An Interview with PUB Singapore's Khoo Teng Chye

Following the IWA World Water Congress in Vienna, Austria, in September 2008, Water & Wastewater International had an opportunity to sit down with Mr. Khoo Teng Chye, the CEO of PUB Singapore, to discuss how the island nation situated between Malaysia and Indonesia has become a "global hydro hub" over the past decade, having invested $5 billion to become water independent...

By Carlos David Mogollon, WWi Managing Editor

Following the IWA World Water Congress in Vienna, Austria, in September 2008, Water & Wastewater International had an opportunity to sit down with Mr. Khoo Teng Chye, the CEO of PUB Singapore, to discuss how the island nation situated between Malaysia and Indonesia has become a "global hydro hub" over the past decade, having invested $5 billion to become water independent.

With 14 new reservoirs (and three more under construction), four NEWater factories (and one under construction) and five water reclamation plants (and one more being planned) -- all employing advanced membrane and other technologies, it's well on its way toward that goal.

In Vienna, PUB won two awards among numerous others for which it's already been honored. In addition, in June 2008, it hosted the first Singapore International Water Week, drawing about 8,500 people from over 70 countries.

The following interview coincides with an "Executive Watch" column feature that appeared in the October/November 2008 issue of WWi, "A Water Model for the World". To learn more, read on:

WWi: Let me start out by saying that we're already aware of much of what has been going on in Singapore as we've posted many of your news releases and those of others involved in efforts there to our website and used them in our e-newsletters and print news sections of our magazines. I had an opportunity to write about it also in an interview I did with Andrew Benedek, the former Zenon Environmental CEO who won the inaugural Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize at last year's Singapore International Water Week.

Khoo: Oh, were you there for the event.

WWi: I was not, unfortunately. I had a conflicting engagement.

Khoo: Well, you must come to the next one.

WWi: I look forward to it. I've already posted it to our online Events webpage and have penciled it in on my calendar. In any case, I was hoping we could start by you giving us a little background on yourself and how you got to your position as head of PUB Singapore?

Khoo: Me. That's a boring story.

WWi: It can't be that boring. After all, Singapore has been one of the most exciting stories in the water industry for the past several years now.

Khoo: I'm just a faceless, grave bureaucrat...

WWi: Climbing the ladder quickly... Seriously, though, you're the head of PUB Singapore. Give us an idea of the breadth of the agency, because some of our readers may not be as familiar with it.

Khoo: PUB is the national water agency of Singapore. And, by that, I mean that we really manage the entire water cycle. We're responsible, of course, for drinking water -- collection, treatment and distribution. But beyond that, after the water has been used, we collect the used water -- not sewage. And then we treat it in our water reclamation plants -- not sewage treatment plants, but water reclamation plants.

WWi: Is there a reason why we specify the difference?

Khoo: Yes, and we can talk about that. And then we recycle the water and produce NEWater, which is our recycled water that we brand as NEWater. Plus we also look at stormwater. We try to harvest as much of it as possible of that for our reservoirs, but we also have to manage the flow to avoid floods. So we really handle the whole water cycle. We are the primary water agency responsible for water. So, PUB is really a misnomer, because that's our roots. We started as a utility that did water as well as electricity and gas, but electricity and gas have been halved off.

WWi: So, now you're simply a national water authority.

Khoo: Yes, a national water authority. We brought under our fold the sewage department, the drainage department, which was part of the Ministry of Environment. Now, we are an agency that works under the Ministry of Environment with responsibility for water resources in Singapore.

WWi: That would be under Dr. Yaacob Ibrahim.

Khoo: Yes, Dr. Yaacob is our minister (for the Environment & Water Resources).

WWi: Detail for me why it is so important that Singapore have such a closed loop water management system.

Khoo: Well, we are a small island but very densely populated as we're only nearly 700 square kilometers. I think it's barely that of New York City, probably less. And we have four and a half million people, so we are very densely populated. We are a country not just a city, so all of the needs of a country have to be taken care of within that area, including housing, commerce, industry, roads, strategic needs as well like water, military and airports. So, the challenge there for us is how do we find the water resources. Now, we have lots of rain. We get 2.4 meters of rain because we're in the tropics. The challenge is we just haven't got the land to be able to collect and store the water.

