Historic Preservation in Malaysia

Heritage of Malaysia Trust – Badan Warisan

On Wednesday, June 6th, we found ourselves in a 1930s colonial bungalow situated next to a traditional Malay house, or “Rumah Penghulu”, from the early twentieth century. The bungalow was a British officer’s residence. The traditional Malay house was relocated from Kedah to the same site. We were able to get up close and personal to the two properties thanks to the Heritage of Malaysia Trust – Badan Warisan at Jalan Stonor, Kuala Lumpur.

Corner of one room of the Rumah Penghulu. Note the clay tile roof – so cool!

The executive director of Badan Warisan, Elizabeth Cardosa, greeted us in the bungalow and presented us with the NGO’s history, mission, and goals. She expressed that this particular conservation organization grew out of a larger conservation movement. The movement, or conservation consciousness, developed out of necessity – it was born under a time of distress for culturally and historically significant sites.

With land development decided at the state level, meaning that buildings and land parcels are considered in isolation from one another, Kuala Lumpur lacks a broad framework for historic and cultural preservation. Also, the pressure for KL to develop and become a “global city” by 2020 takes priority over preservation. Colonial sites are seen as the antithesis to modern, progressive places and should be replaced by concrete, metal, and glass structures. The disappearance of colonial sites also stems from a desire to whitewash the memories of a suppressed culture during colonial rule, a traumatic span of time for the country. The attachment and sentimental value associated with such places may be hard to find and muster support for then.

Elizabeth used other key phrases such as “culture vulturing”, “tourism crush”, and “the invasion of the Hard Rock Café”, to describe the climate of Kuala Lumpur’s situation. Elizabeth gave the impression that the push for tourist destinations and the influence of Western culture will lead to a devouring of cultural sites unless their importance as such becomes valued. One way to convince a reluctant audience of their value is to restore historic and cultural sites, however, this requires funding. And funding requires a belief in the process in order to invest. And so the cyclical process is a difficult one to overcome. This is not unlike the trajectory of historic preservation in the United States but I wish for Malaysia to expedite the process of conservation before globalization and hyper-development consume the landscape of significant cultural and historical sites.

It is my opinion that while the country has enacted the National Heritage Act in 2005, similar to our National Register of Historic Places criteria and eligibility regulations, Malaysia could, and should, do more to protect and promote their cultural heritage.

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One comment

  1. Susan Daney · · Reply

    I feel bad for a culture that wants to erase it’s history – not matter how good or bad – it’s still history. Nations should always remember where they came from. It helps create a better future.

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