A Design For Life

In the eyes of Datuk Lai Voon Hon, Group Managing Director of Ireka Corporation, the key to sharpening a company’s vision and pushing it forward is – quite simply –...
datuk lai voon hon

Datuk Lai Voon Hon, Group Managing Director of Ireka Corporation. Image by Gerald Goh / Image ROM

You only have to spot Datuk Lai Voon Hon’s trademark round, thick-rimmed spectacles to know that he’s got a well-trained eye for design. In fact, they’re a bit of a sartorial trademark, to the point that he has over 30 pairs in his collection. “Glasses make me happy,” he smiles, removing his current pair and peering at them. “These are J Lindeberg, and I’ve also got my other favourite – a handcrafted pair by Oliver Peoples. I feel that men don’t get to wear a lot of accessories, so spectacles are something I like.”

That’s the thing about architects – to them, the tiniest details can play an enormous part. As the Group Managing Director of Ireka Corporation, on the other hand, Datuk Lai has had to set his sights wide enough to oversee all three of its core businesses: infrastructure, real estate and technologies. Just as pivotal, too, is the part he plays in continuing Ireka’s legacy, founded by his father, Datuk Lai Siew Wah. With the company looking forward to celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, it’s an ideal opportunity to look at his own cornerstone in Ireka Corporation, which was laid – perhaps unsurprisingly – in his early childhood.


“I guess it was expected that I’d join the family business one day,” Datuk Lai muses. “My father is a very hardworking person and, even as kids, we’d spend part of our school holidays and weekends following him to work sites and offices. That’s the way we were brought up, so I grew to know about his business and how he worked.” Conscious of the fact that his future occupation would most likely revolve around earthworks and large-scale construction projects, Datuk Lai nearly opted for a degree in engineering – only to receive some unexpected advice from his father.

“If I stopped dreaming, it would be the end of my career. I need to continue to dream big to be able to create things – so really, I encourage everyone to dream big to succeed in life.”

“Whenever I visited work sites with him, the people I was most often in contact with were the workers, supervisors and engineers. Once it was time for me to choose what I wanted to study at university, it seemed quite natural to think of engineering. That’s when my father said, ‘Wait a second – haven’t you thought of other options?’ I’d always been quite an artistic person from a young age, you see: as a child, I built cardboard houses, and drew and painted a lot, but it never dawned on me that architecture might be a possible profession.

Image by Gerald Goh / Image ROM

“It wasn’t until my father told me, ‘If you have that gift of creativity, why don’t you try architecture? Then you won’t spend as much time under the sun, unlike me’!” After drawing inspiration from some of his father’s friends, all of whom were prominent Malaysian architects, Datuk Lai promptly received an offer from The Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London – long regarded as one of the world’s most prominent and influential architecture schools. There, he plunged straight into the midnight oil-burning lifestyle typical of any architecture student, cutting balsa wood to make scale models and heading to the studio at three in the morning.

“The problem with architecture students is that they’re perfectionists. They wait until the very last minute to come up with the perfect creation. It’s a terrible life, but it’s fun!” he smiles. “The architectural course itself was very broad, so it taught us to look with a very big vision. Architects are dreamers – if you have architects as friends, anything is possible. It enabled me to see a broad concept from an overall picture, and to think at a higher, wider level.”

Fuelled by the work of Le Corbusier, Louis Khan, Tadao Ando, Norman Foster and Renzo Piano, Datuk Lai spent his initial post-university years working as an architect in London and, after that, Hong Kong, where his focus fell increasingly on designing hotels and high-end residential apartments. After a gap of five years, however, the familiar voice of his father began calling him home. “Being very independent, I was reluctant to return and kept saying, ‘Maybe next year.’ But I knew it was inevitable.

“What prompted it, actually, was that, at the time, he’d purchased three plots of adjoining land in Bukit Bintang, on which he wanted to build a hotel. He found my soft spot and pointed out, ‘You’ve been complaining that clients often don’t understand your concepts and saying that if they listened to you, their project would be far better. Now you’ve got the land right here – come back and design what you’d like. Build what you think might be the perfect hotel’.”

Tasked with the challenge, Datuk Lai ended up creating The Westin Kuala Lumpur – a 452-room, five-star hotel that opened in the heart of the city in 2003. Four years later, it was sold at a record price of MYR1 million per room. “I did enjoy the process,” he recalls fondly. “My father kept to his promise that he wouldn’t interfere too much on the hotel side, so I had a fairly free hand when it came to conceptualising and designing the hotel.

He’s not afraid to admit that he’s enormously proud of his first hotel for Ireka, even today. “It’s almost like a baby or a child to me – though selling it wasn’t a problem and we received such a good offer at the time. As an architect, you design a building for someone and move on, and if there’s a new owner who’ll look after your so-called baby, you can be happy. I go there quite often, especially to Five Sen5es, the Chinese restaurant. It’s still the same as before – it’s built to last, in that sense!”

“It wasn’t until my father told me, ‘If you have that gift of creativity, why don’t you try architecture? Then you won’t spend as much time under the sun, unlike me’!”


The idea of building something to last runs like a vein through all of Ireka’s projects, as a quick glance at our cityscape will attest – just look at the head offices of AIG and OCBC. “We’re proud of all the projects we’ve done, including our contributions to the skyline of KL,” Datuk Lai affirms. “When my dad developed Ireka as a construction company, he made a very conscious decision to only get involved in landmark projects or those which were of high quality. We didn’t try to construct mass housing or go into projects where the budget was too low, and opted for a more particular, boutique approach.”

