A CUPPA WITH...

Persistence Is Half The Battle Won

Text by Justin Zhuang

A brush (or two) with death didn’t slow Professor Lui Pao Chuen down. Having seen engineering in Singapore grow from nuts and bolts to big data, the former Chief Defence Scientist and now Advisor to the Ministry of National Development is still eager to see our engineering capabilities reach new heights. 

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In 1974, on the last day of ground training for the first senior commanders’ airborne course, Professor Lui Pao Chuen, then Colonel Lui, found his right hand caught in his parachute harness.   

There was a sharp pain, so he knew right away that he had broken a bone in his hand. But if he did not make his first parachute jump the next day, he might not be able to continue the course and qualify for the Silver Wings, the coveted Parachutist Badge.

The medical officer did not deem him medically fit to jump, but Prof Lui pulled rank and said: “I’m a Colonel. And I say I can jump.”

And so, certified fit for jumping, the next day he boarded the Skyvan aircraft with the other senior commanders, strode to the ramp and jumped when his turn came.

“I didn’t know how dangerous it was,” Prof Lui recounted. Besides the parachute, he was carrying a 40kg pack that he had to release just before landing. But with his injured wrist, he could not do that and hit the ground hard. After completing 12 jumps, he became the first logistics officer in the Army to earn the Silver Wings. 

A budding maverick

Such commitment to pushing the limits defined Prof Lui’s career at the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF). Over four decades, he helped lay the foundation for Singapore’s defence capabilities, harnessing science and technology to meet the Army’s unique operational needs. 

What sparked Prof Lui’s lifelong fascination with science was literally a light bulb: he was a two-year-old toddler when he saw someone press a button on the wall. The ceiling light came on. Asking why, he concluded that there must be a cause-and-effect relationship between the button and the ceiling light.

“So don’t underestimate children’s ability to learn when they’re very young,” he concluded.

He discovered his passion for physics at his secondary school, St Joseph’s Institution. There, he volunteered to develop experiments in the physics lab workshop. He also helped to organise school science exhibitions. Prof Lui went on to study physics at the University of Singapore, graduating in 1965 to work as a scientific officer in the Radio and Space Research station in Singapore.

Learning by doing

In 1966, the 24-year-old joined the then-Ministry of Interior and Defence, where he served as Officer-in-Charge of the Test and Evaluation Section, Logistics Division. 

His job? “Whatever we bought for the Army, we had to test that they met the specifications!” he recalled.

This pioneering corps of Army engineers faced many challenges. Besides coping with severe resource constraints, they had to design, develop and upgrade Singapore’s defence capabilities quickly. “We had to learn by doing,” Prof Lui said. “We didn’t have a choice.”

Setbacks were common, and the risks high. In 1969, Prof Lui was testing the prototype amphibious V-200 armoured vehicle when it sank after taking on water. He was also hit by a wave, knocked unconscious and trapped inside the vehicle.

The vehicle sank six metres to the bottom of the river. Though a safety boat was present, its crew did not have diving gear to dive. After two minutes, Prof Lui regained consciousness, found a door, opened it and swam to the surface. The V-200 was recovered the next day with a floating crane and towed back to base.

This close call shook him. He feared going back for more swimming trials with the V-200. To overcome his fears, he relied on his belief in the laws of physics. “Why should I fear that it would sink? If you don’t believe it will float, you give up everything you’ve learnt – because it’s the law of physics! So I went back to testing the swimming capabilities of the V-200.” 

After that incident, Prof Lui made sure amphibious trials were always conducted with naval divers on stand-by.

cuppa2Professor Lui Pao Chuen was appointed as Singapore’s first Chief Defence Scientist in 1986.

Engineering innovation

In 1975, Prof Lui was appointed Special Projects Director. Applying his curiosity to a host of engineering-related challenges, he helped drive innovations in defence logistics, operations and planning.

Mindful of how demographic changes would impact our defence capabilities, in the early 1980s, Prof Lui undertook a bold, system-wide review of how the Army could enhance its corps of engineers. “We looked at countries that had strong engineering foundations and studied how we could keep our edge,” he said.

In 1983, his team proposed that MINDEF hire 1,000 more engineers over 10 years to get the most out of its defence investments – and the ministry accepted. “If not for that, we wouldn’t have the capability of today,” said Prof Lui, adding that this has been the greatest satisfaction of his career.

In recognition of his many contributions to Singapore, Prof Lui was appointed to the newly created position of Chief Defence Scientist in 1986.

What keeps me going is that there are so many exciting developments in Singapore.

Persistence is half the battle won, he shared. Engineering is about solving problems and mistakes are inevitable. Failure simply teaches us to be more careful the next time – “you don’t flip from trying, to not doing anymore.”

Owning our systems

After retiring from MINDEF in 2008, the sprightly professor still delights in taking problems apart and helping to shape Singapore’s future. Now as Advisor to the Ministry of National Development, he gives input for mega-projects such as the expansion of Changi Airport and the building of Tuas Port.

“What keeps me going is that there are so many exciting developments in Singapore,” he said. “Changi Airport, Tuas Port, driverless vehicles, big data, urban systems – there’s a lot of potential, and I’m fortunate to be able to contribute where I can.”

An avid champion of engineering as a vocation, Prof Lui is also heartened by efforts to raise the capabilities of engineers in the Public Service. “Without our own engineering expertise, we won’t be able to learn, grow and innovate,” he explained. “This is a serious loss because every time we solve something for ourselves, it puts us in a position to do even better next time.”

That’s also important for Singapore’s ability to chart its own future. When you develop and own the system, you know what to do when things go wrong, he explained. “If you don’t have this capability, then you are dependent on somebody.”

A Cuppa With

What’s your favourite beverage?
Tap water.

How often do you have it, and where?
Every three hours.

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