Kemmy Tan doesn’t appear to be particularly interested in feminist accolades. And as the CEO of M+S, the company responsible for Singapore’s historic DUO and Marine One projects, she’s certainly had a few. Just last year, she was recognised for her contribution at the inaugural Women Icons Summit and Awards and, earlier this year, Singapore’s Tatler named her as one of the 10 Women Shaping Singapore.

“I wouldn’t say I’m ‘shaping’ Singapore,” she reflects. “It’s more about seeing that it continues to be positioned like it is. Singapore has a good brand name, we are known to be efficient and to deliver. My dream is to maintain its position as a global place to do business as well as myself being an agent for change.”

And on her status as a female icon? “I’m not very conscious of that. It’s probably more incidental that I am recognised. For me, it’s a job in hand and I want it to be done well.”

Kemmy Tan, CEO of M+S
Kemmy Tan, CEO of M+S

‘Job in hand'

Her ‘job in hand’ over the past six years has been to oversee the construction of two sprawling developments covering 500,000 square metres of land in the heart of Singapore’s CBD. M+S, a joint venture between Malaysia’s investment fund Khazanah Nasional (60%) and Singapore’s state-owned investment company Temasek Holdings (40%), was created in 2011 to develop two land parcels in Ophir-Rochor (DUO) and four land parcels in Marina South (Marina One). They are two integrated developments in Singapore of an unprecedented scale, comprising office, residential, hotel and signature retail, dining and entertainment facilities.

Construction for DUO began in 2012 and was completed in phases between 2016–17. The first sod for Marina One was turned in 2013, with operations beginning last year. Kemmy’s blithe description of the project as being ‘quite transformational’, doesn’t quite cut it. Revolutionary, avant-garde, phenomenal, spring more quickly to mind.

DUO boasts 660 apartments, South-East Asia’s first Andaz hotel and more then 50,000 square metres of prime office space across 20 storeys. Marina One, connected to four MRT lines, has 1,042 apartments in two 34-storey blocks and some of the largest office floor plates in Singapore, measuring from 3,000 square metres to approximately 10,000 square metres, in two 30-storey blocks.

“The partnership has been great and the developments have gone smoothly,” Kemmy says. “It’s a unique project. I doubt you’d get a situation anywhere else in the world where two countries have come together to undertake real estate development.

“We gathered different people from different businesses to work together from the beginning; to conceptualise, construct and complete the project.

“We wanted to develop a legacy to last many generations, reminding them of the historic collaboration between the two governments.”

“We wanted to develop a legacy to last many generations, reminding them of the historic collaboration between the two governments.”

A bold and significant reminder of the partnership is reflected through the artwork scattered throughout the communal areas of both developments. Rather than sourcing more renowned and popular international pieces, the M+S curator sourced local art from Malaysia and Singapore.

“We’re very proud of this idea,” Kemmy admits. “Because this really is a once-in-a-lifetime collaboration, we wanted to bring that feeling home with art bought from both countries. You’ll see it in the DUO plaza and the Marina One gardens.”

Yes, enter the gardens – a 6,000-square-metre haven of lush vegetation nestled between Marina One’s four towers. The Green Heart is an urban sanctuary offering a slice of serenity to office workers, residents and visitors. It is the largest biodiversity garden within Singapore’s CBD and features a heart-shaped green core surrounded by multiple gardens, tropical flora, rainforests, a reflecting pool, winding walkways and a three-storey waterfall.

“Birdlife has come,” Kemmy adds. “We have hummingbirds in this oasis right in the heart of Singapore’s financial district.”Kemmy joined M+S as the company’s COO in 2012 before becoming CEO in 2016. A real estate veteran of over 20 years, her imposing CV includes being CEO of YTL Land and General Manager of the Sentosa Cove project, Singapore’s only integrated marina residential development on Sentosa Island.

Kemmy Tan, CEO of M+S

Growing the vision

While she concedes that spearheading a project, transforming a site, and watching it grow and develop is exhilarating, she regards the ongoing responsibility after completion just as intoxicating.

“It’s not just bricks and mortar anymore. It’s about place management and bringing the various communities into the development. Bringing the development alive with people.” MySphere, an integrated smart live-work-play management system, which seamlessly combines smart controls, community management and lifestyle facilities, is Singapore’s first mobile app to pull together Marina One and DUO residents, businesses and visitors.

The touch of a button will connect residents and workers to all the state-of-the-art amenities offered by both developments, from fitness to dining, to handyman services or booking a room at DUO’s Andaz Singapore. “We came up with this because we regard the developments as something of an ecosystem,” Kemmy explains. “About 30,000 people will be part of this system once the residential and commercial spaces are fully occupied, and we want to connect them.”

MySphere, not included in the original vision, is a perfect example of how a project evolves from the planning to the operational phase.

“When you see the plan, it is a vision, a dream, and as it grows, you get more captivated and consumed,” Kemmy explains. “When you are on the ground and see the buildings start to emerge,
you can appreciate the scale properly. That’s the physical asset; then the business side of things comes into play, securing the tenants and putting everything into place.”

Kemmy is the first to admit she’s a little impatient, a delicious irony when you consider how long a development can take from concept to completion. She likes to get things done sooner rather than later, a go-to woman for problem-solving, ideas and leadership. She also listens. A lot.

“I’m brave enough to embrace something that is different, even if it’s not something I originally supported,” she says. “You also can’t just accept things because they’re popular. Many people try not to do things differently, preferring to go down the well-trodden path they know is safe.

“I’m brave enough to embrace something that is different, even if it’s not something I originally supported.”

“In all my jobs, throughout my career, I have tried to do things differently, because in a competitive landscape, you must distinguish your product, keep on top of your creative energy, and maintain an edge. I’m always thinking in terms of how to improve, and that’s probably the creative side of me kicking in. Then you must communicate well to get others on board to follow your vision. From there, great things can happen.

“It’s also important to be empathetic. Listen, and be empathetic, but you must also be strong. That’s very important.”

Point of difference

Kemmy believes M+S’s point of difference lies in the simple fact that it was conceived purely to develop and construct two specific assets; common goals with no distractions, just a single, focused commitment from everyone involved.

“Our whole effort is concentrated on DUO and Marina One. We live and breathe these assets, always thinking, ‘How do we make it better? How do we differentiate? How do we do better than a developer with many assets?’

“To survive in this industry and ride out the cycles, you have to have a long-term view. You have to think outside the box, recognise your weaknesses and strengths, find a good mentor.”
It’s an interesting observation from a woman who doesn’t see herself as an icon. A mentor then, perhaps? Kemmy laughs.

“I guess,” she says. “When you have the time and you sit back and reflect, it’s like, oh, yeah. Okay. Maybe.”