As he points out, their achievements aren’t always a matter of looking upwards, either, but at the seamless infrastructure that’s often taken for granted – for example, they were responsible for national landmarks like the North-South Expressway and Runway 1 and ground preparation of Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Today, of course, the game has shifted from government-propelled opportunities to the property development market, to which Ireka has nimbly responded by adapting its strategy.

“The later phase of our company isn’t so much about nation-building, but bringing our Malaysian standards to a level we can be proud of internationally. When we built our i-Zen brand of luxury properties in Mont Kiara, like SENI and Tiffani by i-Zen, we wanted to develop international-standard condominiums. We were the first to introduce concierge service, just as we pioneered the idea of introducing air-conditioning as a standard part of the package, rather than selling the units with holes in the walls – as was the norm in those days!

“I seriously believe it’s our emphasis on being different in whatever we do that has defined us. We try to build something unique and seldom follow another project – that’s not in our DNA. We prefer to explore the latest or most interesting ideas, especially in construction or development, whether it’s Aloft Kuala Lumpur Sentral, which is the largest Aloft hotel in the world, or 1 Mont Kiara mall, with its distinctive roof structure.”

Image by Gerald Goh / Image ROM

Between zipping off to London to tend to Ireka’s associated property development company Aseana Properties Limited (which is listed on the Main Market of the London Stock Exchange) or looking in the direction of Vietnam, where Aseana has developed a 320-bed international class hospital and 37-hectare International Healthcare Park in Ho Chi Minh City, Datuk Lai remains very much on the go. Then, there’s the prospect of launching close to RM2 billion worth of property in the future, which he understandably relishes, given that he’s also the CEO of Ireka Development Management.

“It’s obviously my duty to make sure Ireka continues to sustain its growth. A company that doesn’t grow will have problems and slide behind its competitors. We need to ensure we don’t become the dinosaur of our industry and that may entail transforming the old ways of doing things into a new way of thinking. In a way, these are big shoes to fill – maintaining the legacy that’s been handed down within the company from my father – and that’s the challenge. It’s about keeping the ship steady on its path of growth.”


Image by Gerald Goh / Image ROM

At the top of Datuk Lai’s list of priorities for this year is The RuMa Hotel & Residences – a 40-storey development on Jalan Kia Peng that boasts 253 hotel rooms and 199 serviced residence units, which, in his words, is “going to set another benchmark”. It stems, at least in part, from his love of travel – something he gets to do frequently for business and on rarer, treasured occasions, with his family (he’s set to visit Bhutan this year and waxes lyrical about Cuba being “frozen in time in the 1950s and bathed in candlelight”).

“There are some lovely new hotels worth exploring these days. We came up with The RuMa because I discovered The PuLi Hotel in Shanghai, which is one of my favourite hotels,” he explains, going on to name The Sanderson in London, Belmond Governor’s Residence in Yangon and the Hôtel des Arts Saïgon MGallery Collection in Ho Chi Minh City as well. Intrigued by The PuLi’s tranquillity, elegant interiors and faithful clientele – many of whom he noticed were from the design and fashion industries – it sparked Datuk Lai’s curiosity in creating a bespoke, non-chain hotel.

“In all of our hotels, I’m very much involved in the design and conceptualisation, although I see myself these days more as a conductor who brings in the right people to work on the concept I have in mind. The RuMa is very personal and bespoke, and the interior architect, Andy Hall from MQ studio, is so particular about every detail that you’re going to be surprised,” he says, speaking of Hall’s contemporary interpretation of the aesthetics of Malaysian heritage. “The spaces in our hotels are always interesting – we play with the light, and the height and levels to make them three-dimensional.

“It’s never just about beauty from the surface. Practicing architecture trained me to appreciate form and function – both are important – and when you apply that rule to developments, you understand the form has to work. Because of that, I’m glad to say that in all the apartments and hotels we’ve built, people like our spaces.” With an architect’s perspective, does he ever find his view of what’s best for Ireka distinct from how his father and his sister, Monica Lai Voon Huey (a chartered accountant who serves as Group Deputy Managing Director), see things?

“We do have very different styles of working,” he laughs, “But what binds us together are the values we share – a trust and equity that’s common to us all. We’re extremely close, so we understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses well. In terms of goals, I’m probably a bigger dreamer than anyone in the company, whereas my sister is the one who’s more realistic and tells me if I’m dreaming too big. We certainly have a good system of checks and balances.”

As far as balancing an ambitious, dynamic vision of Ireka’s future with realism goes, Datuk Lai is clear about which side of the equation he leans towards. “I know we tend to make sure our dreams are realistic, though, personally, I’m one of those people who starts by getting the best vision I can. With all our resources, what’s the best vision we can achieve? Then we can start analysing and adjusting our goals, but with a lot of dreams, you can’t actually know how far you’ll go until you try.

“If I stopped dreaming, it would be the end of my career. I need to continue to dream big to be able to create things – so really, I encourage everyone to dream big to succeed in life.”

Text: Renyi Lim
Art Direction: Penny Chew
Photography: Gerald Goh / Image ROM
Photography Assistants: Nelson Chong & Saiful Azwan
Production Support: Metal Bees
Digital Enhancing: Pixarom Sdn Bhd

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