In the eyes of Malaysia’s Iron Lady of Ar­chi­tec­ture, there’s more to the pro­fes­sion than straight­for­ward de­sign and con­struc­tion. For Datuk Tan Pei Ing, it’s about tak­ing on the wider re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of the role and, above all, never skirt­ing the big iss


In the eyes of Malaysia’s Iron Lady of Ar­chi­tec­ture, there’s more to the pro­fes­sion than straight­for­ward de­sign and con­struc­tion. For Datuk Tan Pei Ing, it’s about tak­ing on the wider re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of the role and, above all, never skirt­ing the big is­sues.

“Oh, I grew up with Ka­jang sa­tay,” smiles Datuk Tan Pei Ing as we ex­change restau­rant rec­om­men­da­tions – the go-to Malaysian method of break­ing the ice – af­ter telling me that she comes from Hulu Lan­gat’s largest town. “It’s not so much about the meat as the peanut sauce: I love nuts, so I can eat one stick of sa­tay with an en­tire bowl of kuah. The orig­i­nal place in Ka­jang that my fam­ily and I used to go to has since been de­mol­ished, but the sa­tay at the club­house at IOI Palm Villa Golf & Coun­try Re­sort – I used to go there for meet­ings – is very good.”

As well as be­ing a re­li­able author­ity on what counts as good sa­tay, the Founder and Prin­ci­pal of PI Ar­chi­tect has been the cre­ative force be­hind IOI Pu­chong Mall, IOI Busi­ness Park and the JW Mar­riott Ho­tel at IOI Re­sort. She’s equally well known in Malaysia’s ar­chi­tec­tural com­mu­nity as a for­mer Pres­i­dent of the Malaysian In­sti­tute of Ar­chi­tects (PAM), as well as a past Pres­i­dent of the Ar­chi­tects Re­gional Coun­cil Asia (ARCASIA), which brings to­gether na­tional in­sti­tutes of ar­chi­tects from 19 coun­tries across the Asian re­gion.

Just as her in­ter­est in ar­chi­tec­ture started dur­ing her child­hood years, when she would track the grad­ual changes of Kuala Lumpur’s sky­line while her par­ents reg­u­larly com­muted into the city for work, her con­ver­sa­tion with The Peak Malaysia re­veals how she con­tin­ues to en­gage with our meta­mor­phos­ing ur­ban­scape – with all its flaws, frus­tra­tions and hid­den gems – in a way that of­fers a fas­ci­nat­ing in­sider’s per­spec­tive. BUILD­ING A BE­GIN­NING Not for noth­ing is Datuk Tan known as the Iron Lady of Ar­chi­tec­ture in Malaysia, even though she ini­tially claims: “I’m quite an in­tro­vert and not a very con­fi­dent per­son – my par­ents used to say I was ki­asi, al­ways scared of do­ing some­thing wrong! – but I can­not stand in­jus­tice. It’s not for the sake of be­ing outspoken. When I feel jus­tice needs to be done, I’ll stand up and stick my neck out by fight­ing for is­sues that I strongly be­lieve in.” While she first demon­strated her steely re­solve by con­fronting rude pre­fects and even teach­ers who bul­lied their stu­dents, her de­ter­mi­na­tion to study ar­chi­tec­ture se­cured a place at the Univer­sity of Mel­bourne, de­spite her par­ents’ ini­tial re­luc­tance.

“They didn’t want me to do ar­chi­tec­ture. Their first con­cern was that it was male-dom­i­nated and, se­condly, it was a six-year course – they wanted me to do a shorter, eas­ier course where I could get my de­gree in three years. But, at the end of the day, they had to ac­cept that I re­ally wanted to study ar­chi­tec­ture be­cause it was my passion. And it was passion that kept me go­ing, too.” For Datuk Tan, at­tend­ing univer­sity in Aus­tralia was the first time she had ever been away from her fam­ily, which – com­bined with the demands of a rig­or­ous aca­demic sched­ule – made for a tough start.

