Creating Cities for the Future

Scholarship Guide HDB Scholar Zacary Tan Jin Kiet

HDB Undergraduate scholar Zacary went overseas with his scholarship and now has a glowing career as an engineer at HDB.


Hi, I am Zac! I took up the HDB scholarship and did my undergraduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley where I crammed hard, had lots of fun and drank too much bubble tea. I am now working as an engineer at the Housing & Development Board driving the creation of Smart Cities and still drinking lots of bubble tea.

What Did You Get Out of the Scholarship?

If I was asked this question as an 18-year-old, I would have said the main draw of a scholarship was the chance to study and experience life overseas. Looking back, the same motivation remains but now, the benefits of a scholarship are much clearer.

The scholarship definitely provided me the freedom to explore courses and internships during my university years, as well as participate in more activities. For example, in addition to Civil & Structural Engineering, I also completed programmes in Sustainable Design and Architecture.

Studying overseas also broadened my worldview. I encountered many viewpoints from people of varied backgrounds, and in turn, better appreciated the quirks and values – Singaporean-isms – that define me. As it turns out, kiasu-ness is a universal trait. In addition to expanding my interpersonal and academic horizons, studying overseas also gave me a glimpse into the inner workings of other societies. For example, I saw the positive and negative effects of various public housing programmes in the United States (US). This exposed me to new possibilities that Singapore can strive towards to and allowed me to better appreciate things we often take for granted.

Being on the scholarship programme meant that I received lots of guidance from my mentors and seniors. After all, they are individuals who have “been there and done that”. Through them, I learned which were the more interesting classes to take and where to acquire second-hand textbooks. I gained a better sense of the type of work that I would do, and was able to choose the right courses and gained skills that I knew I could use in the future. For instance, in California, the professors would teach us the importance of drawing warm air into buildings in the winter. A few years later, here I am at HDB, flipping this principle on its head and doing research on how to keep our flats cool by channelling warm air out.

How Did You Know You Were Making the Right Choice in Taking up the HDB Scholarship?

I knew that I liked buildings and design, I wanted to create things that had an impact on people, and I itched to see more of the world. At that point, an HDB scholarship was a logical choice, and there have been no regrets since!

Being on a scholarship helps guide you in selecting useful courses in school. However, this does not mean you need to follow a pre-set list of classes throughout your course of study especially in the US universities where the liberal curriculum encourages students to explore disciplines outside their major. Besides engineering modules, I also took several interesting modules that complemented my learning and training in engineering. Some examples include Biomechanics (aren’t bones the columns and beams of a body?) and Architecture History (especially geeking out over the ancient engineering of pyramids, pagodas and the Pantheon). Through these explorations, I honed my strengths and passions, becoming more certain in my choices.

What Do You Do Now?

I am currently working at HDB’s Building & Research Institute, which looks at applying exciting R&D and innovative technology in HDB towns to drive liveability, sustainability and productivity. For instance, we look at new renewable energy sources, advanced construction materials, robotics, sociobehavioural studies, data analytics and artificial intelligence. Personally, I am looking at the development of Smart HDB Towns. This includes sensor deployment, developing analytics tools and introducing artificial intelligence in the optimization of estate services such as lifts, lighting and solar panels. I even had the chance to visit China where I learned from smart city thought-leaders and experienced their cutting-edge technology first hand.

In separate projects, I also enjoy applying engineering and architectural knowledge from school in my research on passive cooling and phase change materials. One of the benefits of HDB’s large and varied work is that I am able to move across diverse functions and experience various types of projects. In the coming years, I look forward to designing and overseeing the construction of entire housing precincts from scratch, alongside other planners, architects and engineers.

Some Parting Words

As you begin to make decisions for your next phase of life, I urge you to consider what you love, what you are good at and what the world needs. If the betterment of public housing for many of our fellow islanders resonates with you, the HDB scholarship will be a great stepping-stone in the journey ahead!

HDB Undergraduate Scholarship
Attained: Civil Engineering,  University of California (Berkeley)
Now: Senior Engineer, Building & Research Institute
From: Anglo-Chinese School (Independent)

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