KUALA LUMPUR: Not much may be known about a longstanding Austrian “presence” in the city, but that will soon change.Historical facts about the Tugu Negara will be brought to the fore through an exhibition at the Tunku Abdul Rahman Memorial.
The focus will be on Austrian sculptor Felix de Weldon, who shared a unique friendship with Malaysia’s founding father Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj.
Scheduled to open from Nov 30, the event will be jointly organised by the Austrian Embassy and the Tourism, Arts and Culture Ministry with input from the National Archives.
Project manager Tunku Mohd Taufek Tunku Mansur said Tunku Abdul Rahman mooted the idea for Tugu Negara during a visit to Virginia in the United States back in 1960, when he went to the Iwo Jima Memorial created by de Weldon, which stands as a symbol of one of the most historic battles of World War II fought by the US Marines.
“Tunku was in awe of the monument and personally met with de Weldon to express his wish for a similar structure in Malaysia to honour those who died defending the country as national heroes.
“This was the beginning of an extraordinary relationship between Tunku and de Weldon, who was later conferred the title Tan Sri for his efforts and dedicated work,” he recalled in an interview.
The 15m-tall sculpture consists of seven soldier figures and was built to commemorate the more than 11,000 warriors who died in World Wars I and II as well as the Malayan Emergency.
To ensure the detailing of the figures’ uniform and weaponry, Tunku arranged a photo shoot with 24 soldiers and policemen of various racial origins wearing their jungle patrol uniform and sent the photographs to de Weldon.
For full accuracy, de Weldon also worked from a model clothed in full combat uniform despatched to him from Kuala Lumpur.
The seven bronze figures, which were cast in a foundry in Rome, were shipped to Kuala Lumpur in June 1965 before being unveiled to the public on Feb 8, 1966. De Weldon’s name remains inscripted at the base of the memorial.
De Weldon, who died in 2003 at the age of 96, was also the creator of the monumental statue of Tunku in front of Parliament as well as several busts of the first prime minister.
Tunku Mohd Taufek said the event would also highlight 60 years of close diplomatic relations between both countries.
“Besides the close ties, the element of friendship between Tunku and de Weldon will also be a highlight. The story of the two friends is rarely recounted,” he added.
Austrian Ambassador to Malaysia Andreas Launer said the exhibition was being given priority as Tugu Negara was close to the heart of Malaysians.
“Malaysia and Austria enjoy good trade and political ties, but it actually goes beyond that as there were little-known cultural connections dating back decades that bind us together.
“It is interesting how interconnected we are. The friendship between Tunku and de Weldon is a story that needs to be told,” he added.
In his quest to unveil the story, Launer said he met with renowned Malaysians who knew de Weldon personally.
He said there were also plans to create awareness in schools through art and photography competitions.
Launer said there were plans to invite de Weldon’s son Daniel de Weldon, who is based in the United States, to attend the exhibition and lay a wreath at the monument.
National Archives of Malaysia statesmen archive division director Hanizah Jonoh said the exhibition also aimed create an impression on the younger generation, who face challenges in obtaining accurate historical information.“By bringing items from the archives, we will be able to showcase an important piece of history to the public, both young and old,” said Hanizah.
She said besides visual displays, there were also numerous nuggets of history surrounding the National Monument that had great storytelling value and significance.
Citing an example, Hanizah said it was moving to know that the public had donated money to build the monument, with RM1.2mil collected by Jan 31, 1966.
When communists attacked the monument on Aug 27, 1975, she said Japanese Hiroshi Kanamori was part of a team that helped reconstruct the bronze-granite monument.
“It took him and his Malaysian team nearly two years to reconstruct the structure. These are the special stories that should be told,” Hanizah added.