Houses in Malaysia are, for the most part, quadrate in form and utilitarian in design – which is not a bad thing. But in certain cases where aesthetic value is treated as a mere afterthought, the ambience of these dwelling places can easily fall flat as a pancake. It is a keen observation of Tony Goh, first made over 50 years ago when he lived in Australia as a student. It was the same time his interest in beautiful houses began to sprout.

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He recalls receiving a paper junk mail one day, promoting a beach township in Brisbane. Its splendid illustrations soon lulled him – a self-proclaimed dreamer – into a reverie. “I looked at it and wished I could own a unit. I even contemplated ways to improve it,” shares Goh of the distant memory. Unbeknown to him then, the same dream would follow him for a very long time after. A bashful young man who had yet to find his footing in a foreign land, he spent many days visiting display houses in the region and admiring their loveliness. Naturally, insight was gained and comparisons, drawn.

While Malaysian homes are, at times, seemingly born out of necessity, Australian homes – according to Goh – are generally built to reflect and cater to a certain lifestyle. “They are more than just a roof over the head. There is oomph in them,” he explains before adding: “Not necessarily as luxurious as first-class hotels or resorts, living is easy nonetheless when you live in one of these.”

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Character – or oomph as he chooses to call it – is what Goh always strives to bring out in every private property that he has constructed or renovated, since his first bungalow in the 1970s. Having collected a pool of inspiration from down under, his brainchildren often demonstrate a breezy, carefree quality that is not easy to accomplish in a concrete jungle like Kuala Lumpur. For one thing, his careful choice of neighbourhood has meant a noticeable difference. “It has always been Ukay Heights,” he says.

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It goes without saying that the close proximity of the location to the city centre would have taken any metropolitans’ fancy. For Goh, however, it is its relatively untouched greenery that serves as the enclave’s real attraction. “It is built according to the Ukay Height’s (uphill) topography. The jungles have thus been preserved and very much intact.” To top it off, the area’s slightly higher altitude proves a perfect vantage point for some city-viewing action. This adequately explains the man’s puzzled bewilderment when he first saw the configuration of the property that is his home today.

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The house was constructed to resemble the layout of a condominium. Goh remembers: “There were five different units plus a parking lot. The entire building was made up of boxes and boxes of rooms and yet none of them highlighted the cityscape.” “I was surprised,” he concurs. Not only was the readily available urban panorama overlooked, ventilation was poor at best. “The top floors were always warm so much so that air conditioning was necessary, whereas the parking lot on the ground floor was freezing cold. There was something very wrong with the structure.”

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Having sold his last home, he tolerated with the unsatisfactory condition where he lived solitarily for the first six years. But when his wife – then Australia-based – decided to join him in moving back to Malaysia, he knew some changes were inevitable.

That is, of course, an understatement. The residence was completely taken apart, barring part of its bones. “You might have noticed that we retained the skeleton of what used to be the parking lot,” Goh points out when we cross the threshold into the lounge. Indeed, multiple solid pillars still speak in a whisper of the place’s less exciting past. Yet, given a second life, they successfully add visual interest to the now profoundly transformed space. On the functional front, the freestanding columns pass as good room dividers that discreetly section various zones, including a living area, a dining area, a bar and – rather unexpectedly – a swimming pool.

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On his decision to install a pool in an unconventional part of the house, Goh rationalises it in such a way: “Compared to an outdoor pool, it’s cleaner and takes lesser maintenance. Instead of a weekly visit, the cleaner only has to drop by once every fortnight at most.”

Additional brownie points are scored as it also doubles as a good-looking water feature. On top of everything else, the meticulous homeowner is particularly conscious of the climatic factor. Admittedly, Malaysia’s equatorial weather makes it sometimes not ideal to be enjoyed in the open. “Other than the barbecue deck, all our activity zones – the pool, the fish pond and the squash court – are situated within
the house.”

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The fact that a huge chunk of the family’s time is spent under the roof further raises the importance of establishing a connection between the indoor and the outdoor. Goh bridges the gap by replacing many walls with glass, be it in the lounge or the bedrooms.

Beyond inviting the sunshine in and framing views of the surrounding nature or the Twin Towers in the distance, it expands the perceived size of the home, often letting daily activities spill outside. “We also integrate cross ventilation to allow a smooth flow of fresh air in and out of this place,” he adds.

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A similar sense of comfort and practicality permeates the furnishing and decorations. Throughout the 20,000 square feet of built-up space, the colour palette is tame, featuring a lot of solid woods against a white and cream backdrop. Even bold colours appear subtle and refined in the unpretentious setting. “Ming (Tan) is a good interior designer,” Goh is proud when he mentions his wife. The lady of the house has, over the years, assembled an unfussy mix of heirlooms and art pieces, which provides the dwelling with an extra dose of understated elegance. Among some of the most notable paintings are creations of Ming, who is an artist herself.

Looking about this bungalow that has been remodelled twice (the second occasion being a minor reconfiguration), Goh is evidently contented. He concludes: “My home is not the grandest, but it is a place I wouldn’t mind living in forever.”

Another home we're in love with: Shen-Tel Lee's whimsical duplex.

Tags: Ukay Heights, Tony Goh, Sanctuary