WWi: I recall reading several years ago about constant negotiations with Malaysia regarding freshwater supplies.

Khoo: We have these two agreements to buy water from Malaysia and our strategy really is to diversify our water resources. To be able to sustain our continued growth into the future, we know we can rely on other sources that are more sustainable. We have this four-point national strategy. One, aside from relying on buying water from Malaysia, is to try to harvest every drop of water that falls on Singapore. We are probably the only city in the world that does urban stormwater harvesting on a very large scale. Half of Singapore is a water catchment. We have 14 reservoirs and we are building three more. We are building the Marina reservoir and two more in the northeast. By the year 2010, we will have 17 reservoirs and two-thirds of Singapore will become a water catchment. Now, the other area is NEWater, the other new water supply, where we are recycling on an extensive basis. Today, we have between 15-20% of our supply that already comes from NEWater. We have four NEWater plants.

WWi: And one coming...

Khoo: And one coming up in Changii. So, by the year 2010, we will have 30% of recycled water supplying us from NEWater sources. And if needs be we can actually build more or expand the capacity of these plants further, depending upon demand.

WWi: Each of these is also pretty much a showcase of the latest technologies available to that end, yes?

Khoo: Yes, they were all built from 2002, so they're kind of the latest in terms of the use of advanced water technologies to recycle water to the highest end. These are all using reverse osmosis membrane technology, so the quality of the water is very high. Now, NEWater is primarily used in Singapore for non-potable use. In other words, we send it primarily to industry. Industries like microelectronics, the manufacturers of silicon chips and silicon wafers, they need very high quality water for their process. And, so, NEWater fits the bill. We actually sell to them at a good price, so they actually save money buying NEWater. And it's a higher quality water, so they actually save costs since they don't have to treat it further.

WWi: It already suits their purposes.

Khoo: Yes, so that's a valuable service. A small percentage of NEWater is put back into the reservoirs and mixed with the rainwater -- so it's indirect potable reuse, in that case.

WWi: Not necessarily groundwater recharge such as California is doing...

Khoo: But ours is surface water so it's in a reservoir. Then, the fourth source of new water supply is desalination. We have a desalination plant that was opened in 2005, again using reverse osmosis membrane technology, and that supplies about 10% of our water source. So, you can see that we have kind of diversified our water resources. And with NEWater, with desalination and with rainwater harvesting, we know that if needs be we could ramp up our NEWater and ramp up our desalination to be able to sustain our growth continuously.

WWi: And you're expecting pretty significant growth as well, almost half again the population within a very short time.

Khoo: Yes, the population will grow. Today, it's 4.5 million. And I think the planners are planning for a capacity of 6.5 million or so...

WWi: By?

Khoo: There's no specific date in mind, as it's more of a capacity planning issue. For us, given that we're confined to this little island, we have to think about if the day comes when we have 6.5 million people we will have to accommodate them with enough greenery and roads and infrastructure and such. So, the planners are planning for 6.5 million and we have to be sure that there are the water resources for that new population as well as the new industry that will come in. That's our job really to work with the economic and other planners to ensure that Singapore continues to be able to sustain our water resources on our own if needs be and then to plan on how to continue meeting that goal into the future.

WWi: I imagine the heavy industrial and financial base there somewhat affords Singapore the luxury of doing this to a degree that other areas might not be able to do.

Khoo: Yes.

WWi: It seems also as if that's complemented somewhat by attention that's increased on Singapore since control of Hong Kong reverted to China -- as an alternative spot for Western countries to do business. And then I recall that a few years ago there was an announcement by PUB that it wanted the country to become the R&D hub for water and wastewater treatment technologies for the region.

Khoo: I think that what we have done to solve our water problems and some of these, whether it's the NEWater plant or the desalination plant or the deep tunnel sewer system...

WWi: ...which won an award here at the IWA World Water Congress in Vienna.

