulau Ubin, Butterfly Garden at Hort- Park, as well as other trails at park connectors and urban gardens.

His love of butterflies has also led him to author numerous articles and weighty compendiums such as A Field Guide to the Butterflies of Singapore (2010) and its second edition published in 2015; and the Butterfly section in the Singapore Red Data Book 2008. He also co-authored Caterpillars of Singapore’s Butterflies (2012). Many photographs in the books were shot and curated by Khew himself.

Butterflies may look fragile, but “they are pretty tenacious and adapt very well to climate change. They are insects after all”, Khew says. He recalls a science fiction movie he had watched that has stuck with him over the years: “The premise was that after the human race is extinct, insects will rule the world.”


His love of butterflies has also led him to author numerous articles and weighty compendiums such as A Field Guide to the Butterflies of Singapore (2010) and its second edition published in 2015 (pictured)


Sustainable workplace     

Butterflies are not the only things that Khew is interested in. He is also an advocate of nature nature conservation and sustainability. And he believes it ought to begin with his own office. Almost two years ago, CPG moved from 80,000 sq ft at Novena Square to the same square footage across five floors at Westgate Tower in Jurong East.

At Novena Square, they had to throw out all their office chairs when they moved. “We weren’t green in that respect,” he concedes. “Even the carpet had to be stripped off and discarded when we had to renovate the office at Novena Square back to its original condition.”

The only consolation was that the glass panels from the Novena Square office could be resized and recycled to fit the new office in Westgate Tower.

Khew reckons this is a phenomenon that happens across Singapore. “Every office-occupier that moves into new premises will renovate and throw out a lot of things in their old office,” he says.

This may be why for the new office, Khew decided to splurge on Herman Miller Sayl ergonomic chairs, which retail at $1,473 apiece, according to With 1,000 staff in Singapore, that meant purchasing 1,000 of these chairs. However, Khew says they are likely to last at least 10 years.

This year, CPG’s office at Westgate Tower won the Green Mark Gold Plus Award for occupant- centric schemes. “Sustainability is at the core of what we do here – sustainable building designs and greening projects,” says Khew.

Reflecting that ethos, the CPG office at Westgate Tower has a mossy green feature wall, indoor hanging plants, clusters of potted plants and terrariums of various shapes and sizes. “I’m also an advocate of plants,” he says. “It makes the office environment more liveable and conducive for creative work.”


CPG was involved in the Singapore Botanic Gardens master plan, East Coast Lagoon Food Village, Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve (pictured) and Chek Jawa Wetlands in Pulau Ubin (Photo: CPG Corp)


Evolution from Public Works and Convicts Department     

CPG is able to trace its history back 180 years when it started as the Public Works and Convicts Department in 1833. It became the Public Works Department (PWD) of Singapore in 1946. PWD was a department of the Ministry of National Development (MND) until its corporatisation in April 1999, when it became a government- linked entity under Temasek Holdings.

The most significant milestone for CPG was the corporatisation, reckons Khew. That meant a change from being in the civil service to a corporate entity, and competing for projects like everyone else. “But many civil servants felt, ‘Why should I leap into the unknown where I don’t know whether I would survive or not?’” says Khew.

Of the 1,200 staff at PWD then, only 555 people crossed over to the corporatised entity. Khew was one of those who made that leap.

In 2002, PWD Corp was renamed CPG Corp and a year later, Temasek Holdings sold it to Australia’s public infrastructure company, Downer EDI (now Downer Group), for $131 million. Downer Group in turn sold CPG in 2012 to Chinese state-owned enterprise, China Architecture Design and Research Group, which is also an architecture and design institute.

Throughout all these changes, Khew, who joined PWD in 1984 armed with a degree in architecture from National University of Singapore, stayed the course. “The journey has been very interesting,” he says. “Rather than resigning, like most people do if they want a change of environment, I stayed on; and the environment around me kept changing.”


Singaporean architect Timothy Seow of CPG Consultants designed the NTU School of Art, Design & Media (Photo: CPG Corp)


‘Singaporean’ at its core     

Under Khew’s leadership, CPG has become a leading professional firm in building, infrastructure, management, architectural design and master planning services. The firm has 2,000 staff today, with offices in China, India, Dubai, Macau and Vietnam. The headquarters is in Singapore. “CPG is still Singaporean in terms of its core values,” says Khew. “And we market ourselves as a Singapore firm.”

In Singapore, CPG was involved in public conservation projects such as the Central Fire Station, the Asian Civilisations Museum and the National Museum of Singapore; and educational institutions including Nanyang Technological University School of Art, Design & Media – where Timothy Seow of CPG Consultants was the design architect – and NTU Learning Hub, which was designed by British architect Thomas Heatherwick.

CPG also had a hand in almost all the general hospitals in Singapore, from Tan Tock Seng Hospital to Khoo Teck Puat Hospital in Yishun, Ng Teng Fong General Hospital and Jurong Community Hospital in Jurong East.


