M. Bakri Musa
A review of Ruslan Khalid’s Quest for Architectural Excellence. A Malaysian Experience.
Marshall Cavendish, Singapore,
2013. 308 pp. US$35.00; RM44.90.
During World War II, British aviation experts were consumed
with analyzing and fixing returning warplanes that had been fired upon, until it
was pointed out that those damages were not critical as the planes could still
fly. It was counterintuitive but logical; if you want to study critical damages,
you examine downed planes.
the Talent Corporation spent RM65 million on Malaysian professionals abroad to entice
them to return. It may be counterintuitive but the money would be better spent
on those at home so they would not even consider
leaving. If they are happy, the good word would spread, enticing those abroad to
Our wise elders
counseled us of the trap of kera di hutan
di susukan, anak di rumah mati kelaparan. (breastfeeding the monkey in the
jungle while letting your child at home starve to death.)
family, like Tolstoy’s unhappy family in Anna
Karenina, is unique in its own way. Thus instead of studying “big data” on
the brain drain, it would be more fruitful to analyze individual cases, not
those who emigrate but the ones who return or stay.
One such professional
was the late architect Ruslan Khalid. He died in November 2012, only days after
final-proofing his autobiography, Quest
For Architectural Excellence. The Malaysian Experience.
Product of London’s
AA School of Architecture
Ruslan graduated from London’s
prestigious Architectural Association (AA) School
of Architecture, and had a successful
practice in London
before returning home late in 1979. Among his clients while there was the Sultan
dozen years or so in Malaysia
took only about a third of his 308-page book. Those running Talent Corporation
would learn more from reading those pages than they would from gallivanting
around the world enticing Malaysians to return. It would also be a lot cheaper,
and the book is an enjoyable read, quite apart from being informative. Ruslan
wrote well, with elegance and passion. He also immersed himself into the upper
crust of British artistic society, and we get a glimpse of that as a bonus.
dedicated his book to “all late starters.” Presumably he considered himself one.
On the contrary as is evident from the book, he was intelligent, insightful,
and very resourceful. Those qualities however, were not recognized early or at
all by his native country, nor are they readily assessed on a paper-and-pencil
only (his description) Grade II in
his School Certificate Examination in 1952 and a scholarship to a third-rate British
architectural school. He recognized that stark reality on his very first day on
campus. For an institution to train designers of buildings and structures, the edifice
was anything but inspiring. It was like entering a hospital or medical school
where the foyer was dirty and ambience unhygienic; you have to be desperate to have
any trust or confidence.
reflected the foresight of his colonial interviewers that they awarded him a
scholarship despite his Grade II; they saw his potential. After all he entered
English school only two years earlier having previously attended only Malay and
religious schools. It also reflected the wisdom of his teachers then that he
had to take English classes at his Islamic school. Where are those educators
On his voyage
he bunked with three top-scorer students. By the time they reached Bombay, he had already
befriended a certain lady from the First Class deck while the other three were
content jabbering among themselves. As luck would have it, she was the wife of
a famous architect besides being one herself.
lecturers in a third-rate institution, Ruslan flunked his second year. Undeterred
and confident of his talent, he pursued his craft through the old apprentice
system. His portfolio, together with his contacts with many well-known
architects, later paved his way into AA School as an advanced student on a British scholarship.
All these are
interesting preamble. My interest however, is on enticing successful Malaysians
to return, or what make them leave. So I will focus on this native son’s
travails at home upon his return late in life.
Despite having been a practicing architect for over a decade
in London, his application for registration in Malaysia
was summarily denied. He did not have the prerequisite two years of local public
service. Not wishing to be desk-bound in some ministry, he opted for Universiti
After all he had been a senior lecturer in London.
was predictable, and came soon. He left after the minimum two years to pursue private
practice, which led him to be editor of his professional association’s journal.
He soon discovered that his profession at home was handmaiden for developers
and the journal he edited was more advertising channel for the industry rather
than advancing the art and science of local architecture.
attest to that. In 1977 my wife and I engaged a famous architect in Kuala Lumpur to design our
dream house. We chose him because his name was similar to mine, and with his
foreign wife I thought he would appreciate our aspiration. We wanted a wooden
house with local fruit trees for landscaping. Imagine our surprise when he
answered our every query with, “Yes, we can do that!” without offering alternatives
or critiquing our ideas.
Then at a
public housing exhibition I encountered the firm of Goh Hock Guan; it had won
first prize in that competition with its wooden house design. We chose it, and
to our surprise were assigned to a young Malay associate. Surely he had been sent
abroad on a government scholarship and thus should be pushing papers in one of
those ministries, I thought.
too answered all our questions but he also warned us that while he was
enthusiastic about our project, our house would have little resale value as it
was not mainstream design. We nonetheless proceeded and were enthralled with
his creation! Unfortunately by this time I had already decided to leave. We paid
his fees and kept the blueprint. Esa went on to have a very successful career.
Thwarted Academic The
Back to Ruslan, a few years later UPM opened its
architectural faculty. Eager to train future architects in his mold, he became
its founding dean. Again the quick and predictable ending! Despite being on the
Sultan of Pahang’s polo team and Prime Minister Mahathir’s riding companion, quite
apart from having a half-brother in the cabinet, Ruslan was, as he wrote, “relieved
of his duties.” Mahathir offered his services to have him reinstated, but
bitten twice, he politely declined.
incident during his deanship was symptomatic of the country’s malaise and
obsession with praises from foreigners. He had fought hard to improve the
academic facilities when, unbeknown to Ruslan, the Vice-Chancellor hired a
British consultant. As it turned out Ruslan knew him. Consequently the report
was full of praise and confidence of the faculty’s future under Ruslan’s
leadership. The VC used that as an excuse to deny Ruslan’s request, deeming that
the faculty was fine as it was!
Again I can
relate to that. As a surgeon in Johor Baru 1978 I fought hard to upgrade the hospital
to be worthy of a teaching institution. Then came a British delegation
sponsored by the ministry. At the exit conference the British spokesman could hardly
restrain himself in praising our facility, egged on by the beaming smiles of
finished I spoke up. I told him that much as I appreciated his generous
remarks, he had effectively undercut my efforts. The ministry would now not
approve my request seeing that our facility was already doing well. Then to
drive home my point, I told everyone that I had never been to a British
teaching hospital, but if they were impressed with our facility, then I did not
think highly of their standards.
At the end
of the meeting one of the surveyors sought me to apologize. I told him it
mattered not as the damage had been done and that he surely would be invited
again for the next survey, unless of course he was willing to submit an amended
realities would never be uncovered in glitzy official reports or expensive
consultants’ surveys; hence the need for personal accounts as with Ruslan
Khalid’s In Quest for Architectural
Khalid is now gone, may Allah bless his soul and put him among the righteous. Architect
Ruslan bequeathed his extensive portfolios; native son Ruslan, this thoughtful
and insightful autobiography. Malaysia
would be poorer if it does not heed his wisdom.