The attacker lunges towards Tan Kok Hiang, but the 55-year-old swivels with the grace of a dancer, grabbing the young man’s arm and flipping him onto the mat in the dojo with a resounding thud.

Tan, Forum Architects’ principal director, is an aikido sensei, or teacher. Martial arts is usually perceived to be a violent practice but, here, the opponent is unharmed and Tan maintains his calm. In fact, the Japanese sport shuns aggression in favour of locks, throws and deflection. The idea is to ensure the attacker isn’t harmed, while protecting oneself.

“It has a very deep philosophy – to love your attacker,” says Tan. “Imagine if you love the people who attack you, what more for the people who don’t hurt you? It’s really about compassion for another human being.”

The man behind award-winning projects like Yale-NUS College Campus and Assyafaah Mosque has not always cared for the well-being of others, describing himself as brash when young. “When I was in university, I was a student leader who fought for my ideals, sometimes a bit too aggressively,” he says. “I made some lecturers unhappy.”

A friend introduced him to aikido in his late 20s. The awareness he gains from practising the sport over the years has trickled down to everyday work and life, in the form of respect for the people around him. He deals with conflicts calmly, seeking instead to “blend, harmonise and control” the situation.

He says: “I look back (at my past) with regret. Was it necessary to cause so much pain and hurt?”

Today, he is ranked fourth dan in a hierarchy that goes up to 10th dan, and practises twice a week in the morning. It took over 20 years to attain this position, and it’s one where he can officially be called a sensei. Lower-ranked teachers can only be called instructors.

“Chances of using self-defence here are slim,” he says of deploying his skills. “Use your time purposefully by cultivating what I call rightful action – how you behave in society and how you treat others.”