As a recipient of the inaugural Goh Chok Tong Enable Award, Michael Ngu, Chief Executive Officer of award-winning firm Architects61, shares why collaboration among countries can create better societies, especially for the disabled and marginalised communities.
BY Shweta Parida
s a differently abled architect, Singaporean Michael Ngu has not had an easy start in life. When polio struck him at the age of five, he did not want to become one among what he calls the “forgotten community”. Through sheer grit, and an innate ability to establish a connection with people – both in the social and corporate environment – 62-year-old Ngu has not only overcome the challenges that people with disabilities face constantly but also become a role model for the community with his “can do” approach.
Starting his career as an architect in the New York-based firm of Pritzker Laureate, the late I.M. Pei, Ngu worked closely with his mentor for 10 years before moving on to pursue opportunities in Australia. He eventually came to Singapore to work with Architects61. In the past 30 years since taking over the reins of the firm, the architect has won many awards and accolades for his work. As an avid hand-cycling enthusiast, he believes in living life to the fullest and that disability should not determine a person’s fate. This approach saw him being honoured with the first Goh Chok Tong Enable Award, given to exceptionally inspiring people in the disabled community for their achievements.
1. How important is it for Singapore as a small nation to build strong international relations, trust and friendships with other countries? How can we do this in areas of specialised knowledge, such as urban planning?
Forging relations with global economies is crucial for Singapore, not only from a trade perspective but because our global outreach reflects our cosmopolitanism. This outlook has helped us make inroads into new regions. As a result, Singapore is the most competitive nation in the world according to the 2019 Global Competitiveness Report by the World Economic Forum.
We have created a strong brand name on the back of the capabilities of homegrown companies. My firm has had the privilege to be involved in the Suzhou Industrial Park project in China. Another example is the World Cities Summit, a brainchild of Centre for Liveable Cities – a local agency that addresses emerging urban challenges, and shares its findings with global urban experts and authorities for a common goal – to improve lives.
2. How has your work in countries around the world shaped your perception of the global community, and what prompted these communities to work with a Singapore firm? What are some of the mutual cultural takeaways?
As an urban architect, my role is to bring out the uniqueness of a city’s positioning. This has given me the opportunity to witness first-hand local culture, taboos, talents and government processes. From years of working with culturally diverse countries including China, India, the UAE, Malaysia, and Qatar, it is evident to me they are not only enthusiastic about learning from Singapore’s success stories but also have a high regard for its urban image. For example, I used to be a critic of China but through my recent interactions, I have learnt that while they may not have the kind of structure we are used to, they have a can-do attitude, which is essential for entrepreneurs. They are warm and gracious people, as are the Indians, who are very hospitable towards guests.
They also believe that Singapore firms can deliver in diverse sectors. There is tremendous trust placed in our system by the international community. This reputation rests on our proven results, but we cannot rest on our past laurels and must continuously deliver.
“ There were doubts in my ability as a leader to deliver the projects. Over the course of time, I developed a personality that masks my physical conditions and compensates for my disability. ”
3. Do you think it is important for Singaporeans to have a more global outlook and to engage with international communities ?
Having studied, lived and worked in several countries such as Australia, the US and Singapore – I feel it is crucial for Singaporeans to be “global citizens”. In an increasingly “flat and borderless” world, we need more diversity, creativity and open-mindedness to solve ongoing challenges like political turmoil, extremism, ageing and climate change impact. Embracing a cosmopolitan outlook will not only enrich us and make us appreciate our own identity, but also guide us in how we envisage our future in the current global context.
4. As a Singaporean architect, how do you envisage playing the role of a global citizen to help improve lives beyond our borders?
The role of a global citizen must include some volunteering work in our neighbouring and other developing nations. Knowledge exchange is another area where we can actively contribute our skills and experiences. For instance, Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority (BCA) launched the Green Mark initiative, a benchmarking scheme that incorporates internationally recognised best practices in environmental design and performance. Many countries have taken note of our stride towards sustainability. For instance, I’ve been invited by the Australian Trade Commission to share our work processes. I’m also planning to develop similar initiatives in Laos and Cambodia as they will be the next generation of Asean economies.
5. While Singapore has been described as fairly successful in urban planning, what can our architects and city planners learn from other nations that can help to raise the standard of our built environment, while considering different socio-cultural dynamics?
