Howe Yoon Chong

Howe Yoon Chong DUBC PJG (Chinese: 侯永昌; pinyin: Hóu Yǒngchāng; 12 August 1923 – 21 August 2007) was a Singaporean politician. He was a Minister in the Cabinet of Singapore and a member of parliament for Potong Pasir from 1979 to 1984. He was key in developing Singapore's infrastructural and financial framework, including the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system, Singapore Changi Airport and public housing. In 1984, during his term as Minister for Health, to address issues raised by a greying population, he made the controversial proposal to raise the age for the withdrawal of Central Provident Fund (CPF) savings from 55 to 60 years in order that Singaporeans might have more money to live on in their old age.

Howe Yoon Chong
Minister for Health
In office
1 June 1982 – 2 January 1985
Preceded byGoh Chok Tong
Succeeded byTony Tan
Minister for Defence
In office
12 February 1979 – 1 June 1982
Preceded byGoh Keng Swee
Succeeded byGoh Chok Tong
Member of Parliament
for Potong Pasir
In office
10 February 1979 – 4 December 1984
Preceded byBaptist Ivan Cuthbert (PAP)
Succeeded byChiam See Tong (SDP)
Personal details
Born(1923-08-12)12 August 1923
Died21 August 2007(2007-08-21) (aged 84)
Cause of deathStroke
Political partyPeople's Action Party (1979–1984)

Howe, who graduated from the University of Malaya in Singapore in 1953, also served as a senior civil servant, holding the posts of CEO of the Housing and Development Board (HDB) (1960–1970); Chairman of the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA), Permanent Secretary in the Prime Minister's Office and Head of the Singapore Civil Service (1975–1979); Minister of Defence (1979–1982); and Minister of Health (1982–1984).[1] In addition, he served as Chairman of the Development Bank of Singapore (DBS) (1970–1979, 1985–1990), Great Eastern Life Assurance (1992–2000) and The Straits Holding Company (1992–2007).

Early life and educationEdit

Born in Singapore on 12 August 1923 of Chinese origin,[2] Howe was the son of a liquor shop owner who migrated to Malacca, British Malaya.[3] Howe received his early education at St. Francis Institution in Malacca from 1933 to 1940, and was once a schoolmate of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew at Raffles Institution in Singapore.[4] He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts with Honours in Economics from the University of Malaya in Singapore (now the National University of Singapore) in 1953.

Civil service careerEdit

Howe worked in the civil service for almost thirty years. He began his career as a teacher, then was a broadcaster for a period before taking the post of an administrative officer in the British Colonial Secretariat. Later, Howe was appointed as a police magistrate and then secretary to Singapore's Public Service Commission.

In 1960, Howe became the first chief executive officer (CEO) of the Housing and Development Board (HDB). From 1970 to 1979, he was the chairman and President of the Development Bank of Singapore (DBS),[5] the first Chairman of the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA), the Permanent Secretary in the Prime Minister's Office, and the head of the Singapore Civil Service.

During his tenure as a senior civil servant, Howe played the leading role in several of Singapore's iconic infrastructural projects like the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT), Singapore Changi Airport and public housing.[6][7][8]

Known by his civil service's colleagues as a fierce, tough-talking man, Howe debated vehemently with former Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee over whether to build the MRT system in Singapore. Howe was strongly in favour of the MRT as the backbone of Singapore's public transport system, while Goh proposed a more economical all-bus alternative.

Howe fought strongly against the extension plans for a second runway at Paya Lebar Airport, and advocated the building of a new international airport in Changi.[9] This was despite the Cabinet's decision for the go-ahead in 1972, based on a British expert's report that it would cost less to expand Paya Lebar Airport and that there was not enough time to get Changi built up to meet increasing traffic needs. Howe gathered a team to reclaim land, widened and extended the old Royal Air Force airstrip to take Boeing 747s and build the terminal. In August 1981, operations stopped overnight at Paya Lebar Airport and restarted the next morning at Changi Airport. Howe's role in setting up Changi Airport won him credit in Lee Kuan Yew's memoirs.[10]

Howe also fast-tracked the public housing programme while serving as the HDB's CEO under then-chairman Lim Kim San in the early years, solving the chronic housing shortage in the 1960s.[3] He undertook the politically and technically arduous task of starting up Toa Payoh New Town, and faced organised opposition to the resettlement of Toa Payoh and the removal of squatters.[11] As Chairman of PSA, now known as PSA Corporation, Howe went against the advice of professionals to build Singapore's first container terminal in the early 1970s.[12]

