KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 27 — Visitors to Malaysia are often surprised by our modern skyscrapers and the glistening temples to consumerism we call malls, especially in central Kuala Lumpur.

Before the skyscrapers and highways there were far older buildings that now stand as memorials to times past. Those buildings are part of, but not the entire story, in a book written by Malaysian Soon-Tzu Speechley.

A lecturer in urban and cultural heritage at the University of Melbourne’s Australian Centre for Architectural History, Urban and Cultural Heritage, Speechley’s doctoral dissertation was the first survey ever about Malayan classicism, and also coincidentally the title of his upcoming book.

He includes his research interests as including British Empire architectural networks, South-east Asian heritage and of course classical architecture and its reception in colonial Malaya.


I wrote to him to find out more about his book, what classicism was exactly and just why he was driven to write about historical Malayan architecture.

British influences

Classicism, Speechley said, is a broad term used to describe buildings influenced by the architecture of Ancient Greece and Rome.


“Between the late 1700s, when Britain established a colonial presence in South-east Asia, and the end of World War II, classicism came to be the dominant style in Malaya,” he said.

This was initially limited to imperial monuments such as government offices and courthouses but soon both local and migrant builders began to incorporate it into their work.

“You see this happening early on with the palaces constructed for rulers like Sultan Abu Bakar of Johor, who adopted the then-fashionable Palladian style (inspired by the Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio) for the Istana Besar in Johor.

“The style also filters into vernacular architecture, particularly shophouses which blend Chinese and Western elements to create a distinctive regional style,” he said.

Origins and beginnings

As to what to expect in the book, Speechley said that it traces just how Western classical architecture became a Malayan style.

“I do this by first looking at the imperial monuments constructed by the British, before turning my attention to how the style was adopted and adapted in the hands of Malayan architects.

“The chapters progress chronologically, but each one deals with a specific type of building: from British government buildings to a range of schools — from Malay-language institutions in Singapore to the Victoria Institution, as well as Chinese-medium and Catholic schools,” he said.

He also looked at how the Sultans of Johor in particular became patrons of classical architecture. The style was often seen in palaces as well as mosques that they built through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Speechley’s attention isn’t just towards grander establishments; the fourth chapter of the book looks at Malaya’s residential architecture, and how elements of the classical style were adopted by everyone from mining magnates to the burgeoning middle class.

In the book’s final chapter, it revolves around a more focused case study — the Supreme Court in Singapore and the backlash to its construction in the local press — as well as exploring just how classicism fell out of favour as the dominant style on the eve of World War II.

“This was a key moment in Malayan architectural history, and helped seal the fate of this style in Malaya. Modernism was on the rise, and after the Japanese Occupation would displace classicism as the style of colonial buildings and, subsequently, the architecture of the newly independent Federation,” he said.

“Classical architecture was ascendent in Europe when Britain began its colonial expansion in Asia. It’s a style of architecture that has for millennia been adopted for different ideological reasons — sometimes adopted by people to signal democratic ideals, but also used by fascists and imperialists.

“In Malaya, as in other British colonies, drawing ideas from antiquity allowed Britain to cast itself as the new Rome. But the style was also adopted by a range of local communities for different reasons.

“For Malay rulers, the adoption of the style in buildings like the Sultan Abu Bakar mosque in Johor was a way of projecting a vision of modernity — coinciding with a new model of constitutional monarchy promulgated by the Undang-Undang Negeri Johor.

“It’s easy to think of classicism as a foreign style imposed by British colonisers, but buildings like these tell a much more complicated story in a period when Malayans of all races were reimagining what it means to be Malayan,” he said.

To Speechley, the shophouses found across Malaysia (and Singapore) are the best example of how classicism was translated in the local context.

“Builders and clients of all races used Western classical elements to create modern homes, but often maintained a link to their own culture through ornamental details. Whether you’re walking down Jalan Tun Perak in KL, Lebuh Armenian in Penang, or in smaller towns like Kuala Pilah, you’ll see buildings that mix Roman columns with Chinese mythological creatures on their façades.

“They might use tiles imported from Europe on their five-footways, while having inscriptions in Jawi on their pediments. To me, this is an architecture that sums up Malaysia’s multicultural history, blending ideas from across Asia and beyond to create something that is distinctly local. They tell the story of people creating new, pluralistic Malayan identities that were still rooted in their own traditions.”

Paying homage

Calling himself a fifth-generation Kuala Lumpurian, Speechley said he has always been interested in Malaysian architecture.

“As a teenager, I spent many of my weekends in downtown Kuala Lumpur with a camera and sketchbook in hand, capturing details from old government buildings and shophouses. This interest eventually led me to a range of roles in architectural history and heritage,” he said.

Working in Penang and Singapore after graduating from university, his experiences in those cities further heightened his appreciation for this region’s rich heritage.

“While much has been written about Malayan architecture, it became clear that no one had focused on what was, for more than a century, Malaya’s most widespread architectural style,” he said.

He said that a lot of the existing scholarship also tended to view local adaptations of classical architecture as being inferior in some way to Western classical architecture, with some prominent scholars describing the local vernacular as “coarsened” or “mutant” classicism.

Speechley, on the other hand, thinks that this architecture had been largely misunderstood.

“My book draws inspiration from our local creole languages. Just as Manglish, Penang Hokkien and Baba Malay draw vocabulary from a multitude of different languages, grafting these words onto the syntax of another tongue, Malayan classicism took ideas from Western classical architecture, and adapted it to Asian building typologies like the rumah limas, the shophouse, and mosques,” he said.

To him, this architecture doesn’t represent a “coarsened” form of Western classical architecture, but a distinct and inventive local style that developed from the ingenuity and resilience of Malaya’s diverse architecture profession.

As to his own influences, Speechley said that there is some really interesting work being done on Malaysian architecture and he himself has been influenced by books like Jon SH Lim’s The Penang House, Ruth Iversen Rollitt’s Iversen: Architect of Ipoh and Modern Malaya, and Khoo Salma Nasution’s The Chulia in Penang: Patronage and Place-Making around the Kapitan Kling Mosque.

“I think these books are part of a really positive direction in Malaysian scholarship, which explores the rich social histories of these buildings, and how our architecture relates to its broader regional context in both the Indian Ocean and South China Sea,” he said.

“My work also draws on the work of scholars who try to critically interrogate the complex legacies of colonialism. The work of scholars like G.A. Bremner, Chang Jiat-Hwee, Swati Chattopadyay, Preeti Chopra, Yeo Kang Shua, and Phiroze Vasunia have shaped my thinking on how we understand architecture in Asian colonial contexts,” he added.

As to his hopes for the book, Speechley said: “I hope this book helps people understand our rich and layered history, and encourages people to dig deeper when thinking about Malaysia’s heritage.

“Every building, no matter how humble, has stories. Even the simplest buildings were designed and built by someone, and served as someone’s home, or as a place of worship, work, or leisure.

“Buildings reflect their time, and tell us about the hopes, values, and aesthetics of the time and place in which they were built.

“If nothing else, I hope this book encourages people to look up when they walk through their hometowns, appreciate what they see, and think about the people who built these places. These are our stories, and for me, our heritage helps me make sense of what it means to be Malaysian today.”

Malayan Classicism will be published by Bloomsbury in December 2023 (UK/US) and February 2024 (Australia/New Zealand). The book is available for pre-order with a 35 per cent discount from Bloomsbury in Australia and New Zealand using the code GLR AQ4 at checkout.