By ANDREW SIA
NATIONAL monuments now all seem to be about KLCC, KLIA, Putrajaya and Formula 1. But in the first decade of Merdeka, a whole different set of buildings was erected to serve as national symbols.
These were the earliest “mega-projects” of the new nation and many, surprisingly, were built at very low costs by the Public Works Department (PWD, or JKR, the acronym for its Malay name: Jabatan Kerja Raya).
These buildings are the focus of Building Merdeka: Independence Architecture in Kuala Lumpur, 1957-1966, an exhibition (and book) at Galeri Petronas, Suria KLCC, by Dr Lai Chee Kien, an architectural lecturer from the National University of Singapore.
He points out that on Sept 17, 1963, the day after Malaya became Malaysia, the then Yang Dipertuan Agong listed eight symbolic national buildings (all in the Klang Valley). These were Parliament (as a monument to faith in parliamentary democracy), the National Mosque (freedom of worship), Universiti Malaya (education), Stadiums Merdeka and Negara (healthy body and mind), the National Monument (warriors’ sacrifices), Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka or DBP (Bahasa Malaysia) and the National Museum (national culture).
Lai adds another two items: the original Subang airport in Selangor and the Merdeka Park (an urban green lung next to the Stadiums) – both of which no longer exist. In fact, the stadiums themselves were almost demolished and saved only by the 1997 economic crisis.
Learning from architectural history
The exhibition stems from a PhD thesis written by Dr Lai, in which he took pains to source original blueprints and to find – and interview – the architects themselves. There are also scale models, old photographs (some bought off eBay on the Internet), sculptures and even stamps.
Dr Lai’s retrospective on these early national symbols holds insightful lessons in our 50th year of independence.
For instance, it’s amazing to learn that the National Mosque was built not by foreign contractors but by the PWD – and it still stands sturdily without leaky roofs. It indicates that Malaya had a high level of technical expertise even in the 1950s and 1960s, whereas PWD capabilities more recently have hit the headlines for the wrong reasons.
The National Mosque was built at a cost of only RM10mil. Dr Lai notes that its brochure said it was “... designed by a Malay, constructed by Chinese and Indians, and financed by contributions from Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims.”
In Dr Lai’s book, its architect Datuk Baharuddin Abu Kassim relates that he was asked to design a mosque that was uniquely Malaysian, and not simply copy the domes of the Middle East. After all, “the first mosque of Prophet Mohammad was within date palms and walls, the dome was unknown then,” says Baharuddin.
To qualify as “Malaysian architecture” it had to suit the tropical climate and so Baharuddin came up with a modern cube version of the “cooling and comfortable” Malay house with the folded roof acting like an umbrella.
The designers envisioned the National Mosque as a showcase building deep inside KL’s Lake Gardens near Parliament. But (then) Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, who was more rakyat-centric, insisted it should be built within comfortable walking distance of the railway station.
Stadium Merdeka was designed by PWD architect Stanley Jewkes, on half of his home dining table outside his official working hours using only slide rules for calculations. Dr Lai recalls that the lighting towers were a challenge. Should the builders import special structural steel? Or adapt locally available pre-stressed concrete pipes? The local (and arguably more patriotic) option was chosen – and Malaya ended up with the world’s (then) tallest pre-stressed concrete towers.
Construction of the stadium by two contractors was started in July 1956 and completed just two weeks before Merdeka.
“The smooth and efficient completion of the 21,000 seat stadium was a testimony to the PWD’s technical capabilities,” writes Dr Lai.
An open-minded past?
Indeed, the exhibition/book offers an almost nostalgic look at a national psyche that was less “sensitive” and, perhaps, more “psychologically liberated”, to use a Vision 2020 term.
For instance, the choice of design was often decided in meritocratic contests – the glass murals outside the National Museum were done by artist Cheong Laitong whose design had been chosen from a contest. It depicted various aspects of history including even the ancient Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms of Kedah and Bugis warrior princes of Johor.
Ho Kok Hoe, the museum’s architect was briefed by (Tan Sri) Mubin Sheppard thus: “We want a Malaysian museum, something local, not a box with see-through glass.”
Ho’s response was to emulate the humble Malay house, “so simple, yet it possessed all the qualities of fine architecture.”
Dr Lai’s comments about the first decade of Merdeka?
“Those were more open times, there was more discussion on what being Malaysian meant.”
Even Dewan Bahasa and Pustaka, which aimed to promote the use of Bahasa Malaysia, was architecturally reflective of multi-racialism. The building itself was modernist rather than outright Malay while the famous mosaic mural has five figures depicting (from left), a Sikh, Indian, Malay, Chinese and Eurasian reading an ancient book of palm leaves. The clear message, says Dr Lai, was unity through a common language.
The mural’s designer was Ismail Mustam, then a Form Five student at Victoria Institution, who had won another design competition.
“At that time I was fairly influenced by Picasso,” Ismail recalls in the book.
And then there is the National Monument or Tugu Negara. This, says Dr Lai, was built to commemorate a symbolic victory over the communists guerrillas as the Emergency ended in 1960 (it had been declared by the British in June 1948).
The design originated from Tunku’s first trip to the United States, where he was so impressed with the Iwo Jima Memorial (marking a crucial American victory over the Japanese during World War II) that he asked its sculptor, Felix de Weldon, to do something similar for Malaysia.
While some quarters now decry that the Monument is “contrary to Islam” (which is said to forbid the portrayal of humans – to what extent is open to debate) back then, the Tugu was portrayed on the RM1 note.
“It took me two years to trace Felix in the United States,” says Dr Lai. “He was already past 90. I managed to contact his wife just one week after he died. But she gave me some documents.”
The original Subang Airport was an audacious experiment with “floating shell” concrete roofs by local architects led by (the late) Datuk Kington Loo.
“It was an architectural masterpiece,” says Lai. “It’s a pity that it was demolished.”
With a budget of only RM12mil (worth RM41.5mil in 2007 terms given an official average annual inflation rate of 3%), they managed to build an airport with South-East Asia’s then longest runway.
Indeed, architectural history shows that this country, in the first decade after Merdeka, was not only culturally liberal but also very efficient.
Universiti Malaya’s engineering faculty was built within 16 weeks by the PWD – it has stood solidly since 1958.
As for Parliament, it was completed in 1963 at a cost of only RM17mil. Even though its tower block was built over unstable limestone pinnacles, the problem was robustly solved by using a raft foundation. However, a leaky roof after RM90mil JKR-supervised renovations two years ago, seems a little more persistent.
The PWD architect Ivor Shipley wanted to physically indicate that the parliamentary process (the triangular podium of the Dewan Rakyat and Dewan Negara) was clearly separate from the supporting governmental departments (in the tower block), to reflect the Constitutional separation of the Legislative and Executive branches of government.
The internal wall was set back 1m from the distinctive facade to provide shading – thus conserving energy and the rakyat’s air-conditioning bills.
The Tunku’s speech at the opening of Parliament included this: “This building is an enduring monument to the principles of democracy ... the freedom of the individual to express his opinion ... the fairness and impartiality of justice, the equality of citizens before the law....”
If walls have ears then buildings can speak, and the message from Malaysia’s first 10 national monuments is clear: That we can be a country that works quickly and efficiently while respecting our multi-racial culture. And, yes, we can build great things at down-to-earth prices using just local brains.