Meet Malaysia’s Iron Lady of Architecture - Datuk Tan Pei Ing

Meet Malaysia’s Iron Lady of Architecture – Datuk Tan Pei Ing

Heavy Mettle

“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.


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.

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“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.”


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.”

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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.”

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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 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.


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