Khoo: Yes. We spent in the last 5-10 years probably more than $5 billion in Singapore dollars in terms of investments. That's something that we've always taken an open approach toward in encouraging companies all over the world to participate in attendance, to be our partners in these projects. I think that has created sort of a water industry center in Singapore. Some of the top engineering firms like CH2M Hill and Black & Veatch are in Singapore. Likewise, we have Siemens and General Electric. I think the idea is to really build on this base that we've established in trying to solve our problems. What used to be sort of a strategic weakness on our part -- the fact that water is something that historically we've been short of -- we've solved that problem and we are now going to build on that to make it a strategic strength in the sense that: how do we grow that business so that it becomes a hub, hopefully, for the region and beyond. We are consciously trying to develop this industry class in Singapore, focusing on different parts of the value chain. But water primarily being a services and knowledge industry, we think that the research, the R&D portion, is a key component. The government, through the National Research Foundation, has targeted water as a key strategic area that it will invest in. In fact, under my charge, there is now an Environment & Water Industry Development Council and a sum of money has been allocated, 330 million dollars Singapore, where we're actually identifying a number of programs where we're going to invest that money to strengthen Singapore's position as an R&D hub and as a hub for water business for which companies -- and not just for R&D -- have their international headquarters, marketing operations, etc. Take as an example Black & Veatch, they have their global desalination headquarters in Singapore, so for any desalination projects they're involved in anywhere in the world, the expertise would come from Singapore. In fact, out of Singapore, they've done projects in Australia and even back to the U.S. I think that's the kind of model that we are trying to encourage for companies to see that there is value in locating to Singapore.

WWi: In other words, it's not just one source, rather there are multiple sources they can play off of to grow here.

Khoo: You know, they are plugging into a network. It's a cluster. It's an ecosystem. The value is that they have all these players already there and it makes it a lot easier for them to meet their own needs of serving their customers. And, of course, we have created this annual platform that I'm sure you've heard about...

WWi: When did planning for that start?

Khoo: The Singapore International Water Week? Well, we thought of our strategy as being a three-pronged one. Right? R&D is in the middle. Technology, we have this money coming in to create these programs to encourage R&D. And that has helped to develop the industry cluster in Singapore and also to help the industry to reach out to the world, whether it's this region, the Middle East, Europe and so on. We thought that one of the ways to do that was to create this annual event. It's not just about the research and technology, but also about getting the message out there and getting people to come.

WWi: It also creates a sort of dynamic momentum -- so instead of a little growth regionally, you have exponential growth that draws international attention.

Khoo: It's a platform where every year the different players get together, not just the industry players, but academia, international organizations like the IWA, the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and government leaders who are the ones that have to deal with the water problems in their cities and countries and look for solutions. We thought Singapore would be the platform where people could come and see solutions. We will complement organizations like IWA and IDA which focus more on the knowledge aspect, but we are trying to focus on solutions, practical case studies. This is so people from China and the mayors of China when they come to Singapore International Water Week, they can see papers presented or visit a booth where they could actually see practical solutions to some of the problems they are facing whether it's water shortage or water pollution in the river. That's really the thinking behind the event. We were glad that we succeeded in organizing the first one and attracted more than 8,500 people from more than 70 countries. We were quite pleased with that...

WWi: For a first event...

Khoo: That sets a high benchmark for us to try and outdo next year. I hope you come.

WWi: I'll add to the numbers if I can.

Khoo: And bring more. Hopefully, through your readership, you can encourage others to come.

WWi: Here at the IWA Water Congress, there's also been a big discussion in Vienna about "cities of the future" as well as how to get the general public to accept some of the new ideas that in these future cities and beyond will be using not just traditional water resources of the past -- groundwater and surface water -- but also introducing a whole concept of reuse that may not sound as palatable. You've taken an interesting an interesting approach to that which backfired, for instance, in San Diego.

Khoo: Yes, well, we did it out of necessity, out of need. But we also spent a lot of time on public education and public communication. As I said, our approach is holistic in the sense that we not only look at the water cycle holistically, we also try to look at the water issue holistically as well. Besides just looking at the supply side, which I talked about before in national terms, we try to look at the other side of the equation also if you like, the demand side. And, of course, we promote things like water conservation.