“With ar­chi­tec­ture be­ing a com­bi­na­tion of art and science, there were so many sub­jects we needed to cover. You’d be sur­prised – it’s a broad view: en­gi­neer­ing, build­ing science, acous­tics, law, con­tract ad­min­is­tra­tion, de­sign, the his­tory of ar­chi­tec­ture… Ar­chi­tec­ture stu­dents have to know a bit about ev­ery­thing, which is how you learn about the de­sign process. On cer­tain weeks, we’d go two to four nights with­out sleep be­cause the work was so in­ten­sive that we lit­er­ally didn’t have enough time, which meant I be­came pretty re­silient. The dropout rate was, and is, still high – and un­less you had enough passion, not many peo­ple sur­vived those five years, plus one year of prac­ti­cal.

“It com­pletely shook me out of my com­fort zone. I re­ally missed home at the be­gin­ning – tele­phone calls were too ex­pen­sive and ev­ery­thing de­pended on wait­ing for an aero­gramme to ar­rive. But I even­tu­ally learned to be very in­de­pen­dent, so those ex­pe­ri­ences taught me valu­able lessons. And I must say the ar­chi­tec­ture pro­gramme was ex­tremely holis­tic, de­spite the fact that it was so dif­fi­cult.” It was there that she stud­ied the work of Louis Kahn, Philip John­son and Frank Lloyd Wright, and, just as cru­cially, de­vel­oped her strong pro­fes­sional ex­te­rior.

“Ar­chi­tects are trained to be crit­i­cised. I still re­mem­ber how our de­signs would be torn apart and handed back to us by our lec­tur­ers, so we learned to take it more ob­jec­tively. Af­ter all, de­sign is very per­sonal: to you, it may be the most fan­tas­tic de­sign but, to your lec­turer or your client, they can find fault with your de­sign and you have to deal with that crit­i­cism.” So why grit your teeth and plug on? “Be­cause we, as ar­chi­tects, cre­ate some­thing out of noth­ing,” ex­plains Datuk Tan. “It

brings a lot of sat­is­fac­tion. We also change the way that peo­ple live and their sur­round­ings, so the im­por­tance of ar­chi­tec­ture comes from shift­ing the en­vi­ron­ment we’re in. It’s such an im­por­tant pro­fes­sion, and I want to be part of a process that en­ables change.” IRONS IN THE FIRE Change was cer­tainly some­thing that needed to take place when Datuk Tan re­turned to Malaysia in 1984, ready to em­bark on new projects with the flex­i­ble de­sign method­ol­ogy that her firm would even­tu­ally be­come recog­nised for. En­ter­ing an industry that was largely un­used to work­ing with fe­male ar­chi­tects, how­ever, meant deal­ing with con­trac­tors who would try to push her around or project man­agers who had been in­structed by their su­pe­ri­ors to avoid giv­ing her any ad­di­tional projects, on the ba­sis of both her youth and gender.

“Be­ing given IOI Pu­chong Mall – one of the big­gest jobs at that point of time – was an enor­mous break­through, be­cause it was the first big project we em­barked on, and one that re­sulted in the client fi­nally recog­nis­ing our ca­pa­bil­ity. I think we did a de­cent job and com­pleted it to our client’s sat­is­fac­tion, so it was an ex­tremely im­por­tant mile­stone in my ca­reer, and for PI Ar­chi­tect. That was fol­lowed by what is now the Pu­tra­jaya Mar­riott Ho­tel – the first ho­tel we did – and IOI Busi­ness Park, which was hugely sat­is­fy­ing and an en­dorse­ment of (IOI Group Ex­ec­u­tive Chair­man) Tan Sri Dato’ Lee Shin Cheng’s trust.”

Has the industry opened up since she first be­gan work­ing, or does the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of fe­male Malaysian ar­chi­tects still face the same hur­dles? Af­ter all, it was only last Septem­ber that a for­mi­da­ble Face­book post writ­ten by Datuk Tan went vi­ral (it was shared by nearly three thou­sand peo­ple) af­ter she was barred from rep­re­sent­ing the Board of Ar­chi­tects at a meet­ing at Kuala Lumpur City Hall sim­ply for wear­ing a skirt – and not a par­tic­u­larly short one, at that. “I think con­di­tions have changed sub­stan­tially,” she an­swers evenly. “When I came back in the 1980s, it was a lot worse be­cause our num­bers were small. But now, I think the fact that women are given far more op­por­tu­ni­ties to get an ed­u­ca­tion helps enor­mously.