Besides being an urban architect, I am also in the unique position of being able to speak on behalf of the disabled community and senior citizens in Singapore. We still have a lot to learn from the Nordic countries, South Korea and Australia in terms of the built environment for the less privileged.
I was pleasantly surprised during my recent trip to Busan in South Korea that I was able to take my electric scooter all the way to the beach, stopping just five metres from the water. It was an innovative yet simple solution: All they did was lay down a strip of sturdy mats on the beach for those using wheelchairs and prams. It was a pleasant experience for me to be able to go so close to the water. In the UK and Japan, the public buses have a pneumaticlowering feature coupled with auto-ramp and lower platform for travellers with limited mobility such as the disabled and elderly.
6. What are some of the current social issues that impact societies, and how do they influence the heart and soul of cities?
Some of the discernible issues include an ageing population, new immigrants, and vastly differing socio-cultural milieu due to the mindset gap between Millennials and the older generations. I reckon our urban planning, such as multi-modal transportation infrastructure and public spaces, will need to keep pace with the needs of the ageing population. More importantly, our sociopsychological attitude towards the elderly needs to change.
In this regard, Singapore has done rather well through initiatives such as active ageing movement to ensure that the senior citizens do not feel alienated and live a more meaningful life.
7. To this end, what role do you think cities can play in promoting friendship and international cooperation between global communities as the world becomes more connected?
The 21st century is a tremendously exciting time due to the slew of valuable innovations for the greater good. At the same time, the geo-politics at play between the world’s largest economies also makes this era a tumultuous one.
Cities worldwide will have to step up and play a bigger role and, hopefully, reduce the political element with knowledge sharing and culture promotion. We are already seeing the concept of “Sister Cities” collaboration – a post-Cold War era non-profit citizen diplomacy network that strengthens partnerships among more than 2,000 cities in over 140 countries around the world – being propagated with more enthusiasm. It encourages art and cultural exchanges, educational programmes, sustainable development and humanitarian aid. For example, some of our twin cities are Jakarta, Johor Bahru and Batam. These partnerships lead to closer bonds among like-minded cities beyond the realm of country-to-country politics.
“ Cities worldwide will have to step up and play a bigger role and, hopefully, reduce the political element with knowledge sharing and culture promotion. These partnerships lead to closer bonds among like-minded cities beyond the realm of government-togovernment politics. ”
8. How does being a Singaporean influence your work, ethics and point of view on not only architecture but also international affairs?
We started out as a small country with limited natural resources. With the great foresight that our late founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, and the pioneer generation leaders had, we have been able to win global respect. I think this is the core of every Singaporean’s being – whether born here or naturalised like myself.
As most of us or our forefathers were immigrants at some point in time, we have inculcated a work ethic that has become ingrained in our society. As such, fairness, integrity and cultural awareness are some of our strengths that manifest in our international relations.
What are some of the challenges you have faced as a differently abled architect working in an international practice, and how have you come to navigate through and overcome them?
Growing up, I learnt very early on that I’ve to pick myself up – figuratively – and achieve something in life. When I came to Singapore and joined Architects61, founded by Tay Lee Soon and Yang Soo Suan, I was fortunate that they had no qualms about taking me under their wings.
But the first five years were a challenge. I faced a lot of stereotypes and name-calling by industry people. There were doubts in my ability as a leader to deliver the projects. Over the course of time, I developed a personality that masks my physical conditions and compensates for my disability. I’m passionate about handcycling, and have been participating in competitions and undertaking trips to raise money for various non-profit organisations. The fact that I can do something that I love doing while helping others makes me feel empowered despite my handicap.
10. In your opinion, is Singapore doing enough to build an inclusive society?
What are the key challenges we must continue to overcome, and what are the next steps moving forward?
We have been successful in building an inclusive society to a large extent but there is plenty more to do. For example, while we have good public transport, our buses do not allow people in wheelchairs to be self-reliant while boarding. This can be changed by using better technology.
An inclusive society in terms of the built environment requires three things: hard infrastructure, which includes roads, public transportation and community buildings; soft infrastructure, which is the trained workforce; and finally, government policies that embed inclusivity into our education system.
We need to nurture a culture that is hardwired to embrace inclusivity. It is increasingly becoming better and both public and private sectors have put practices in place that do not differentiate between the able-bodied and the disabled or elderly. But ours is a young and diverse country and we have a long way to go in making inclusivity a norm and not an exception. A coordinated approach by the public, private and people sectors may be the most effective in shaping a society that is gracious by nature, not by the force of law.
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