WWi: Whether in the business or in the home...

Khoo: It's more than just water conservation. It's also about the idea of getting the private sector, the public and the people really onboard to be joint stakeholders for water. And that means, for example, for NEWater, getting them to accept what NEWater is. We had a very elaborate public relations and public education campaign to promote NEWater. When I talk to you about used water and water reclamation plants, it's even the choice of words. It's so important that we pick the right words so that you convey to the public the idea that water is a resource. It's a closed loop, and what we are doing really is treating the used water and reclaiming the water rather than saying sewage or wastewater.

WWi: Then there's also the technology that makes it possible.

Khoo: And then we have to explain the technology and to show them that it's something that is reliable. We got a panel of international experts headed by Dr. Joan Rose.

WWi: She actually was a professor of a wife of a previous publisher of mine who is a microbiologist at the University of Arizona.

Khoo: That's great. Joan has been very actively working with us on NEWater. She chaired was originally the panel of experts, and later on that became an external audit panel. Twice a year, this external audit panel, which is an international panel of experts, they visit us and audit our plants and look at all of our data just to make sure that the water quality that we are producing is consistently okay. So, we've got our international panel of water experts and we put all that information on NEWater on the web so that the public understood it. We bottled it in small bottles for the public to see and taste it. You've seen one of the new bottles, yes?

WWi: No, I did not get one. They were kind of like the hot thing to have at the show I noticed. But that's okay. I'll get one when I visit next year.

Khoo: We should have brought some to the press conference. Well, that's another reason you must come. We give them out as free samples at public events so that it gave a brand identity to the water. At national day parade in 2002, we did this. Every year, we have this sort of Fourth of July celebration. All the national leaders were there, the president and prime minister, and they drank it as a toast to the nation. There were 60,000 people at the stadium and everybody drank NEWater. This is part of what we did to get the public behind it.

WWi: There also is some effort with schoolchildren as well, yes?

Khoo: We have the NEWater Visitors Center and that's the first facility you must visit when you come to Singapore. It's very instructive so that kids can understand what is a membrane and what does it do to purify water. They magnify the RO a million times so they see these holes and ping pong balls or tennis balls to indicate viruses or bacteria and how they can't get through. We involved the media as well. We brought a whole bunch of media overseas to see what we were doing, because Orange County (in California) was already using this technology and then recharging the treated water. We were trying to let them know that while this was NEWater, the technology was not new. We had to persuade them that this technology was tried and tested.

WWi: Former Zenon CEO Andrew Benedek mentioned to me that it was amazing the speed at which you ramped this up and got this going, while California -- which as a state is still one of the largest economies in the world -- was still way behind in implementing it on the scale that PUB has done in Singapore.

Khoo: They've made a lot of efforts, but there have been a lot of issues with respect to perception, which we tried to learn from in advance.

WWi: Going forward, what's the plan as far as where you see this going and the role that it plays as a model for the world?

Khoo: I think, as I said, we see water holistically on the supply side and demand side. And then beyond that, it's not just about managing the water cycle. In fact, that's something very critical in Singapore. We manage water as really part of the entire urban environment. Of course, some water harvesting is what we had to do, but in doing so we're turning the whole of Singapore into a water catchment. That's why this whole idea of stakeholder ownership in water is so critical. And that means that we have to look at water not in its own right in a closed system by itself, but it's really an open system where we are part of the urban system. So, from the drainage point of view, for example, you design canals and drainage which kind of serve their purpose. But as we develop Singapore as a water catchment, what that means is drains and canals became waterways that convey water together. And then, very often, we engineer them to perfection so they're concrete and very efficient, but they're part of the urban environment. And so in a dense place like Singapore, I think you want people to enjoy the water. And not think about it as if this is very important this water and therefore it has to be protected and so on and you are apart from it. We changed that paradigm and said, "No, we want you to be part of the water. We encourage you to come to our reservoir." And then we're going to turn all these monsoon drains and canals, renaturalize them and turn them into rivers, with landscaping and so on, and encourage the community to be part of it. This is through our ABC Program, which stands for "active", "beautiful" and "clean" waters. Singapore is very small. We have 17 reservoirs, 7,000 km of waterways -- and that represents a tremendous opportunity for us to turn all of these into wonderful assets. And people will appreciate that and having a river next to their back door or front yard, rather than having this ugly, concrete canal. That's the idea.