“Re­ally, there’s no ba­sis for clas­si­fy­ing the dif­fer­ences be­tween the way men and women ap­proach ar­chi­tec­ture. That’s very much based on the way we’re trained, our fam­ily back­grounds and our per­sonal char­ac­ters – it’s not gender-based. Ev­ery one of us is dif­fer­ent and unique in our own way and, re­mem­ber, we’re all trained ar­chi­tects.” In 2001, she be­came PAM’s Pres­i­dent in one of the most hotly con­tested elec­tions in the in­sti­tute’s 81-year his­tory – and its first fe­male Pres­i­dent, no less. Datuk Tan’s two-year term was spent try­ing to put a di­vided in­sti­tute back on track, which she and her team tack­led through five key strate­gies that she out­lined.

There’s no doubt that she’s very much a doer – some­one who sticks to her guns and gets things done – which she con­sid­ers an es­sen­tial el­e­ment of gender eq­uity and the re­sul­tant ne­ces­sity of a mer­i­toc­racy. (Her draft of the Khar­toum Dec­la­ra­tion on Gender Eq­uity in Ar­chi­tec­ture, which was adopted by the mem­bers of the In­ter­na­tional Union of Ar­chi­tects’ Pro­fes­sional Prac­tice Com­mis­sion last year, for ex­am­ple, called for ‘the frame­work and prin­ci­ples de­signed to max­imise fair and eq­ui­table ac­cess to op­por­tu­ni­ties’.) “Be­cause I was the first fe­male Pres­i­dent of PAM, it was sug­gested that I should set up a sec­tion for women mem­bers, which I to­tally did not agree with.

“Why dif­fer­en­ti­ate our­selves as fe­male ar­chi­tects? We’ve been trained the same way, sat the same ex­ams and ob­tained the same pro­fes­sional qual­i­fi­ca­tion. I want to be recog­nised as who I am as an ar­chi­tect, not be­cause I’m a woman – just as I didn’t want to be elected Pres­i­dent sim­ply be­cause it was time for a woman to be elected. I don’t be­lieve some­one should be given a po­si­tion for their gender, on the ba­sis that you need to cre­ate a cer­tain bal­ance. Give them op­por­tu­ni­ties, train them and make them aware, but, at the end of the day, the per­son most ca­pa­ble should be given the job.” REAL STEEL Forg­ing ahead, Datuk Tan spent an­other two years as the sec­ond woman leader and first fe­male Pres­i­dent of ARCASIA from 2013 to 2014, dur­ing which time she chose to em­pha­sise the so­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity that

“When I feel jus­tice needs to be done, I’ll stand up and stick my neck out by fight­ing for is­sues that I strongly be­lieve in.”

ar­chi­tects have to­wards ben­e­fit­ing so­ci­ety at large, such as by ini­ti­at­ing a do­na­tion drive and seek­ing sup­port from the mem­ber in­sti­tutes of ARCASIA for the Philip­pines af­ter Ty­phoon Haiyan struck in 2013.

With a view to­wards en­cour­ag­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian ac­tion, she for­mu­lated a frame­work to es­tab­lish ARCASIA Emer­gency Ar­chi­tects, which looks at co­or­di­nat­ing fu­ture dis­as­ter pre­pared­ness and man­age­ment, and was in­stru­men­tal in set­ting out the ARCASIA Char­ter on So­cial Re­spon­si­bil­ity, which was adopted by all mem­ber in­sti­tutes in 2015 in the in­ter­ests of pro­mot­ing re­spect­ful, eth­i­cally man­aged ar­chi­tec­ture for hu­man­ity and re­spon­si­ble ar­chi­tec­ture for a bet­ter built en­vi­ron­ment. In that light, per­haps, it’s no sur­prise that Ja­panese ‘star­chi­tect’ Shigeru Ban’s ap­proach res­onates so strongly with her.

