Straits Construction Singapore is futureproofing itself and the industry by investing in innovation, an approach that has seen it deliver a stream of award-winning projects
Writer: Tom Wadlow
Project Manager: Tom Cullum
Reaching 50 years not out is no mean feat for any company.
In an ever-globalised world where economic cycles of boom and bust reverberate across borders, it is more important than ever for businesses to safeguard their futures by forecasting trends and investing wisely.
The construction industry is one of the most prone to these economic mood swings, and Straits Construction Singapore has ridden through numerous cycles over the past five decades.
“Straits Construction started in 1969 as a small contracting firm and evolved to become one of the leading local players in the Singapore construction sector,” explains current Group Managing Director and CEO Wong Chee Herng.
“From the early boom of public housing development in the 1980s to the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s and the more recent global financial crisis in 2008, the organisation has come through boom and bust thanks to an ethos that is very much reflected in our five core values – integrity, progress, passion, positivity and support.
“We have never stopped to renew to stay relevant. Our 50th birthday will be a milestone and is testament to our beliefs. More importantly, it will give us a solid base to push into the future.”
The immediate future, by Chee Herng’s own admission, involves navigating something of a headwind.
Singapore’s construction sector is currently emerging from a three-year downturn, but the Group MD and CEO is optimistic that this trend will continue upwards with strong growth restored once more.
“The construction industry, like many others, is undergoing transformation,” Chee Herng adds. “No longer is low productivity with high labour content acceptable. It is excitable that we are part of the transformation and we look forward to contributing to it.”
Straits Construction has already played its part in transforming Singapore’s industrial practices.
Indeed, this opportunity to enact change was a key motivator for Chee Herng to join as the second generation in the family business.
“I spent many school holidays temping at construction work sites,” he recalls. “The work environment was not conducive – it was dirty and unsafe. Upon graduation, I thought I could help to change some of the unfavourable impressions of the industry.
“This is not forgetting the satisfaction of seeing something evolve from an empty piece of land to completed buildings, and these beliefs have been reinforced by witnessing positive sector changes and how Straits Construction has grown as part of this evolution.”
Although the company’s project pipeline may be slightly smaller than what it saw during its peak before the sector contracted, it remains busy with numerous tenders in both the public and private spheres thanks to its investment in diversifying capabilities.
“The project I am most proud of working on at the moment is Royal Square @ Novena,” says Chee Herng. “It is our first mixed commercial project which comprises retail spaces, medical suites and a 250-room hotel. It marks an important milestone in our company history to venture out from residential projects.”
The development, which has received a CONQUAS Star rating and Building and Construction Authority (BCA) Green Mark Platinum award, saw Straits Construction overcome several challenging aspects, including a narrow land plot, deep excavations, limited frontage access and high ceiling requirements.
It is one of a number of recent projects demonstrating the company’s newly diverse portfolio that features the likes of industrial precincts and educational buildings alongside its staple residential offering.
“We believe customer satisfaction is the key factor for our success,” says Chee Herng. “We focus on delivery of quality end products to our customers, and our completed projects have consistently achieved higher CONQUAS scores than the national average. Almost all our recent completed projects were awarded with CONQUAS Star certification.”
Besides measuring the quality of architectural, structural and MEP services workmanship against an acceptable baseline, CONQUAS also publishes the results for all construction projects in Singapore. Builders are thus able to evaluate their performance against the industry average and therefore develop improvement programmes to better their results in subsequent projects.
The other factor that differentiates Straits Construction, in the eyes of Chee Herng, is the company’s belief in technology and digital transformation and the role this has in boosting construction productivity.
For example, Straits has invested heavily in setting up a highly automated precast prefabrication plant for both structure elements and prefabricated bathroom units, making it a regional pioneer and hub for futurist construction techniques.
The incorporation of Greyform and completion of the Integrated Construction and Prefabrication Hub took place in 2017 has enabled Straits Construction to become a major supplier of precast components to the industry, greatly enhancing its efficiency and competitiveness.
In terms of supplying the hub, Straits, as with the entire Singaporean construction industry, relies on imports.
“Greyform has opened another precast fabrication plant in Johor Bahru to supplement the automated plant in Singapore,” says Chee Herng.