WWi: It becomes part of a community beautification effort...

Khoo: And at the same time, they begin also to appreciate that water is something that they should enjoy and value -- but also that they are really joint owners of. If they keep it clean, they can enjoy it. But if they mess it up, then, well, that's your water supply. We're trying to get them to be joint stewards of their water resources. That's what we are trying to do in order to make this whole thing holistic beyond the water cycle but really as part of the urban environment. That's where the whole "Cities of the Future" theme comes in, because it's really about integrating water management and land use planning...

WWi: I don't know if the Deep Tunnel Sewerage Project is a part of that, but there's also the talk about reversal of the concept about older cities where the infrastructure was developed to get that water out of there as quickly as possible. Here, you're talking about the direct opposite, which forces you to rethink the entire idea of stormwater and wastewater infrastructure.

Khoo: That's right. We have lots of rain, so a lot of the drains have been designed as monsoon drains to get the water out to the sea as quickly as possible. But the moment you dam them up -- and I'm talking about the Marina Barrage now -- because you want to create a source of water supply, then your whole approach to handling how the drains and canals defer because now they are waterways that convey water to these reservoirs. So, you want to optimize your balance between collecting as much water as possible and that there's not so much that you flood the city. The barrage is an example of how you optimize that.

WWi: Talk to me, if you could, about some of the awards that Singapore won here. There were two projects that won awards. One was the titanium dioxide as a treatment method in reducing biofouling tendencies in membranes. And the other was the Deep Tunnel Sewerage Project.

Khoo: Okay, NEWater is a big project. As I say, we want to sustain NEWater in the future, right? So, you need to kind of have sustainable systems for water reclamation. The Deep Tunnel is about that. Singapore is small. If you had all these treatment plants scattered all over the place, they take up a tremendous amount of land. And your pumping stations use a tremendous amount of energy. Instead, we decided to have a conveyance system that is a deep tunnel that conveys all the used water all over the island into one centralized treatment plant. And that really enables us to efficiently collect all that used water, treat it and then -- on top of that Changi Reclamation Plant we have the Changi NEWater Factory, which is the fifth and largest NEWater plant. So, with that, we will be able to ensure that we could sustainably continue to produce NEWater.

WWi: Just from an editor's perspective, it gets confusing -- but also is a tribute to how much people want to be associated with the project -- to see 20 news release from different companies on one small element of that project.

Khoo: Yes, I understand. It's a $3.5 billion project so there are more than 150 different companies involved in the effort. And many of them are doing things that they claim to know -- and I think it's true -- because it's the biggest they've ever done. Ceilcote is an automated control company. I met the CEO recently. It's the biggest auto control system they've ever supplied anywhere in the world. A company called CH2M Hill, they're doing project management for us. I think all the big water companies are involved in some way or other.

WWi: Now, the other award sounds as if it's a solution to some of the challenges you have in ramping a project like this up so quickly. By that I mean, it may not have the traditional way that older cities may use where they create a pilot plant for something like this before launching it full bore. You put it into place with the latest technology and, then, you find little ways to optimize things to solve problems as they crop up. Would that be a correct way of framing the titanium dioxide solution?

Khoo: Well, we -- as I said -- are trying to create a research ecosystem now in Singapore. So, at PUB, what we do is we do pilot projects and then we have research projects that, based on problems that we identify in operations -- these are real problems -- whether it's lowering energy use in desalination or solving the problems of biofouling of membranes. Many of these projects we collaborate on with companies or the universities. I think some of the ideas that are coming out of universities include nanotechnology or the titanium dioxide. These are some of the projects we are working on with universities with companies. There's one for example. We issued an R&D challenge to bring down the energy consumption of desalination to 3.5 kWh/m³ to less than 1.5 kWh/m³. We issued that as a challenge project.

