Malaysian architecture

Keeping the past perfect

Top Read of 2013: Amid the screech of rapid development and progress in Malaysia, the battle is on among conservationists to preserve the country's historic architectural charm

John Grafilo
February 24, 2020
Keeping the past perfect
Mogul majesty: the KTM administration building was the last of the Mogul-style buildings to be built in Kuala Lumpur in the last century. It was erected in 1917

Editors Note: First published in print in 2013, the enduring relevance of this piece is still evident today in February 2020, with the conservation of Malaysia’s historic buildings remaining a hot topic in public discourse. Despite Kuala Lumpur’s heritage quarter acting as a major draw for tourists wishing to photograph the historic structures, many, such as the 109-year-old FMS Survey Office and the old City Hall building, have been left vacant for over a decade and at risk of degradation.

In 2019, International Council on Monuments and Sites Malaysia assistant honorary secretary Mariana Isa said of the deterioration of Kuala Lumpur’s heritage quarter: “These buildings are our Taj Mahal or Al-Hambra. It’s not just maintenance and repairs; the minute it is unoccupied there is no one to maintain it. There’s no air conditioning to drain out the water and there is no one to open windows for ventilation or clean it,” he said. “How can you talk about heritage and conservation or inculcate them in our education system when these buildings are no longer around?”

Earlier this year [2013], a passenger train pulled out for the last time at the 96-year-old Alor Setar railway station in the Malaysian state of Kedah. Glum-faced commuters took their last glance at the semi-wooden station that will soon be demolished to give way to a modern double-track railway project.

For the past three decades, century-old shophouses and small town landmarks in Malaysia have been crushed by the necessities of progress such as intertwining highways, skyscrapers and shopping malls, as the country bids to become a fully developed nation by 2020.

In recent months, conservationists in northern Malaysia’s fast-developing town of Kuala Terengganu have been campaigning against a plan by the state government to redevelop a landmark marketplace into a shopping complex and five-star hotel.

The 46-year-old Pasar Payang wet and dry market, a maze of about 200 stalls selling native crafts and products found in the region, has been declared unsafe by Terengganu state’s public works department.  A redevelopment plan was announced in February.

Kamarul Bahrin Ahmad, an architect and leader of the Save Pasar Payang campaign, said the plan would rob Kuala Terengganu of a heritage building and would displace the traders in the market. But Ahmad Said, chief minister of Terengganu, said the market’s redevelopment would be for the convenience of the traders, consumers and tourists.

Saving man: Laurent Lim (left) of Malaysia’s Institute of Architects speaks to students

Even the private developers realised that it is actually profitable to restore old buildings … They realise that tourists would like to see old buildings, that are well preserved and conserved

While the government has been successful in preserving iconic structures with national historic values, it has usually been found wanting in conserving landmarks in small communities.

Architect Laurence Loh, who led the restoration of a heritage building called Blue Mansion in the northern state of Penang, urged the government to do more in preserving the country’s rich built heritage, a blend of oriental and occidental design and construction.

“The challenge is how to balance urbanisation and the encroachment of development [with] the life as before,” he said. “Conservation is the act of buying time, giving space for people to sort out and manage change at a controlled pace.”

Zuraina Majid, commissioner of Malaysia’s Department of National Heritage, said the government cares about the country’s heritage, as manifested by the passage of a comprehensive law that led to the creation of her office in 2006. She added, however, that not all old structures qualify as heritage sites, since the law set criteria on what should be considered national heritage and what should be conserved.

“There are many things that are old. We have to prioritise which ones we want to rescue. We cannot have more of the same because we don’t have that luxury of saving everything,” she said. “Old does not mean it has to be preserved. It has to have technological value, architectural value, historical value.”

TOP: A tourist snaps a photo of the old colonial Federal Court building in Kuala Lumpur in 1999. Upali Aturugiri/AFP
LEFT: A cleaner sweeps the courtyard of the 16th century St Pauls church in Malaysia’s historical city of Malacca. Photo: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP

Majid said the successful preservation of the historical colonial towns of Malacca and Georgetown, which were declared Unesco World Heritage sites in 2008, is an example of the government’s determination to preserve Malaysia’s built heritage.

She added that, at present, her office has classified 240 heritage buildings throughout the country and 47 more structures have been inscribed as national heritage.

Badan Warisan, a pioneering non-profit heritage conservation organisation that had lobbied for the passage of the country’s national heritage law since the late 1980s, has stated that Malaysia’s old charm goes beyond national iconic heritage buildings.

Elizabeth Cardosa, Badan Warisan’s executive director, said that rows of century-old shophouses might not qualify as national heritage, but these structures could have historical significance to the development of the town and to the townsfolk residing in the area.

She cited the partnership between residents and conservationists in preserving and restoring an abandoned rubber plantation smokehouse in the one-street town of Lunas in the northern state of Kedah.

“First we mapped the town,” she said. “We looked at the timeline and how the town grew, and we marked the iconic buildings within the town – which were a Hindu temple, a rubber plantation and a couple of big houses. We restored the old smokehouse and turned it into a gallery celebrating the town’s history and the people who lived there. The townsfolk suddenly remembered their history and they became very proud of their town.”

The planning department are the ones who can say: ‘Yes, you can build. No, you can’t build. Yes, you can destroy. No, you can’t destroy’

Elizabeth Cardosa, Badan Warisan’s executive director
A long stay: the Heritage Station Hotel, located behind the Kuala Lumpur Railway Station

Cardosa said their initiative became a moving force that encouraged residents to take pride and preserve their shophouses, with the town becoming well known for its restored buildings.

Badan Warisan also helps with the various initiatives of the National Heritage Department and works closely with the planning department under the housing and local government ministry.

“They [the planning department] are the ones who can say: ‘Yes, you can build. No, you can’t build. Yes, you can destroy. No, you can’t destroy’,” Cardosa said.

Last year, Badan Warisan launched workshops aimed at training city and town planners on how to appreciate and assess the historical and cultural importance of buildings in their areas of jurisdiction.

It is hoped that when the planners become aware of the historical and cultural value of a place, such as a market or a row of shophouses, they would take these into consideration when planning roads, economic activities and other infrastructure.

Laurent Lim, head of Malaysia Institute of Architects’ heritage and conservation committee, noted an increasing awareness among Malaysians of the need to conserve heritage buildings.

“Even the private developers realised that it is actually profitable to restore old buildings,” he said. “They realise that tourists would like to see old buildings, old environments that are well preserved and conserved.”

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