Bukit Besi Museum mines Terengganu's iron ore history


An old building seen at the Bukit Besi mining site that was used to dry and process iron ore before the export-ready load was sent to the nearest port. Photo: Bernama

The history of mining in Bukit Besi in Terengganu not only reflects the legacy of the colonialists in the socio-economy of local inhabitants, but also the existence of an international community in the country since 1929.

Wan Mohd Rosli Wan Ngah, the honorary secretary of the Malaysian Historical Association (PSM) of the Dungun area, said that during its heyday, this enclave was inhabited by citizens of Britain, America, Canada, Australia, Holland, Germany, South Africa, India and China.

According to him, because of the needs of a cosmopolitan community, Bukit Besi was built up with modern facilities including the first swimming pool in Malaysia, with diving board, in the 1950s.

“Bukit Besi was the pulse of economic growth of the country, notably in Terengganu when a Japanese company, Kuhara Mining Limited, was licensed by the state government to embark on mining activities in May 1930.

“It operated round the clock and the workers’ residence was equipped with facilities including a railway station, school, police station, hospital and a cinema. All these materialised when a British company, Eastern Mining Metal Company (Emmco) took over mining operations from 1950. At that time, Bukit Besi was on par with Kuala Lumpur and Singapore,” said Wan Mohd Rosli at the recent opening of the Bukit Besi Museum.

He added that as a tribute to the rich history of the iron ore mining industry, nearly 130 members of the association industriously compiled evidence and information about mining activities in Terengganu.

This historical collection now stands as a reference for the future.

Planning a museum

Following that community-based initiative, a mining gallery was established at the Central Terengganu Development Authority (Ketengah) Bukit Besi branch in 2002.

“Since then, efforts were ongoing until the culmination of the Bukit Besi Museum with a photo exhibition of past worker communities and mining machinery, including demographic data of foreigners born there.

Wan Mohd Rosli thinks many foreign visitors will be interested in visiting the museum once borders reopen. Photo: BernamaWan Mohd Rosli thinks many foreign visitors will be interested in visiting the museum once borders reopen. Photo: Bernama

“Which is why we expect this museum to attract not just Malaysian citizens but also descendants of foreigners who have a sentimental attachment to Bukit Besi,” Wan Mohd Rosli explained.

Once the global pandemic situation eases and international borders are open again, the historian expects visitors from Canada, Australia and the United States to visit the Bukit Besi Museum.

“They can walk down memory lane, especially to experience the same path that their parents and forefathers who worked the mines made.”

On the challenges of accumulating historical artefacts, Wan Mohd Rosli said they not only had to trace former workers living in Bukit Besi but also to find their present beneficiaries.

He added that while some equipment on exhibition were purchased from the original mining staff and workers’ families, others were donated by descendants of the expatriate staff from Canada and Australia.

The Bukit Besi Museum in Dungun, Terengganu. Photo: BernamaThe Bukit Besi Museum in Dungun, Terengganu. Photo: Bernama

Each piece is an important exhibit for the museum, which hopes to grow its niche collection.

“The elusive artifact now is the old locomotive used at Bukit Besi. It was immensely difficult to find this train, and it is now the museum centrepiece. It is a symbol of the glorious era and growth of land transportation which resulted in the Bukit Besi railway line to Dungun port (for shipping),” said Wan Mohd Rosli.

Bringing back memories

At the moment, visitors to the museum can enjoy free admission. Visitors will be enlightened on mining operations from start to finish, and from how iron ore was mined to exported overseas.

Meanwhile, several visitors admitted to being fascinated with the nostalgic life of the past and appreciated the government’s commitment in erecting the museum.

Wan Mohamad Hazman Wan Ramli, 51, said the museum is living proof of the hardy generation who survived the challenges of working under a foreign company in post-war conditions.

A miniature diorama of the Bukit Besi mining site during its early pre-WWII days. Photo: BernamaA miniature diorama of the Bukit Besi mining site during its early pre-WWII days. Photo: Bernama

“The present generation, notably Terengganu natives, should heed the lessons of their ancestors,” he said.

For Fatimah Tambon, 67, who once lived with her husband working in Bukit Besi, the very existence of the museum brings back sweet memories because it was a very modern settlement of the time, and she took pride of place.

“It was the starting point of a better quality of life because the mining company was passionate about looking after our welfare.

“The chance to be part of the Bukit Besi community changed our life as a family because we became more positive-minded and big-hearted as a result of assimilating the values of people from various countries,” she said. – Bernama

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