WWi: How long ago?

Khoo: Last year. We had about 40 odd teams that applied. And then we went to a short-listing process, where we short-listed about six proposals, gave them about $30,000 to $40,000 to develop their proposals and then finally we got an international panel to evaluate those six and we have awarded it to a team led by Siemens. They have come up with a technology that's based on electrochemical technology. It's not membranes. It's a new technology. We're very excited about it because we do want to be sponsoring new technologies, breakthrough technologies. We are sponsoring about $4 million for this winning team to develop that proposal to the point where it could be realized.

WWi: We should probably underscore the fact that that's the biggest obstacle to mass use of desalination technology is the energy use that's required to run it. I would imagine that's a figure that would have dropped naturally simply through competitive forces of innovation, but with someone encouraging it via a challenge like that...

Khoo: You accelerate it.

WWi: Exactly, you speed it up. Now, at this year's Singapore International Water Week, there were a number of agreements signed. It was kind of hard keeping up with them how fast they came out. But do you want to detail any of those? And then I probably would like it if you could speak specifically to one that may involve something that we at PennWell are doing this February in Bahrain. Among the things our company does are a number of conferences, including Power-Gen Middle East, which will be in Manama in the middle of the month.

Khoo: I think the agreements probably fell into two or three categories, because basically we're trying to encourage SIWW to be a platform for people to get together. And one of the things that happens is relationships get started. The MOUs are really an outcome of this matchmaking, if you like, between the different groups. At PUB, we entered into some agreements on a government-to-government level, Bahrain and Oman and some other countries in the Middle East. We also had agreements with companies, like a Japanese company Nitto Denko and so forth.

WWi: CDM as well?

Khoo: Yes, they're both opening Centres of Excellence. Nitto Denko (parent company of Hydranautics) in the area of membranes and CDM in the area of "Cities of the Future," the whole idea of setting up a center for integrated water and land use planning. And then the third category is really company to company, the B2B area.

WWi: I'm thinking of another country with which an agreement was signed as well, I believe, India?

Khoo: Yes, that's right. We had these business forums focusing on regions, and the India business forum was highly successful.

WWi: What would you like to say in order to spin this forward on next year's event, i.e., the 2nd Singapore International Water Week?

Khoo: Well, you should have all the stuff for next year. The dates are the 22nd to the 26th of June. We will continue our focus on urban water solutions, because the theme this year was "Sustainable Urban Water Solutions." That will remain the theme with a stronger focus on infrastructure and technologies. Why? (It's) because there will be a meeting of Asia Pacific ministers of infrastructure. And we thought that would be a great meeting and wanted to try to make sure that companies and others that may be interested in that topic will be there. And, with the ministers there, it will be a great platform for people to come together.

WWi: I imagine you'll also have the Asian Development Bank there?

Khoo: Oh yes, the Asian Development Bank is one of our key partners. They will definitely be there. There's also the IWA Leading Edge Technology Conference that will be at this year's Singapore International Water Week.

WWi: Simultaneously?

Khoo: Simultaneously. So, there will be a stronger focus on technology because of that coinciding event as well.

WWi: Marrying all the good parts together, if you will.

Khoo: That's right. I hope you will be able to make it.

WWi: I will be there. It will be a matter of how many of my colleagues I can bring along.

Khoo: Bring as many as you like.

WWi: I think that pretty much wraps things up.

Khoo: Thank you so much.

WWi: I also want to thank you for your time and sharing a bit of yourself with our readers.


Mr. Khoo Teng Chye,
Chief Executive
40 Scotts Road #22-01
Environmental Building
Singapore 228231 Republic of Singapore
Tel: +(65) 6235 8888
Fax: +(65) 6731 3030

For information regarding Singapore International Water Week, visit:

Or contact:
Michael Toh,
Managing Director
Singapore International Water Week
40 Scotts Road #10-01
Singapore 228231 Republic of Singapore
Tel: +65 6731 3160/3169
Fax: +65 6731 3055


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