From ‘Aviation museum better way to honour Mr Lee’, 13 April 2015, article by Karamjit Kaur, ST
AN ONLINE petition for Changi Airport to be renamed Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) International Airport has garnered nearly 12,500 signatures over four days. The list is with Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew, who said he would bring the matter up with the Government, according to the petition organiser, who goes by the moniker “Remembering LKY”.
When Parliament sits today, Dr Lily Neo (Tanjong Pagar GRC) and Mr Ang Wei Neng (Jurong GRC) will ask Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to consider renaming the airport after Mr Lee.
In a recent tribute to Mr Lee, who died at 91 on March 23, Changi Airport Group chairman Liew Mun Leong said: “Changi Airport was his baby, and it has become an icon. Mr Lee Kuan Yew was truly the Father of Changi Airport.” So should the airport take his name?
While the petitioners have good intentions in honouring his legacy in this way, it might not be the best way to recognise his contributions. Make no mistake – without Mr Lee, there would be no Changi Airport. He was the one who pushed for the airport’s move from Paya Lebar to Changi, even though foreign experts disagreed. He foresaw that an airport on the coast would allow room for expansion towards the sea and would direct noise away from the city.
…To take away the name would undo, to some extent, the hard work put in over the past 34 years to build up this reputation. Indeed, one could argue it would diminish the legacy that Mr Lee has left behind. One middle-ground option that could be considered without removing Changi’s brand name would be to rename it Lee Kuan Yew Changi Airport.
The petitioners, who had hoped to go a step further by changing its airport code from SIN to LKY will be disappointed to learn that LKY is already being used by Lake Manyara Airport in Tanzania, Africa.
Well, without LKY, Singapore as we know it today would not exist. Should we rename Singapore to ‘Leekuanyew’ then? But let’s take a few steps back in our aviation history and examine the development of Changi Airport, and whether it’s true that it would not have existed if not for LKY’s calculated risk of abandoning Paya Lebar and going for broke. Along the way, expect to see the forgotten names of some unsung heroes, and unlikely naysayers. To the petitioners I say this: Read up your history before jumping on the petition bandwagon.
In the beginning, there were mangrove swamps and virgin forests on the north-eastern coast of Singapore, save for a sleepy fishing village and a couple of buildings. The serendipity of war led to the initial development of Changi into a state-of-the-art military base by the British in 1942. A year later when the Japanese invaded, POWs were forced to build two airstrips for Japanese fighters to defend Singapore. After the war ended, the Royal Air Force took over until the British withdrew from the island in 1967. If it weren’t for these invading foreigners, Changi would have remained a backwater marshland, nevermind how much blood has been spilled into its surrounding waters.
It wasn’t long before a debate ignited between the two sites, with the Singapore Planning and Urban Research Group (SPUR) recommending Changi over Paya Lebar due to noise concerns for the latter. SPUR consisted of architects and planners from both private and public sectors, including Tay Kheng Soon and William Lim. A Polish town planner named Krystyn Olszewski made the same recommendation in 1971, citing health hazards of having a busy airport in the heart of the city. One disapproving voice against the writing off of 150 million dollars invested in the current airport was Perm Sec Ngiam Tong Dow, who didn’t buy the noise argument. If LKY had listened to the man, the proposal would have its wings clipped, and Changi would today be synonymous with nothing other than an airforce camp, chalets for BBQs and fishing, a haunted hospital, and anyone living around Paya Lebar would need MediShield to cover ruptured eardrums.
1974 brought the first oil shock and slowed the growth of air traffic, and given the delay in building a second runway at Paya Lebar, LKY took the chance to seriously consider an alternative aviation hub and take the ‘$1 billion gamble’, but not without hearing others out. One man who ‘pushed very hard’ for Changi was then Head of Civil Service and future Minister of Defence Howe Yoon Chong, whom LKY referred to as a ‘bulldozer’. Howe and his Special Committee on Airport Development team did a final re-appraisal and concluded that Changi was the future of civil aviation. In fact, in PM Lee’s eulogy of the man, not only was his ‘vision and tireless energy’ acknowledged, but it was Howe who proved Goh Keng Swee wrong when he insisted that the MRT, and not an all-bus system, was the future of public transport.
The dirty work of running the project after Cabinet approved of the shift fell to Sim Kee Boon, who had the unenviable task of coordinating various agencies to turn a shabby military airbase into one of the finest airports the world has ever known. In Ong Teng Cheong’s opening ceremony speech in 1981, he expressed gratitude to everyone involved in the project, Howe, Sim, down to the contractors and sub-contractors. Well, everyone, except a certain Lee Kuan Yew.
And the rest, as they say, is history. Except that with LKY’s passing, his role in the making of Changi Airport has been, rather predictably, exaggerated. It was a series of fortunate, and unfortunate, events (the War, oil crisis), and the foresight and toil of other people, not just LKY, that led to the materialisation of the dream airport that we’ve become so proud of. In fact, if we were to rename Changi Airport to LKY Airport, it would diminish not just the man’s greatness, but those who contributed so much of their lives to make Changi what it is today. Let there be an aviation museum if you will, but let’s celebrate not just LKY but the people behind the scenes, criminally omitted from our history textbooks, without whom Changi Airport would remain a mere flight of fancy.