Lumen - The University of Adelaide Magazine The University of Adelaide Australia
Lumen Winter 2014 Issue
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1960s Alumni Profile: Francis Wong

Colombo Plan proves a turning point

Francis Wong, 1966 (National Archives of Australia A1501/1, A6776/2)

Francis Wong, 1966
(National Archives of Australia A1501/1, A6776/2)

An architect, educator and institution builder, University of Adelaide graduate Francis Wong is one of many success stories to emerge from the Colombo Plan, an initiative started in the early 1950s to assist developing countries. The father of Senator Penny Wong - Australia's first Chinese-Australian woman to be elected a Labor MP - he gained a Bachelor of Architecture (Hons) from Adelaide in 1967.

Having grown up in poverty as the son of a widowed servant in the household of an English colonial family, Francis Wong's future prospects were limited. But winning a Colombo Plan scholarship was a turning point, and he left the colonial context of his native British North Borneo to arrive in a rapidly modernising Australia of the 1960s.

Mr Wong has fond recollections of his time at the University of Adelaide, and believes that the staff were not only helpful but genuinely cared for the needs of the students. He recalls his training in Building Science under the pioneering Derrick Kendrick and the focus on environmental concerns which continues to define his attitude to architecture. He also recalls his close relationship with his Honours supervisor Albert Gillissen, who introduced him to the latest prefabrication techniques for his project on industrialised building systems. Mr Wong became the epitome of the professional free-thinker, an agent of modernisation that the program had sought to produce.

Returning to the new state of Sabah in independent Malaysia in 1967, he joined a generation of Australian-trained students who were not only responsible for the mobilisation and institutionalisation of the profession in Asia, but they helped shape the modernisation of the new society.

As an architect, Mr Wong has dedicated a substantial part of his life consulting for local authorities on important legislation, and also helped establish the Sabah chapter of the Malaysian Institute of Architects (PAM), serving as its Founding Chairman. He was also instrumental in establishing various educational institutions to support the new generation of professionals. In his design thesis at the University of Adelaide he observed that "the gap between the man with a degree from overseas on the design board and the unskilled personnel is getting wider and wider".

He continued to work towards reducing this gap in architectural education through various initiatives and as Dean of Studies at the Sabah Institute of Art after his retirement from architectural practice. "The influence of my university professors towards the value of education has come one full circle. It is now my turn to prepare the younger generation for globalisation. Without my professional training in Australia, I would not have achieved as much as a citizen of my country."

Seeking alumni support

Mr Wong was interviewed recently in Sabah in the context of current research by Dr Peter Scriver and Dr Amit Srivastava of the School of Architecture and Built Environment that is exploring the role of Australian-trained architects in the development of the modern architectural profession in South and South-East Asia.

The project hopes to gain a better understanding of the impact of our alumni in the region in areas such as built works, architectural education and the propagation of professional networks. Any alumni who can assist should contact Dr Peter Scriver ( or Dr Amit Srivastava (

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