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Secret to success is hard work and education, says pioneering architect Albert Hong

In a rare interview, prominent architect Albert Hong tells The Peak why his proudest achievement is not about the landmarks he’s built.

The name “Albert Hong” is synonymous with many landmarks in Singapore, as well as breakthroughs in the architecture industry. In a career spanning six decades, the chairman of RSP Architects Planners & Engineers was behind many iconic buildings including Straits Trading, Clifford Centre, Republic Plaza, the Singapore Indoor Stadium, Tung Centre, the MAS Building and Bayshore Park condominium.

  • The Singapore Indoor Stadium (pictured) and Tung Centre – both spearheaded by Albert Hong – were based on designs that were ahead of their time.

The list of awards given to him – Public Service Star in 1980 for his contributions to public housing, Businessman of the Year at the 1994 Singapore Business Awards, 2015 SG50 Outstanding Chinese Business Pioneer – bears testimony to his illustrious life.

But behind the glitz and glamour, Hong makes it clear that the two most important ingredients in his success story are hard work and education. That is also the message he wants to convey in his autobiography, Dare to be Different: The Albert Hong Story, which was released three months ago.

The sprightly 81-year-old tells The Peak in his office at Thong Teck Building: “My professor at the Birmingham College of Art (now known as the University of Central England) told me that architecture is 90 per cent sweat and 10 per cent luck. Hard work and sweat are the foundations of success. Today, I’m afraid to say that the young people don’t stay at one office long enough. They are always looking for returns. That’s not the way to build a career. You find a good firm, stick to it and build it up. When I joined RSP in 1964, we had only 16 staff . Today, we have 1,400 staff (400 in Singapore), with 14 offices globally.

“I grew up during the Japanese Occupation and my family and I suffered tremendously. But I was fortunate that my mother saw the value of education. All I had was a one-way ticket to London to study architecture, and I supported myself throughout my student life, including working at an ice-cream factory. I worked hard to establish myself in Singapore and grow RSP from scratch.”

Which is why the grandfather of two has donated millions of dollars to education over the years, usually anonymously. He detests the vanity of publicity, as he feels that “charity should be given from the heart, not for fame”. When he does offer scholarships – doctors, journalists and lawyers have been beneficiaries – there are no bonds to serve. Instead, Hong asks for only one thing in return: come back to Singapore to serve the community with a willing heart.

“I have received much in life and I am always conscious that I must give back. Education moulds young people, and for those without the financial means, it is their best hope for a better life. Education was all I had in life.”

BEYOND THE DISCIPLINE

Hong is not one to mince his words. He speaks his mind because he says he has “nothing to hide”. “Life is actually very simple but we make it complicated. One must be frank and fair, don’t criticise for the sake of it. Speak up for what you believe in.”

That is why as president of the Singapore Institute of Architects (SIA) in the mid-1970s, he pushed for a change in the way architectural training was conducted at the National University of Singapore, which he felt was “too philosophical, too theoretical and too intellectual” at the time. In the late 1970s, other disciplines such as interior design and construction management were added to the course. Hong was named SIA’s First Patron in 2014.

For over 10 years, he advocated the need for a second school of architecture in Singapore for diversity. This materialised when the Singapore University of Technology and Design opened in 2009. Still, he thinks the syllabus can be improved and is suggesting the addition of accountancy to the curriculum.

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The Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD).

“I have always strongly advocated that architecture students should be taught more business administration skills and read accounts. As part of industry experience, architects must get involved in the running of business. Architects must be more multi-disciplinary and more entrepreneurial,” he says. “What I don’t know, I ask. Having been appointed to be on other boards (including Housing & Development Board; Hong Leong Group; and Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, now known as Mediacorp), I try to attend their board meetings and learn from their operations and experiences. I learnt a lot from my wife who was an accountant. Architects must be open to lifelong learning to succeed in this competitive industry and difficult economy.

“The public recognition that I have received is due to my ability to think as an entrepreneur, as a business leader, rather than due to my status as a pure architect. I have always seen my primary role as bringing business to RSP and running the firm well. Only on that basis is it possible to employ good architects and pay them well.”

He also believes that architectural firms with a multi-disciplinary corporate practice would have a competitive edge over overseas counterparts and lobbied for nearly 20 years for regulatory changes to allow architects to partner other professional services, including engineering. This came to fruition in 1991, with the revised Architects Act.

NO STOPPING

Even though he was struck with a near-fatal bout of pneumonia in 2013, Hong shows no signs of slowing down. “Retirement is not in the picture, as long as I am physically able to get up and go into the office.”

Despite his numerous achievements, Hong has not forgotten his staff ’s contributions. Three months ago, he gave them a hongbao out of his own pocket – he declined to reveal the amount – to recognise their efforts.

“I’ve always believed in helping staff , not shareholders. Many of them have served us very well, in bad and good times. It’s the architects’ staff who help build the firm through hard work, for which I rewarded them. I don’t want them to be grateful to me. I want them to feel that they are part of RSP.”

He is also planning to set up a foundation for the less privileged who seek a scholarship. And true to his modest nature, it won’t be called the Albert Hong Foundation. Hong says: “It’s not a publicity exercise.”

Published by World Scientific Publishing, Dare to be Different: The Albert Hong Story is available at bookstores.

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