Subang Jaya (Photo by The Edge)
"IF I use my Tan Sri title on my name card overseas, people just call me Mr Tan,” Tan Sri Esa Mohamed chuckles as he hands us the one for the International Union of Architects (UIA).
Esa is the current president of UIA and the first Malaysian to hold the post. He is the past president of the Malaysian Institute of Architects and the managing director of Akitek Jururancang (M) Sdn Bhd (AJM).
The 69-year-old looks rested and relaxed despite his heavy travel schedule due to his position in UIA.
“I travel a lot. I just came back from St Petersburg in Russia, where we had a bureau meeting, and I was in Surabaya, Indonesia, before that. I am off to Paris next week,” Esa says.
Travelling to many cities has given him a unique insight into the different styles and approaches to architecture and an appreciation for the unity of the profession in Asia.
“One sees a lot of differences when you travel. The Americans have a different approach, the Europeans another. The Asians are very united ... we support each other and having that fraternity is a good thing. It is something a lot of other regions want to emulate, they are envious of what we have achieved in terms of fraternity,” says Esa.
It is clear that despite being an experienced and worldly man who has been almost everywhere, he has not forgotten his roots. As Esa asserts, his heart belongs to the homeland.
Esa: It was a culture shock but I had five wonderful years of education in Australia. (Photo by The Edge)
“My family was poor. In those days a lot of people were poor. It was very unstable compared to now. My father had the foresight to send me to an English school. I think the school fees at the time were RM1 per month, which was a lot of money back then. We had to pay RM10 per month to rent a squatter house. So, that was a great sum of money for us,” he recalls.
“After primary school I had my sights set on getting into the best school, which was English College Johor Baru (also known as Maktab Sultan Abu Bakar). It was considered an Ivy League school in those days. I wanted to get in because it was the best and I could walk to school,” Esa laughs. Of course, he managed to get into the English College.
He developed a passion for art at an early age.
“I was very keen on drawing. I would do all mediums, from pencil sketching to water colours. I remember I was given a penknife, which I used to play around with little pieces of wood and make sculptures,” he says.
Despite his love for art, Esa was placed in the Science stream in Form 3. To continue his artistic aspirations, he created an art society.
“I declared myself president. We did a lot of work in school, painting murals, doing workshops and such,” he recalls.
Ever the overachiever, Esa was one of the few who passed the Higher School Certificate (now known as Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia). At the time, all questions were set and grading was done in the UK. His proficiency in art, mathematics and science earned him the moniker, the artistic scientist.
“My late cousin was working at Jabatan Kerja Raya as a draughtsman and I helped do some work for him, including renderings. That is when it hit me that architecture might be a field I could go into,” Esa says.
He won a Mara scholarship to study architecture at the University of Newcastle in Australia.
“Before Mara came along, I was offered a fabulous scholarship to do pure mathematics at Universiti Malaya. Had I taken that, I would not be sitting here talking to you,” he says.