To remember or not to remember

Lasting memory: The Housing and Local Government Ministry plans to beautify the Highland Towers site after the demolition of the abandoned buildings but many are calling for a memorial to be built there to commemorate the catastrophe and remember the victims. — Filepics/The Star

Memorials and monuments: what events or figures should we preserve and honour?

THERE are many instances in Malaysia’s history of great sacrifice or national pride that we honour through memorials or monuments. Oft-times, memorials also serve as symbols of the devastating loss that we bear as a community. But how do we decide what occasions or people to commemorate?

Notable figures, such as our first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, Sabah’s first Chief Minister Tun Fuad Stephens, Malaysia’s first Finance Minister Tun HS Lee, and independence figure Tun VT Sambanthan are celebrated by naming major roads and places after them. And it’s not just high-ranking political leaders who are remembered: A road in Fair Park, Ipoh, was named after remarkable nurse Sybil Medan Kathigasu who provided medical aid to the anti-Japanese resistance during World War II until her capture and torture by the Japanese Occupation army.

Among the well-known monuments in the country are the Tugu Negara in Kuala Lumpur, built in remembrance of fallen soldiers who fought for the country’s freedom, and the Kundasang War Memorial in Sabah, which was built to honour allied prisoners of war who died during the Sanda-kan Death Marches as well as the local population who suffered during WWII.

Not all memorials are in tribute to soldiers or to highlight the devastation of wars. The Tan Sri P. Ramlee Memorial in Setapak, Selangor, serves as a museum in recognition of the legendary actor, singer, composer and producer who revolutionised Malaysian arts and culture in the 1950s. Some memorials, meanwhile, are in remembrance of sorrowful tragedies, like the brass plaque at Kinabalu Park that marks the 2015 earthquake which took the lives of 18 people.

Last week, former Deputy Prime Minister Tun Musa Hitam welcomed suggestions for a memorial to be built at the collapsed Highland Towers site, saying that it would serve as a reminder of human wrongdoings, corruption and greed. Following a major landslide, Block 1 of the condominium, located in Ulu Klang, Selangor, collapsed at 1.35pm on Dec 11,1993, and caused the death of 48 residents. Musa lost his son and daughter-in-law in the disaster. Former residents also expressed the need for the catastrophe to be commemorated and victims remembered.

A tribute to lives

A memorial is built to commemorate someone or something that has national, or at least regional, significance, whether historical, social, cultural or others, says Prof Datuk Dr Teo Kok Seong, a Principal Fellow at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Institute of Ethnic Studies.

“Most of the time they are erected for historical importance and to preserve certain historical facts. Besides this, memorials should also serve as reminders for later generations to be mindful of the moral of the event, ” he explains.

“By and large, memorials serve as everlasting tributes to lives, respecting sacrifices, remembering major events and sometimes as focal places of positivity for the public to appreciate life experiences of the persons commemorated or to grieve over an event.”

While Malaysia may not need memorials for all tragedies, there are some that deserve to be remembered such as the Highland Towers collapse and the 2014 disappearance of flight MH370 and attack on flight MH17, says Teo.

“[MH370 and MH17] should be memorialised soonest possible, we should not wait for a few decades later when they lose their immediate relevance anymore....

Dr Teo: 'Memorials serve as everlasting tributes to lives, respecting sacrifices, remembering major events and sometimes as focal places of positivity for the public to appreciate life experiences of the persons commemorated.'Dr Teo: 'Memorials serve as everlasting tributes to lives, respecting sacrifices, remembering major events and sometimes as focal places of positivity for the public to appreciate life experiences of the persons commemorated.'Currently, there is public grief, sympathy, prayers and thoughts as well as the mental and emotional empathy necessary to support the building of the memorials, he says.

As for the Highland Towers collapse, Teo suggests a park instead of the usual concrete structure to mark the tragedy.

“This is because as a park, it can provide a place for people to connect with nature more positively, which was the supposed cause of the tragedy... a major landslide caused by heavy rains, ” he says.

After news of the memorial proposal spread, Housing and Local Government Minister Zuraida Kamaruddin clarified that the ministry only plans to beautify the Highland Towers area and turn it into a historical site, not to build a memorial as reported by the media.

Plans by the Australian government for an MH370 memorial was put on hold in 2018 until after the wreckage of the plane is found. Eight Australian citizens/residents were among 239 people on the flight that went missing en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

The Netherlands has dedicated a memorial forest, built in 2017 in the village of Vijfhuizen, to the 298 people killed when MH17 was shoot down; 196 passengers were Dutch citizens. In the same year, the Malaysian government said that it was looking at several proposals for memorials for the MH17 and MH370 tragedies.

Remembering the devastation of conflict

For architect and heritage historian Ahmad Najib Ariffin, memorials on war or conflict are among the most important.

“They remind us of the horrors of war, killing and destruction, ” he says.

“One example is our East-West Highway Memorial, which reminds us of the 1970s Malayan Communists’ attacks on the road-building works, the many innocent workers they killed, the over hundreds of pieces of machinery, such as excavators, that they blew up, and how it all resulted in the budget being overblown four times more than needed if there were no Communist threats, ” he says.

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