“He promotes the idea of re­spon­si­ble ar­chi­tec­ture and that all ar­chi­tects should do some­thing for so­ci­ety and the com­mu­nity, in­stead of just serv­ing the rich,” re­marks Datuk Tan. “I se­ri­ously ad­mire that kind of com­mit­ment and con­vic­tion. Within Asia alone, there’ve been so many dis­as­ters. As an ar­chi­tect, what do you do? The ma­jor­ity of th­ese dis­as­ters are be­cause we’ve not been re­spon­si­ble about the en­vi­ron­ment. Yes, we’re now look­ing at pro­mot­ing sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment, but we have to look at more than that – ar­chi­tec­ture that’s re­spon­si­ble to all stake­hold­ers, in­clud­ing your client, con­ser­va­tion ef­forts or a city’s her­itage.”

She also feels that the wider so­cial re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of be­ing an ar­chi­tect need to come into play much more of­ten than they al­ready do, par­tic­u­larly in the con­scious­ness of less es­tab­lished ar­chi­tects. “As a pro­fes­sional, your in­tegrity is very im­por­tant. Your knowl­edge is vi­tal be­cause peo­ple rely on you and ev­ery­thing we do in­volves safety: we cer­tify build­ing com­ple­tion, we con­duct pe­ri­odic inspections of the qual­ity of work and we’re needed for a lot of cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. Un­for­tu­nately, you’ll some­times get younger pro­fes­sion­als who tend to take the easy way out or do things be­cause they feel pres­sured by many par­ties.

“If you’re not pro­fes­sional and you cer­tify a build­ing while things aren’t in or­der, you com­pro­mise safety and health – so our re­spon­si­bil­i­ties as ar­chi­tects are very, very heavy.” Ob­serv­ing the chang­ing cityscapes and sky­lines of so many cities in the world, she sug­gests it’s also up to ar­chi­tects to sculpt and shape a city’s fu­ture with­out for­get­ting its past – or, more im­por­tantly, its soul. “I had an in­ter­est­ing con­ver­sa­tion with a taxi driver in Shang­hai, where – as I re­marked how much the city had pro­gressed – he re­sponded that the sad part was that Shang­hai had lost a lot of its cul­tural her­itage.

“Pre­serv­ing a city’s cul­tural her­itage re­flects its val­ues and cul­ture, and we’re on our way to los­ing our her­itage in Kuala Lumpur as well. I’m also con­cerned that if we don’t ex­er­cise some con­trol over our rapid de­vel­op­ment and build ra­tio­nally, the many new high-rise con­struc­tions might cause over­crowd­ing. There’s a danger that it will be­come a con­crete jun­gle with­out ad­e­quate fa­cil­i­ties and in­fra­struc­ture sup­port. Just look at the traf­fic jams and flash floods, which are some of the real prob­lems that need to be ad­dressed.

“I live and work in the city, and what mat­ters most to us are the en­vi­ron­ment and the qual­ity of life. Kuala Lumpur could do with much bet­ter pub­lic spa­ces – parks, for in­stance – with im­proved in­te­grated con­nec­tiv­ity and pub­lic trans­port.” Af­ter an ac­tion-packed year in 2017, where she re­mained hard at work as a Past Pres­i­dent at PAM’s Coun­cil and the Hon­orary Ad­vi­sor of the cur­rent ARCASIA Pres­i­dent, Datuk Tan’s reap­point­ment by the Min­is­ter of Works as a mem­ber of the Board of Ar­chi­tects makes her hope­ful that this year will see some progress on pol­icy-mak­ing for the pro­fes­sion, as well as on amend­ments to the Ar­chi­tects Act and Rules.

“As for my own per­sonal prac­tice, we have a few new ex­cit­ing projects that are un­der the de­sign de­vel­op­ment stage, and I hope some of them will take off the ground,” she adds – in which case, we might find our­selves wait­ing ex­pec­tantly for a new ad­di­tion to the cityscape. But one, of course, that’s the very op­po­site of an­other build­ing block in a con­crete jun­gle. “The im­por­tance of ar­chi­tec­ture comes from shift­ing the en­vi­ron­ment we’re in. It’s such an im­por­tant pro­fes­sion, and I want to be part of a process that en­ables change.”

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