Breathing new life into Carcosa

  • So Aunty, So What?
  • Wednesday, 06 Sep 2017

An exhibition on Merdeka is the first step in reinventing the role of this heritage site.

LAST week on National Day, I attended an event that brought life back to the iconic Carcosa Seri Negara.

This was the opening of the Jalan Merdeka: Traversing the routes to Merdeka exhibition, the inaugural project by the Asian Heritage Museum Sdn Bhd (AHM), the company that has been granted the lease of the property.

Jalan Merdeka is the brainchild of AHM advisory council chairman and lead curator Tunku Zain Al-Abidin Tuanku Muhriz.

Tunku Zain’s father, the Yang Dipertuan Besar of Negri Sembilan, Tuanku Muhriz ibni Almarhum Tuanku Munawir, was the guest of honour – which gave the exhibition a wonderful living connection to the past as Tuanku Muhriz’s grandfather, Tuanku Abdul Rahman ibni Almarhum Tuanku Muhammad, was the first king of independent Malaya.

Tuanku Abdul Rahman was also one of the nine sultans who signed the Federation of Malaya Agreement on Aug 8, 1957, which ended British colonial rule in the Malay states.

Signing on behalf of Queen Elizabeth II was Sir Donald MacGillivray, the last British High Commissioner of Malaya; a historic moment that took place at Seri Negara, which was then called King’s House.

Indeed, having the Jalan Merdeka exhibition at Carcosa Seri Negara brought the history of our independence to a full circle, 60 years on.

The larger-than-life reprints of the photos of the signing ceremony, in the room where it took place, reminded me of my own personal connection to one of the 10 distinguished gentlemen.

In my family home, taking pride of place, was a photo of an important-looking man in uniform and fancy headgear pinning a medal on my police officer father circa 1956. This was Sir Donald, whose last name we never quite knew how to pronounce.

The current British High Commis-sioner to Malaysia, Vicki Treadell, in her dinner speech at the launch, spoke of her earliest memories of Carcosa.

That was in 1989, when she was a junior diplomat in her first posting in Kuala Lumpur.

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip were in town for the Com-monwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) and Treadell had a brief audience with her majesty at Carcosa, where they were staying.

Listening to her brought back my own meeting with the queen that took place at Carcosa as well.

I was a senior reporter covering CHOGM. Out of the blue, a grand- looking invitation card arrived at the office stating the Lord Cham-berlain had been commanded by her majesty to invite me to a tea reception with her.

To this day, I have no idea why I was the only journalist invited from The Star. But as its representative, I put on my best dress, drove to Carcosa and queued up to meet Queen E.

I was probably the 108th person to be introduced to her and I’m sure my name never registered with her. I can’t remember if we shook hands – probably not – but I think I curtsied.

What I do remember well was my short conversation with her. I was standing with other guests when she made her rounds, came to us and stopped. And what did we talk about? The weather!

And then she regaled us with her tale of flying to Ipoh to pay a visit to the royal town of Kuala Kangsar on the invitation of the late Sultan Azlan Shah of Perak, who was then the Yang di-Pertuan Agong.

As she disembarked from the plane, she was greeted by the sultan, who was expected to accompany her down the red carpet that had been rolled out for her.

Unfortunately, it had rained earlier and the carpet was apparently soaking wet.

Queen Elizabeth told us that she didn’t fancy walking on the soggy rug – she was wearing white shoes after all – but every time she tried to walk off it, the sultan gently steered her back on it!

Such is my precious memory of my sole meeting with one of the most famous women in the world. And it happened at Carcosa.

As many will know, the two stately buildings overlooking the Lake Gardens have a long and interesting history.

The main residence, Carcosa, was built by Sir Frank Swettenham in 1898 while King’s House was built in 1913 for the Straits Settlements governor and other visiting dignitaries to stay in.

After Britain returned the property to the Malaysian Government in 1987, the buildings were run as a luxury hotel under three different management companies.

Somehow, it did not work out, despite its exclusive location, its popularity as a wedding venue and its high tea set.

Carcosa was closed in 2009 and Seri Negara in 2015.

AHM has other ideas for the property, including a museum, that will change its elitist, exclusive image while honouring its historical importance and heritage.

The month-long Jalan Merdeka, which is free to the public, is the first step and it has already been warmly received by the public.

Put together within just three months, the exhibition, spread over both buildings, is commendable for its inclusive narrative of the road to independence.

It offers nuggets of information that we never learned in our history lessons, including the forgotten role of Carcosa Seri Negara itself.

Various activities, such as weekend talks, bird-watching walks, film screenings, including Wayang Pacak (open air cinema) have been planned.

On Saturday, three episodes of a Finas-backed series, called Time Capsule Malaysia, were screened out on the lawn in front of Seri Negara.

The small crowd rolled out mats and plastic sheets on the rain-soaked grass, while others like me sat on rattan chairs.

I had no expectations from Time Capsule Malaysia, which aired on the History Channel in 2014, but it was jolly good fun, with amazing footage dating back to the 1950s and 1960s from the Malaysian Film Archives.

The remaining three episodes will be screened this coming Saturday at Wayang Pacak.

I will be there, this time with my own mat and mozzie repellent.

You can check out the programme that is still being finalised on or One last thing, for transparency’s sake, Aunty’s husband is the CEO of AHM.


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