KUCHING: One of the most important restoration of a historical building in Malaysia has been plagued by slow progress.
Fort Margherita, which was built 133 years ago, is presently undergoing a tedious conservation project, which officially began on Oct 5. It is scheduled for completion on Oct 4 next year.
There has been scant work done. According to a public complaint, which The Star was made aware of this week, only a site office has been erected near the fort. Almost no actual physical work has been done, except for the installation of temporary scaffolding.
Photographs taken from the work in progress restoration site seems to confirm this.
The Star has chosen to withhold the name of the contractor that won the bid to restore the historical fort, which was built by the Second White Rajah Charles Brooke. Named after his wife Margaret Alice Lili de Windt, the fort’s last official use was as a police museum, which closed in the late 1990s.
Back then, the museum was moved out to allow a restoration, which appears to be not successful or not competently carried out.
The contractor chosen for this restoration project was selected via a public tender, which was limited only to Sarawak-based contractors.
The Star has been made to understand that the selected contractor has never undertaken a restoration project. A Penang-based heritage building expert was called in to facilitate the process.
Conservation architect Mike Boon, a former Sarawak Heritage Society head and winner of multiple Malaysian Institute of Architects (PAM) awards, was also engaged as the local consultant.
Early last month, Boon told reporters the restoration would cost about RM2mil and fully funded by the Federal Government — the first such project in Sarawak. (Earlier restorations of the Old Court House and the Square Tower were funded by the state government. Boon was also involved in those projects.)
In an interview this week, Boon confirmed the project’s slow progress.
“It is slow no doubt but as long as it is done in one year. I hope they would catch up,” Boon said.
He said that it was “the nature” of conservation efforts that such projects would be slow. Boon said the crux of the matter was the slowness of the contractor in preparing a “project quality plan”.
“The project quality plan is a detailed document on how they (contractor) are going to do the whole job. The methods used for each segment of the job has to be included. The plan must list a step-by-step procedure on what will be done.
“The plan also encompasses all the personnel directly involved, right down to the sub-contractor. It is essentially a demonstration that the people involved know what they are dealing with. Not just anyone can do a project like this.”
Boon said the completion of the plan was important before the start of the actual work.
“This is like a tutorial before they begin.”
The project quality plan, as of this week, he added, was “accepted in principle but not approved”. Pressed for more details, however, Boon was circumspect. He said the contractor had a “steep learning curve”.
On whether he was pleased with the level of competency displayed so far, Boon replied:
“Look, it is a question of the local contractor’s mindset. We are insisting on the project quality plan but they might be thinking that this is another form of red tape, that this is just more tedious paperwork. They are a little resistant. Unfortunately, that is the situation we are dealing with. All I’m saying is that we are trying to instil a better work ethic, and I should also add that they are trying their best.”
Asked if the project would be completed on time, Boon again declined to be specific.
“I cannot answer that. Give them an opportunity to prove themselves. Conservation knowledge is in its infancy in Malaysia. The National Heritage Act 2005 is still young. The system is still being tested and it is maturing.”
The fort and the nearby Astana were built by Charles with his wife whom he married in 1869, in mind. While the Astana was a symbol of love – a wedding gift no less – Fort Margherita, named in her honour, was a building of defence and might.
The fort is actually a twin structure to the Square Tower on the south bank of Sarawak River. The Square Tower today has lost its complementing garden and Chinese pavilion, which was replaced by a musical fountain and open spaces.
Between 60% and 70% of the restoration work at the fort would be on the walls damaged by water. Drainage would also be improved, while the timber decking would also be repaired.
After its scheduled completion, the fort would be handed back to the Sarawak Museum Department, Boon said. “It is up to the department to develop a plan for Fort Margherita’s future use.”