Singapore is a congregation of cultures and a blender of belief systems. It’s a tantalizing mix that gives the island state its rich history and its contemporary outlook.
One of its most prominent firms, Alfred Wong Partnership Architects (AWP), is also an effective blend of old and new. Alongside a highly respected legacy that goes back more than 60 years, it welcomes new ideas from its diverse talent, seeks innovative projects and has created an egalitarian hierarchy.
Founded in 1957, when Singapore was transforming from a colonial backwater into an independent nation, AWP was at the forefront of change from the outset.
It designed key pillars of the nation’s infrastructure, including notable iconic buildings, cultural venues, institutional buildings, industrial hubs and healthcare buildings. The company has since expanded to China, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, India, the Philippines and Vietnam.
When fledgling architect Charles Tan returned to Singapore in 2009 after spending more than a decade in the United Kingdom with a plan to immerse himself in its architectural scene, his resume landed on the desk of Edward Wong, who founded AWP alongside his brother Alfred, the company’s namesake.
There’s something special about our firm. We have this pedigree, this long history that a lot of other firms don’t possess.
Nearly 15 years later, Edward Wong continues to helm AWP as its Managing Director and Tan has moved up to become a Director overseeing the firm’s Asia–Pacific business.
"I’ve been very blessed and fortunate in my career. It’s been quite a ride," says Tan.
Culture of cooperation
He credits his speedy ascent to AWP’s culture.
"You start from the bottom and you learn how things are done. You do everything," he says. "If you are willing to give more, they will in return provide as much exposure as you seek. It has been a steep learning curve, a baptism by fire."
By 2011, Tan was involved in the construction of a large data center in Singapore. In 2013, he relocated to China to lead a large residential development and assist with the firm’s business in the country. By 2017, he was working on projects in Vietnam, and then, in 2019, he was instrumental in establishing AWP’s new branch in Indonesia.
He now juggles his time between projects in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.
"AWP has trained me to be technically competent and has encouraged me to explore my strengths. I currently lead our firm’s expansion plan into the regional markets while establishing and maintaining relationships with clients," he says.
Tan has now become a board member and third-generation partner of the firm, which he describes as an honor.
"There’s something special about our firm. We have this pedigree, this long history that a lot of other firms don’t possess. And for me personally, it’s a very big honor to be entrusted as one of the custodians of this legacy."
Paying it forward
As a leader, Tan wants to give the firm’s employees the same opportunities that he had, and says that AWP’s culture makes it easy for him to help others achieve their goals.
"Everybody is part of the team," he says. "As a leader, my role is to level the playing field for my team to perform at their very best. If someone lacks confidence or is weaker in specific areas, we will support them as best we can. For the more confident staff members, we will continue to encourage them to go further."
Tan says that empowering his team has built trust and strengthened the bonds between them.
"If I share with them with the best of my knowledge, they will be able to rise up and do my job. When that happens, it will allow me to focus on other additional responsibilities, which will only eventually benefit the entire organization. As a result, we will all grow together," he says.
While he has modern ideas when it comes to equality, he is a firm believer in old-school values, reflecting Singapore’s own blend of modernity and tradition.
I think integrity and old-school values are very important.
"I believe that conducting oneself correctly in a proper manner is key. I think integrity and old-school values are very important," he says.
No stranger to transitions, AWP is about to go through another one. The founding generation of partners are about to retire and the younger partners are poised to take over.
Tan says preserving the company culture is paramount, while expanding its presence in key markets and and exploring opportunities in the region is vital for the firm’s future.
Values have always dictated the partnerships AWP creates and always will, he adds.
"We strongly believe in and practice our firm’s culture," he says. "I believe that there is a bigger vision in place, something much bigger than individual personal desires. We are hoping to preserve the legacy of the firm and to fly the company’s flag really high. Create a platform for the next generation to build the firm on and to preserve its continuity. "