The National Gallery project was a collaboration with Jean Francois Milou of studioMilou (Photo: CPG Corp)


Working with international designers     

Some significant projects in Singapore that CPG was involved in over the past decade include Changi Airport Terminals 1, 2 and 3; Gardens by the Bay; the new Supreme Court Building; as well as the transformation of the former Supreme Court and City Hall into the National Gallery of Singapore.

For Khew, it was a great opportunity for CPG to work with international design firms. For instance, at Gardens by the Bay, the firm worked with landscape architects Grant Associates and architectural firm Wilkinson Eyre Architect. Both are UK-based.

During the construction period, there were a few heated debates with the architects from the UK over drains. Instead of the undersized drains proposed, CPG’s architects proposed higher capacity drains. “We had to bring them up to date about our climate, because we are in the tropics,” says Khew. “We know what it can be like during a heavy downpour.”

Another challenge was moving 12 giant African Baobab trees into the Flower Dome, the larger of the two domes at Gardens by the Bay. “Because of the height of the trees, you can’t put them in small trucks,” relates Khew. “They were put on a flatbed container trailers and moved at 4am, with traffic police guiding the vehicles. We had to plan the route carefully so that the container trailers could navigate and bring the plants in.”


The new Supreme Court building designed by Foster + Partners gave CPG an opportunity to work with the famous British Norman Foster (Photo: CPG Corp)


For the new Supreme Court building with the “flying saucer” at the top, it was an opportunity for CPG to work with British architect Norman Foster of Foster + Partners. Foster had proposed using sandstone floor tiles, which he had used for the British Museum. “But we were concerned that given Singapore’s climate, it could be too humid, and there could be stains and this could cause maintenance nightmares for our clients,” recalls Khew.

Another concern was over plants. When the Supreme Court was finished, Khew had suggested putting in some plants in the main atrium. But Foster felt that the building design was already complete without them. “It was interesting,” says Khew. After the grand opening, the plants were added.

The National Gallery project was a collaboration with Jean Francois Milou of studioMilou. For Khew, what was interesting was “the psychology of space – the dome of the former Supreme Court building, the high ceilings of the City Hall”.


CPG was involved in the design the Interpol Global Complex for Innovation on Napier Road (Photo: CPG Corp)


‘Quirky building’     

A quirky, curved building that CPG was involved in designing was the Interpol Global Complex for Innovation on Napier Road, which was completed in 2014. It serves as the international police headquarters in the “Far East”, says Khew. It is also where its first digital crime centre and R&D facility are located.

The complex is located on the site of the former Tanglin Police Station, and opposite the US Embassy, with the British High Commission and the Chinese embassy further up on Tanglin Road. “The sad part was that after we handed over the Interpol building, my architect says we can’t go into the secure parts of the building anymore,” says Khew.

Having been personally involved in the design of Changi Prison – both the men’s and women’s complex – Khew understands what it is like being in a building with tight security. He even spent several hours in a prison cell to experience what it was like.

“When watching shows on prisons, two things that don’t come across onscreen are the human odour because of the terrible ventilation; and the noise, the ‘bam’ that echoes on when they slam the doors. Everything is hard and ‘echoey’ because of the solid walls and the tiny windows high up near the ceiling,” he describes.

The conventional wisdom of having windows out of reach was to prevent prisoners from hanging themselves. “But when we visited the prisons in the US and Europe, they showed us how an inmate can hang himself off the back of a chair or a door handle,” says Khew.

Therefore, when Khew designed the prison at Tanah Merah, he brought the barred windows down to eye level. “They increased ventilation superbly and nobody hanged themselves,” he says.

As no fans were allowed within the cells, mechanical ventilation was used in the corridors. “We blow air into the corridor so it can go into the cells and escape through the windows,” explains Khew. “That helps circulate the air and it’s much better.”


The first phase of Jurong Lake Gardens was designed by CPG (Photo: CPG Corp)


Being green     

Khew is also a board member of URA. “I generally try to get myself involved in the green and environmental aspects,” he says. He feels that these are important, especially for the master plan of big growth areas, for instance the development of residential apartments on the former Keppel Golf Club site and the Tengah area, which is going to be a new HDB “forest town” the size of Bishan.

“I think, today, the government agencies are more sensitive to such environmental issues and how they affect our overall liveability in Singapore,” he says.

Being a nature conservationist, Khew – and CPG – was involved in the Singapore Botanic Gardens master plan, East Coast Lagoon Food Village, Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve and Chek Jawa Wetlands in Pulau Ubin.

CPG also won the tender for the first phase of Jurong Lake Gardens, which comprises Lakeside Garden, Chinese and Japanese Gardens. The first phase of Jurong Lake Gardens is the 53ha Lakeside Gardens, which opened in April this year.

It looks like Khew will have more places in Singapore to hunt for butterflies.


Update: An earlier version of this story attributed Sengkang Hospital to CPG Group. This is incorrect and has been amended.


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