“We are constantly on the lookout to diversify the source of supply in order not be caught off-guard by geo-political risk. In fact, we have previously brought in engineered timber flooring from Switzerland.”
Asides the prefabrication plant, other innovative solutions utilised by the firm include software such as Lean PlanDo, a planning and process optimising tool for project management, and drones to take aerial photos for monthly progress reports. Further, it employs extensive web-based applications for management of safety, quality and materials across multiple platforms, including mobile devices.
Building information modelling (BIM) is another core technique used by the company.
“The push for higher quality and productivity using technologies in our industry has made BIM mainstream for our projects,” comments Chee Herng.
“In other words, the way we do business has been transformed by embracing this platform. Our journey with BIM has also taught us that to be successful here, we must also remain mindful of new trends, and be ready to adapt when necessary.”
Straits Construction’s innovation centre enables the company to do just that.
Set up in 2015 and known as TOOLBOX, this centre of excellence supports capabilities development, such as the use of construction equipment and technology, safety training and software.
“We also involve external parties such as institutions, research centres and collaborative companies who share the same interest,” Chee Herng adds. “Technically, there are no boundaries as long as these R&D works can be translated to gains for the organisation (or the industry) in the long haul.”
Straits Construction staff are major beneficiaries of the TOOLBOX innovation centre, a resource which is supplemented by a dedicated Learning and Development Department.
“We provide in-house training courses and scout for suitable external courses for our team,” says Chee Herng. “The courses include English lessons for non-English speaking personnel, BIM courses, drone operation courses, project management software and other skillsets.
“We view our staff as valuable assets, and training is a way to keep our staff relevant and build up capabilities to adapt to changes in the evolving environment in the construction industry.”
This attitude is reflected in the company’s approach to recruitment.
“To attract and retain the right talent to achieve business objectives, we adopt clear and transparent career progression paths,” Chee Herng continues. “Passive and active recruitment through traditional and digital platforms enable us to access the right talent pool.
“We conduct recruitment locally and overseas, working with the BCA for scholarships and sponsorships for tertiary students and also with Singapore’s Institute of Technical Education.”
Another vital aspect of employee welfare is an uncompromising stance on safety, with Straits Construction operating a thorough work safety and health programme through regular training, inspections and innovative use of technology.
The value of this is no better proven than by receipt of the RoSPA (UK) Gold Award for Occupational Health and Safety on many projects.
“We value our employees and those engaged in our works,” Chee Herng adds. “Their welfare and wellbeing are our utmost concern and we show this by instituting a strong safety and health culture throughout the entire corporation. We have a clear commitment and responsibility in ensuring no harm to all by implementing comprehensive safety and health management systems.”
Employees are also encouraged to partake in community outreach projects, the most potent example being Straits Construction’s support of Club Rainbow (Singapore).
This non-profit charity organisation supports children who are suffering from chronic and potentially life-threatening illnesses.
It was established in 1991 when the Rotaract Clubs of Singapore collaborated to organise a special camp for children with various chronic conditions, the scale of the event’s success leading to the formation of a dedicated charity.
Club Rainbow (Singapore) has grown over the years, now providing emotional, informational, educational, social and financial support to more than 1,000 families.
“These children have to cope with their illnesses and its effects as they try to lead as close to a normal life as possible,” says Chee Herng. “Hand-in-hand with Club Rainbow, we organise outreach activities where our staff volunteer their time and talents to engage and uplift these children.”
An optimistic future
Established as a true corporate citizen in Singapore, Straits Construction is ready to emerge from the industry downturn stronger than it ever has been, both in terms of its contribution to landmark projects and the wider community of the city state.
The backdrop is also improving, and the BCA is bullish about the year ahead, outlining in its latest forecasts that construction demand is expected to remain strong due to sustained public sector contracts.
Last year an estimated $30.5 billion in contracts were awarded, a solid increase of 23 percent on 2017.
2019 is set to continue this trend, the BCA predicting somewhere in the region of $27-32 billion in contract value despite ongoing challenges such as the delay in construction of the high-speed rail link between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.
This leaves the likes of Chee Herng optimistic about the near future.
He concludes: “This year marks the golden jubilee anniversary for the company. We plan to go beyond what we have achieved thus far, and target to secure more challenging and complex projects in the coming years.”