Political careerEdit

Howe's first call to enter politics came as early as 1953 from Lee Kuan Yew, then a practising lawyer.[3] However, he declined Lee's invitation as he believed that Singapore needed civil servants in light of the repatriation of British forces during the post-World War II period.[4] In 1979, Howe was again persuaded by then Prime Minister Lee and then-Minister for Finance Goh Keng Swee to enter politics, and he eventually agreed.[6]

In 1979, upon being named as a People's Action Party (PAP) candidate in by-elections called in seven constituencies, Howe said he hoped to serve no more than five years. After submitting his nomination papers in the by-election, Howe dismissed the opposition candidates, including independent Chiam See Tong, as "court jesters" who had come out "to provide comic relief".[3] Howe eventually beat Chiam with almost 67% of the votes to win the Potong Pasir seat.

On 12 February 1979, Howe was sworn into the Cabinet as Minister for Defence. Directness being his hallmark, just six months after becoming Defence Minister Howe said that those who dodged national service ought to be looked upon as "pariah" in the community.[3]

In the 1980 Singaporean general election, Howe again defeated Chiam for Potong Pasir,[13] and duly served as the Member of Parliament for the constituency until 1984. However in an election rally, Howe disparaged Chiam on his professional competence and was subsequently sued by Chiam for defamation.[14] Howe offered compensation which Chiam accepted and dropped the case against him.[14]

Howe relinquished his defence post to become the Minister for Health from 1982 to 1984. There, Howe became best remembered by Singaporeans for his controversial proposal in 1984 to raise the age for the withdrawal of Central Provident Fund (CPF) savings from 55 to 60 years. At a news conference on 26 March 1984, Howe reasoned that Singaporeans could not depend only on their children in their old age. That suggestion, part of the 54-page report of the Committee on the Problems of the Aged[15] which he chaired, was eventually dropped. However, the report that took 20 months to finalise remains an important document with its forward-looking strategies to support Singapore's greying population.[3][6][16][17][18] Taking up the suggestions in the report, the Singapore Government subsequently introduced the Minimum Sum scheme. This allows workers to withdraw some of their CPF funds at age 55, setting aside a certain minimum sum which can only be withdrawn at retirement age, currently at 62 years.[13][19] To encourage the employment of aged workers, the CPF contribution rates for both employer and the aged employee were cut in July 1988.[4] In 1993, the government raised the retirement age to 60.[18]

Howe did not contest the general election in 1984. As a result of Howe's controversial report, the PAP lost 12% of the overall votes in that election, and conceded the Potong Pasir ward to Chiam.[4][18] Howe retired from politics that year.[13]

In a letter of appreciation to Howe on his retirement, the then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said he was indebted to Howe for the devoted work he had put in for the people. Lee also predicted that when workers in their 20s and 30s reached their 60s, they would see how difficult it was for children to stretch their salaries to support aged parents. They would then be grateful to Howe for the furore he had stirred by the report on the problems of the aged.[13]

Later yearsEdit

After leaving politics, Howe returned to DBS as chairman and CEO in 1985 and served until 1990. In 1991, he helped to set up a managed fund, the Mendaki Growth Fund, for the Malay self-help group Mendaki, the Council for the Development of Singapore Muslim Community.[3]

From 1992 to 2000 he was the Executive Chairman of Great Eastern Life Assurance,[20] and from 1992 to 2007 the President and CEO for The Straits Holding Company, an investment holding firm. He was also Chairman of the Rendezvous Hotel Singapore and Rendezvous Hotels & Resorts International.[21]

On 21 August 2007, Howe died in Singapore from a stroke after having been hospitalised for three weeks.[6] Several of Singapore's leaders, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, attended Howe's wake.[12][22] Howe's funeral was held at Mandai Crematorium on 24 August.[10][23]


In 1963, Howe received a Malaysia Medal and a Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal). For his contributions to Singapore, Howe was awarded a Distinguished Service Order in 1968. In 1971, the National University of Singapore awarded him with the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters (LL.D.).

