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Koh Choon Fah: Never too old to learn, unlearn and relearn

Koh Choon Fah (left) receiving the SkillsFuture Fellowship award from President Halimah Yacob, the patron of the awards, at a ceremony on Dec 10, 2021 (Credit: SkillsFuture Singapore)

SINGAPORE (EDGEPROP) - In 2019, Ong Choon Fah was visiting New York City when she decided to drop in at one of WeWork’s co-working spaces in Midtown Manhattan. For someone who had occupied a conventional C-suite office for decades, it was an eye-opener. “I was told that a lot of the WeWork members there are entrepreneurs or those in their second careers, people who want to maintain an office they could go to every day, and those who are in consulting jobs,” she recounts.

See also: Asia Pacific cities face the challenge of sustainable growth: ULI’s Khoo Teng Chye

It was proof that the end of corporate life does not mean the end of one’s career. “There’s no hard-stop to retirement these days; it’s just moving on to the next season,” she says. “You just retire from corporate life to pursue things that you are passionate about, that you feel are purposeful.”

A long-time real estate consultant, Ong’s credentials and track record speak for themselves: CEO of Edmund Tie from 2015 until her retirement in July 2021, she remains a board member at the firm. Prior to that, she was the firm’s executive director and head of research & consultancy for two decades from 1995, when it was founded by the eponymous Edmund Tie.

Koh: Learning never stops. Even as seniors, we can continue learning (Photo: Albert Chua/EdgeProp SIngapore)

A new season

Having spent over 26 years with Edmund Tie, Ong does not see her identity being defined by her work. “I can be a CEO for a season, but when I leave, that designation is gone. And when that happens, I revert to being a nobody,” she observes. “What’s important is how you see yourself in your family — as a wife, mother, daughter and sister. So don’t hold on to designations.”

Since her retirement, Ong has reverted to using her maiden surname Koh. She is now in the “learning, unlearning and relearning” phase, she says. “I need to unlearn some of the things that I’ve done wrongly, or rather, were appropriate at that time but perhaps now, there’s a new way of doing these things,” she adds. “It’s going back to the fundamentals. It’s also a time of reflection.”

In fact, she was one of “18 outstanding Singaporeans” who were given the SkillsFuture Fellowship by President Halimah Yacob, the patron of the awards, at a ceremony on Dec 10, 2021, at Marina Bay Sands. The SkillsFuture Fellowship is the highest accolade for those who are respected masters of skills in their particular fields, who champion lifelong learning and are committed to mentoring others. Koh is the only one in the real estate sector to be conferred the honour. “Learning never stops,” she says. “Even as seniors, we can continue learning.”

Kampong Admiralty, Singapore’s first public housing project with flats for the aged (Photo: Albert Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)

Communal, luxe living for seniors

Beyond her profession, Koh was the chair of Urban Land Institute (ULI) Singapore for two years, from 2019 until 2021. She remains active at ULI, and has aligned her mission with the organisation’s: to shape the future of the built environment, and to have a transformative impact on communities worldwide. “Real estate, at the end of the day, is not just about bricks and mortar, but about people and communities,” she says.

A parent of two grown-up sons, Koh believes it is time to simplify her life. “We don’t want to have our kids tied down to us,” she says. Hence, she believes there is a market for communal living for seniors. Not spartan living like college student dormitories, she emphasises, but with some luxury features, “because we want to indulge ourselves a little”.

Besides luxury features, communal living for seniors should provide a social network with various interest groups, such as cycling, birding, gardening or art. “Seniors are seeking more experiences, whether it’s travel, connecting with like-minded people or starting small businesses,” Koh continues. “I think there’s a huge market out there. Tapping the silver dollar can be gold.”

The community plaza at Kampung Admiralty integrated development (Photo: Albert Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)

As of 2021, the fastest-growing age group in Singapore is those above 65 years, which grew 5.6% y-o-y, according to the Singapore Department of Statistics. They account for 16% of the Singapore resident population today. By 2030, it is expected that one in five residents will be 65 years or older.

In Singapore, the length of stay in nursing homes is said to range from five to 15 years. In the US, which has a wide array of aged care options, from retirement villages to assisted living, the typical duration of nursing home stay is just two years.

“I think it’s because we don’t have an option, especially with one in 10 seniors above the age of 60 suffering from dementia,” says Koh. “And dementia is very difficult on the caregiver. When families can’t manage, the only option is a nursing home, which is expensive, and we are using our resources inefficiently.”

