Cheng Hsing Yao: The CEO and the gentleman

/ EdgeProp Singapore |
Cheng Hsing Yao, CEO of GuocoLand, won the Personality of the Year Award at EdgeProp Excellence Awards 2021 (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
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SINGAPORE (EDGEPROP) - The year 2021 has been a momentous one for Cheng Hsing Yao. In January, the 49-year-old was one of nine new Nominated Members of Parliament (NMP) appointed by Singapore President Halimah Yacob for a 2½-year term. In July, he took over at the helm of listed property group GuocoLand as CEO.
In recognition of his accomplishments, Cheng was awarded the Personality of the Year Award at EdgeProp Singapore Excellence Awards 2021 on Nov 24. “He is deserving of the award,” says Ong Choon Fah, a judge on the panel of the awards for the fourth consecutive year.
Ong is a board member of Edmund Tie Holdings and executive committee member of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) Singapore Council as well as ULI’s chair of the nominations committee. She first met Cheng shortly after he became group managing director of Guoco­Land Singapore in 2014. “We had lunch with him, and he came across as very scholarly,” she says. “He is very measured and thinks before he answers you.”
Ong: To find time to do your own work, on top of community work, speaks volumes about him (Photo: Albert Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
Over time, what impressed Ong was his willingness to listen, and humility to learn from feedback — be it from government officials, buyers of GuocoLand’s residences or tenants of GuocoLand’s commercial properties. He is not afraid to challenge ideas either. “Being intellectual, he has the confidence to challenge ideas and yet be respectful while doing it,” she adds.
Indeed, Ong points to his scholastic abilities: Master in design studies (with distinction), with a major in urbanisation and real estate at Harvard University. Prior to that, Cheng obtained a Bachelor of Architecture from Newcastle University, UK, with 1st Class Honours. His first degree was a Bachelor of Arts in Architectural Studies from the National University of Singapore (NUS), where he was also on the Dean’s List.
Before joining GuocoLand as COO in 2012, Cheng had spent 15 years in leadership roles at the Urban Redevelopment Authority and Centre for Liveable Cities. The fact that Cheng was from the public sector before he entered the private sector has given him an advantage: “He understands how the public agencies work, what can be achieved, and how he can challenge certain guidelines in a balanced way,” notes Ong.
Cheng giving a speech at the EdgeProp Excellence Awards where he won the Personality of the Year and GuocoLand took home the Top Developer Award, with Midtown Modern sweeping seven awards (Photo: Albert Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
Architect Yip Yuen Hong, principal of ip:li Architects considers Cheng “a visionary, who thinks very far ahead”. “He’s not just a developer,” says Yip. “It’s not just about dollars and cents with him. He’s very design-savvy; understands human nature and comprehends what people want – even before they know it. That is a rare ability.”
The first time he met Cheng more than a decade ago was at the President’s Design Award, when Yip won the award. Cheng was still at URA then. “He sat across from me at the table, and he was very quiet, very restrained,” recounts Yip.
Subsequently, Yip, a four-time winner of the President’s Design Award, became a judge at the award. He met Cheng again. This time, Cheng was making a presentation on GuocoLand’s 210-unit, luxury condo Goodwood Residence. (Discover insightful data of any Singapore condominium with our condo directory)
By then, Cheng had left URA and was at GuocoLand, where he leapt from COO to group managing director for Singapore within two years.
The 450-unit Martin Modern, which was completed in 3Q2021 and was fully sold (Photo: Albert Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
When GuocoLand won the 99-year leasehold site at Martin Road in July 2016, Yip contacted Cheng and pitched for the job. He was appointed design architect in collaboration with ADDP Architects. The result is the multiple-award-winning, 450-unit Martin Modern which was completed earlier this year and fully sold.
Martin Modern was the first large-scale condominium project that Yip had designed. His second is GuocoLand’s 558-unit Midtown Modern, which is part of the $2.4 billion Guoco Midtown integrated development on Beach Road. Again, he collaborated with ADDP Architects.
Yip says he is “very lucky” to have a client like Cheng who values design. “We don’t play golf, we don’t go drinking,” he muses. “As an architect by training and a planner before, his thinking is very broad.”
Adds Yip: “A lot of times, developers will say, ‘But this hasn’t been done before’, so we end up with repetitive stuff. But he [Cheng] is able to break away from the norm, and is willing to take a risk.”
Tang Kok Thye, associate partner of ADDP Architects, agrees. For instance, when it came to planning the unit mix for Martin Modern and Midtown Modern, “everyone was talking about smaller units, lower quantum prices”, relates Tang. Not Cheng.
Midtown Modern scale model - EDGEPROP SINGAPORE
When Midtown Modern was launched in March, more than 60% of the units were snapped up on the first weekend of sales at an average selling price of $2,800 psf (Photo: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
At both Martin Modern and Midtown Modern, Cheng made sure that there was a good spread of one- to four-bedroom units so that it would attract a wider spectrum of homeowners including families and not just the usual singles, young couples and investors.
When Midtown Modern was launched in March, more than 60% of the units were snapped up on the first weekend of sales. “We didn’t expect the project to be so well received, especially for the bigger units,” says Tang. “But the sales have proven that he made the right decision.”
Having worked directly with Cheng on at least four projects — the 1,024-unit Sims Urban Oasis, Martin Modern, Midtown Modern and the 200-unit Meyer Mansion at Meyer Road, as well as the upcoming project at Lentor Central — Tang observes that he hardly loses his temper.
“He doesn’t scold people or throw things when he’s upset,” says Tang. “Even when there were delays in the construction of the projects because of Covid, he kept his cool. He’s a gentleman, and when there’s a problem, he will just keep calm and focus on getting things resolved.”
Even though he has strong ideas of his own, he will be very diplomatic and listen to everyone’s ideas. “He doesn’t exert his power or authority,” says Tang. “And he has to manage so many architects, so many egos — it’s not easy — yet he is able to do that.”
Jois Phoo, GuocoLand’s general manager for product development & project management, receiving the Landscape Excellence Award from Yvonne Tan, director and landscape architect, DP Green, at the EdgeProp Excellence Awards on Nov 24 (Photo: Albert Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
“Not only is he creative and a visionary but he is also very data-driven,” says Valerie Wong, GuocoLand group general manager of asset management. “He always wants to know how we can add value to our projects.” Cheng also encourages his staff to challenge the norm, adds Wong. “He is able to find the best in each of his staff,” she notes.
Jois Phoo, GuocoLand’s general manager for product development & project management, describes Cheng’s working style as “collaborative”. Whenever there is an important decision to be made, he typically makes sure that everyone’s views are heard and carefully weighed before arriving at a decision. “He is decisive yet diplomatic,” she notes.
No doubt, Cheng’s portfolio has expanded. In addition to his roles as CEO of Guoco­Land and an NMP, Cheng is a board member of the National Parks Board, serves as co-chairman of the integrated digital delivery steering committee and central procurers panel for the Building and Construction Authority. He is a member of URA’s design advisery committee as well as heritage and identity partnership. At ULI, Cheng is the co-chair of the integrated developments Council. He also sits on the management board of NUS Institute of Real Estate and Urban Studies.
“To find time to do your own work, on top of community work, speaks volumes about him,” says Ong of Edmund Tie Holdings.

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