Howe was also an Honorary Fellow of the Academy of Medicine, Singapore,[24] and an Honorary Life Member of the Young Men's Christian Association of Singapore.[25]

Personal lifeEdit

Howe was married to Wan Fook Yin. They had three children; two sons, Tet Sen and Tze Sen and a daughter, Hwee Siew and two grandchildren at the time of his death.[26]


  1. ^ "Howe Yoon Chong". National Library Board. Archived from the original on 2 October 2018. Retrieved 2 October 2018.
  2. ^ Clement Mesenas (22 August 2007). "The man who raised a storm". Today. p. 4.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Jeremy Au Yong (22 August 2007). "The reluctant politician". The Straits Times. p. H8.
  4. ^ a b c d Cai Tiancheng (22 August 2007). "Ex-Minister Howe Yoon Chong dies at 84". Lianhe Zaobao.
  5. ^ "Notice of condolence from the DBS Group". The Straits Times. 23 August 2007. p. H15.
  6. ^ a b c d Keith Lin and Lee Hui Chieh (22 August 2007). "Ex-minister Howe Yoon Chong, 84, dies". The Straits Times. p. 3.
  7. ^ "Late Mr Howe played key role in developing national icons: SM Goh". Channel NewsAsia. 22 August 2007. Archived from the original on 24 August 2007. Retrieved 23 August 2007.
  8. ^ Li Xueying (23 August 2007). "Tribute to Howe Yoon Chong". The Straits Times.
  9. ^ Loh Chee Kong (23 August 2007). "A civil servant without compare". Today. p. 4.
  10. ^ a b Jeremy Au Yong (24 August 2007). "MM Lee's tribute to Howe Yoon Chong: 'Man of action' who made Changi Airport a reality". The Straits Times. p. H8.
  11. ^ "President Nathan calls late Mr Howe an illustrious S'porean". Channel NewsAsia. 22 August 2007. Archived from the original on 24 August 2007. Retrieved 23 August 2007.
  12. ^ a b Li Xueying (23 August 2007). "Leaders pay tribute to a man with far-sighted vision". The Straits Times. p. 3.
  13. ^ a b c d "Former Cabinet Minister Howe Yoon Chong dies at age 84". Channel NewsAsia. 21 August 2007. Archived from the original on 23 August 2007. Retrieved 21 August 2007.
  14. ^ a b "Election remarks; Chiam accepts Howe's apology". Retrieved 20 October 2021.
  15. ^ Committee on the Problems of the Aged (1984). Problems of the Aged : Report of the Committee on the Problems of the Aged. Singapore: Ministry of Health. ISBN 9971-88-022-9.
  16. ^ "Ex-Minister dies at 84". The New Paper. 22 August 2007.
  17. ^ "Howe Yoon Chong was a man ahead of his time: Gerard Ee". Channel NewsAsia. 21 August 2007. Archived from the original on 23 August 2007. Retrieved 21 August 2007.
  18. ^ a b c Chua Lee Hoong (24 August 2007). "Would Howe Yoon Chong have approved?". The Straits Times. p. 28.
  19. ^ "Late Howe Yoon Chong cared deeply for country's development: PM Lee". Channel NewsAsia. 22 August 2007. Archived from the original on 24 August 2007. Retrieved 23 August 2007.
  20. ^ "Notice of condolence from Great Eastern Holdings Ltd., Great Eastern Life Assurance Co. Ltd. and Great Eastern Life Assurance (Malaysia) Bhd". The Straits Times. 23 August 2007. p. H16.
  21. ^ "Notices of condolence from Rendezvous Hotel Singapore and Rendezvous Hotels & Resorts International". The Straits Times. 23 August 2007. p. H13.
  22. ^ "S'pore leaders pay last respects to the late Mr Howe Yoon Chong". Channel NewsAsia. 23 August 2007. Archived from the original on 24 August 2007. Retrieved 23 August 2007.
  23. ^ Peh Shing Huei (25 August 2007). "A final, private farewell for Howe". The Straits Times. p. H8.
  24. ^ "Notice of condolence from the Academy of Medicine, Singapore". The Straits Times. 23 August 2007. p. H13.
  25. ^ "Notice of condolence from the YMCA of Singapore". The Straits Times. 23 August 2007. p. H13.
  26. ^ "Howe Yoon Chong (obituary)". The Straits Times. 22 August 2007. p. H14.


Political offices
Preceded by Minister for Defence
Succeeded by
Preceded by Minister for Health
Succeeded by