Rooftop community park at Kampung Admiralty (Photo: Albert Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)

Assisted living in new BTO flats

The government offered its first assisted living public housing with the launch of new flat typology aimed at seniors in Bukit Batok a year ago. Named Harmony Village, it was launched as part of the HDB Build-To-Order (BTO) exercise in February 2021. Services offered in the BTO flats for seniors include 24-hour emergency monitoring and response service, basic health checks, simple home fixes and activities at the communal spaces within the development. (Find HDB flats for rent or sale with our Singapore HDB directory)

Last November, another BTO launch at Yew Tee offered 68 two-room flexi flats for seniors across a 10-storey residential block. An integrated development, its amenities include a hawker centre, polyclinic, a community club, community garden and kidney dialysis centre. The flats will come with elderly-friendly fittings and smart distribution boards that allow the adoption of smart-home features and monitoring of energy consumption.

In 2017, the government launched Kampung Admiralty, which offered Singapore’s first public housing project with flats for the aged, integrated with public facilities and services such as a medical centre, community plaza and a rooftop community park.

Kampung Admiralty Medical Centre, one of the facilities at the integrated development (Photo: Albert Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)

“It’s good that the government is already starting to look at elderly-friendly facilities and services — with Kampung Admiralty, Harmony Village and Yew Tee — but what about the private sector?” Koh comments. “Those who are rich can have your 24-hour nurses and other services. But for the majority, is there a middle ground that we can explore?”

Underserved middle group

In Koh’s opinion, there is a broad swath of the senior living market that remains underserved — a transition between independent living and nursing homes in the private sector. “We do need something in between — assisted living — where we can provide a community that can look out for each other,” she says. “We should do something about it now. We don’t want to institutionalise our seniors by putting them into nursing homes ahead of their time.”

Koh took a design-thinking workshop recently as part of a group project, and applied it to the design of senior-friendly housing. The proposal the group came up with was senior-friendly serviced apartments, overlaid with on-demand services such as those offered on the Homage website, from home nursing procedures and home rehabilitation services to home medical services, including for chronic and terminal illnesses such as dementia, stroke, Parkinson’s and cancer.

In Koh’s opinion, there is a broad swath of the senior living market that remains underserved — a transition between independent living and nursing homes in the private sector (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)

“Seniors don’t want to live with just other seniors,” says Koh. “That’s why the new BTO launches have some of the flexi flats within the same blocks as the other unit types. This way, it allows multi-generational living, with the children and grandchildren living within the same area.”

She believes the new private condominium projects should have units that are based on universal design, to allow seniors to age in place. “You can add the senior-friendly features right from the start or have provisions for them later on,” says Koh. “Building this flexibility into our built environment is something we should think about.” (Discover insightful data of any Singapore condominium with our condo directory)

Besides investing in her own retirement and exploring opportunities in the senior living market, Koh is also active in the Council for Estate Agencies as vice chair of the professional development committee. “There are things we can do to further raise the professionalism of agencies in Singapore,” she says.

Kampung Admiralty Medical Centre and Pharmacy (Photo: Albert Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)

‘Investing in the next generation’

The National University of Singapore (NUS) recently restructured, with the Department of Real Estate now part of the Business School, and the Faculty of Engineering combined with Architecture, Design and Environment. Khoo Teng Chye, chair of ULI Asia Pacific, is also the Practice Professor jointly with the Faculty of Engineering and the School of Design and Environment at NUS. He was executive director for the Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC), Ministry of National Development, Singapore, from 2010 until last December. He continues to be a Fellow at CLC.

Late last year, Khoo roped Koh in as one of the studio leads in the liveable city module. It gives students an understanding of how cities are governed, planned, developed and managed to achieve liveability outcomes such as quality of life, sustainable environment and a competitive economy using the case study of Singapore and other cities. Koh’s role is to give students an understanding of the role that urban systems professionals play, from policymakers, urban planners, architects, engineers to real estate consultants and managers. She regards her time spent in teaching as “investing in the next generation, and preparing them for life”.

Even as she is teaching, she is also busy attending various leadership courses using her SkillsFuture Credit, including a course on negotiation, with classmates from around the world. She has had to negotiate with fellow classmates from India, Mexico and Switzerland. “It’s very interesting, understanding the nuances of different cultures and countries, and negotiating in different scenarios,” she says. “There’s a democratisation of learning with online learning. And there are so many programmes coming up. So I’m really excited.”

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