The case of Rumah Kutai (translated literally as old house) in Kuala Kangsar that was neglected after massive restoration reflects the tough task taken up by Badan Warisan Malaysia in championing heritage conservation.
One would think that urban development is the main threat to old buildings but the bigger enemy is actually the lack of awareness.
Owners of these buildings do not appreciate them, developers want to knock them down for the prime land they sit on while authorities that do not value the historical significance distance themselves.
As a result, hundreds of old buildings that house the soul of a nation are vanishing over time due to decay and demolition.
Badan Warisan Malaysia president Tun Ahmad Sarji Abdul Hamid said if a local authority in England were the controlling power here, they would take the task upon themselves to save the buildings whether it was public or private property.
Such ignorance has been “killing” the built heritage in our country, where rotting old structures are a common sight, or simply replaced with skyscrapers. “Knowing the value is crucial in understanding the preservation and conservation of heritage.
“For example, I will treasure a Qing Dynasty vase but someone else may just give it away as they are unaware of its value.
“I put a value to all these, I see Stadium Merdeka as more valuable than my life because it was there that Tunku (Abdul Rahman Putra) proclaimed independence. It should be taken as a sacred place and I would attribute any attempt to destroy Merdeka Stadium as a sacrilegious act,” he said, recalling an attempt in the past to demolish the stadium.
“It has to start with awareness and then appreciation,” he added.
Formed in 1983 as a non-governmental organisation, Badan Warisan has been the voice in heritage conservation of old buildings undertaking many restoration projects, among them Rumah Bomoh in Changkat Jering, Gedung Raja Abdullah in Klang, Istana Tengku Long in Terengganu, Masjid Merbok Pengkalan Kakap in Kedah, a shophouse in Malacca and recently, the restoration of Merdeka Stadium.
Heritage trails, school outreach programmes and hands-on activities for educators are some of the interesting ways to engage the community to the cause.
Badan Warisan believes that the old buildings reflect the national identity and hence must be conserved for the future.
Ahmad Sarji named some of the country’s intangible treasures — timber houses that showcase traditional architectural prowess, palatial brick buildings brought in by the Dutch, Portuguese and British that reflect an era of administration, railway buildings in Moorish architecture designed by colonial architects, old shophouses with kaki lima (five-foot way) that have painted the unique urban streetscape where trades thrived and ties fostered, as well as places of worship manifesting the people’s beliefs.
“Without the past, there’s no present and no future. Each of these buildings tells a story,” he said.
He described the act of leaving these structures in dilapidated condition as “wilful disregard for history”, and demolishing old buildings for space when the country had three quarters of land available for development a “fanatical obsession”.
He said it would take a concerted effort involving all segments of the society for heritage conservation to be effective. And first of all, there should be an awareness movement.
“There’s no movement but only sporadic voices, like mine, on heritage conservation.
“A strong political will is vital,” he said, lauding the National Heritage Act 2005 and the government’s move to enhance the study of history in school through which the love for cultural heritage could be inculcated among the young.
National Heritage Act 2005 replaced the Treasure Trove Act (Akta Harta Karun) 1957 and Relics and Antiquities Act (Akta Benda Purba) in 1976. The Act allows for the appointment of a Heritage Commissioner, the establishment of the National Heritage Council, the establishment of the National Heritage Fund and the National Heritage List.
The Kuala Lumpur City Hall’s (DBKL) website shows that 53 buildings in Kuala Lumpur had been listed under the Relics and Antiquities Act 1976, 18 of them gazetted as National Heritage in 2007 and 2009 while 51 others have been proposed for gazettement.
However, he felt that more needed to be done to make the Act’s content and intent known to the public.
He said local authorities played a pivotal role in heritage conservation especially by earmarking conservation areas in their local plans, adding that state and federal governments can also promote heritage conservation with tax rebates, assessment reductions or other incentives.
Transfer of development rights whereby owners are given the rights to develop an alternative site in exchange of their heritage properties was also proposed.
He said the media, experts, universities, associations and the public should involve themselves passionately when it came to preserving our heritage.
Ahmad Sarji said schools and institutions could sow the seed by forming heritage societies while architecture courses must include heritage architecture to instill the right mindset.
“It is a long process to be done systematically with a multi-pronged approach,” he said.
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