Thursday, September 18, 2008

Malacca - An Oasis of History.

This article touches vividly the very essence of issue between conservation versus development that is taking place within the historic enclave of Malacca but sadly overlook by the authority too eager to seek quick tourist dollars.

Read on and you would appreciate the images conjour by writer and why it is important to safeguard the remaining treasures still found here.

Essence of a Colonial Past Infuses Neglected Malacca
By Thomas Fuller (IHT, Fri, MARCH 19, 1999)

MALACCA, Malaysia: In a country where "old" is often defined as pre-1970, this city with its hibiscus-red colonial buildings and ornately carved facades is an oasis of history.

As progress and development have marched across Malaysia, one small corner of the country seems to have been spared. Still intact are Malacca's centuries-old shop-houses, its church built in 1753 and the ruins of a fort erected by the Portuguese about 450 years ago to secure the once strategic port.

As one ambles through the streets of the city, it is difficult to fathom Malacca's crucial role in the region's — and indeed the world's — commercial history. An adage from the early years of European colonialism in Asia perhaps says it best: "He who is lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice."

Malacca was the gateway to the spice islands, an entrepot for cloves, cinnamon, pepper and nutmeg. The narrow straits off the city, still some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, held the key to the lucrative spice trade for Europeans, who began their trips to the region in the early 1500s.

It was only in the last century, when the British moved their regional headquarters south to Singapore, that Malacca lost its strategic significance.

Today, the city's charm is its neglect. The local government has done little to polish the appearance of the historic district, a series of streets packed with sometimes rickety, narrow shop-houses. Local officials refuse to pay for renovations of the 18th-century church — the Dutch government paid the last time, in the 1980s — and talk of building a pedestrian promenade beside the oldest houses has remained just that.

The result: Many parts of the historic center still function independently of tourist dollars. Dilapidated buildings replete with elaborate tiles and carvings house barber shops, loan sharks, funeral parlors and furniture shops. Local patrons of tea stalls mingle and converse oblivious of the tourists who walk past the shops' marble-top tables and distinctive wooden chairs.
The hidden splendor of these buildings has not gone entirely unnoticed. Singaporeans, among others, are buying up the old houses and converting them into boutique hotels and cafés to complement the art galleries and trinket shops.

But history in Malacca resides not only in the rows of old shop-houses and nearby fort and church. There are gems throughout the city, although many are lost in Malacca's sometimes ugly and congested streets.
One is tucked away behind the fort: a small cemetery that speaks of the history of early colonists and their travails. Amid tombstones of former governors and military officers is the grave of Edward Hugh Massy, the 1-year-old son of a British lieutenant stationed in Malacca in the early 1800s. His grieving parents left a little piece of poetry on his gravestone: "This lovely bud so young and fair calld hence by early doom just came to shew how sweet a flower in paradise would bloom."

Signposts of the Past
It is through such tombstones that Malacca betrays the identities of its past and present inhabitants. Few cities in the world can claim such an eclectic heritage.
Malacca was founded by a Sumatran prince in the 14th century and saw successive waves of Portuguese, Dutch and British colonists met by traders from India, China and Java, among other places.

Some groups, like the Chittys from India and the descendants of Portuguese settlers, formed separate communities that remain today. Each race and culture has left its mark on the city — whether it is the spicy Portuguese food or the Armenian inscriptions on the floor of Christ Church. Indeed, part of the challenge for visitors to this old port is to try to disentangle the city's European and Oriental influences.

VISITORS today range from Singaporeans who drive here on weekends, to the droves of Europeans who, as their ancestors did, often come in groups.

Malacca is halfway between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore — two cities that have clearly succumbed to concrete and steel — making it an easy destination for a day trip.

Visitors who stay the night have choices among four and five-star hotels or boutique hotels in the historic part of town, a neighborhood recently made more lively with the addition of bars that stay open late.

At the heart of the historic area, next to the Dutch-built Christ Church, is the creaking State Historical Museum, housed in the former Dutch governor's house, and filled with dioramas, furniture and period costumes. Next door is the Youth Museum, a dark and puzzling series of rooms filled with sports trophies and dedicated to the not-so-youthful politicians who built it.
to be avoided is a nightly outdoor historical performance, derided by Malaccans as the sound, light and mosquito show.

But no visit to the city is complete without a journey to the top of St. Paul's hill, where the ruins of a fortress mix with the giant, 17th-century tomb markers of fallen Dutchmen.

In the distance, plying the muddy straits, are the outlines of container ships that all but ignore once-mighty Malacca.

RMAF Museum - Home of Malaysian Aviation Heritage

The RMAF Museum or Muzium TUDM (3 out of 5 Stars) in the Sungai Besi Air Base (the first international airport in Malaysia, before Subang and Sepang) has a thing or two to attract the most devout lot of museum aficionados.

The main draw is the fascinating array of aircraft in display. These flying machines were once the pride of the nation and Malaysia’s primary air defense arsenal.
Visitors who want a glimpse of the air force humble past may kick off their tour with the memorabilia in the modest museum housed in an ex-officer barrack. While the exhibits lack in creativity to capture visitors’ imagination, they compensate the fact with the historical importance of a struggling nation’s flying unit.

The first gallery is adorned with many wooden plaques listing the names of previous Air Marshall and black and white photos of colonial officers in their rather awkward pose in their songkok and their official Malay military gears.

The museum has a treasure or two to boast if you look hard enough for it. Located in the corner of this same gallery is the uncelebrated ejected pilot seat of F-5E jet. Not much is told about the incident but a little notice nearby discloses the uneventful fate of the fighter jet which crashed off the coasts of Terengganu in the 80s.

However, kids and their dads will have a field day discovering more about the aircraft parked next to the derelict hangar located close to the runway. Kids would love to explore the interiors of the large wing Caribou. These hard working Canadian transporters were the backbones of air force logistic need, and when standing in the narrow cabin one can still feel the adrenalin rush of a paratrooper waiting his turn to jump off the plane.

With luck, visitors can catch the air force’s Nuri (transport helicopter) or Police's Pilatus in operation from the nearby runway. More surprises inside the hangar. There, the A-4 Skyhawk - the supersonic jet fighter that once ruled our skies in the 80s before the arrivals of the Hornets, Sukhoi and MiGs, now greets visitors amid silently.

Retired helicopters are also valuable exhibits to allow visitors hand-on experience on the working of a rotor blade aircraft. The historical biplane that served in the formation years of RMAF is another attraction not to be missed.

Nevertheless, it is heart breaking that parts of the aircraft body which is covered with flimsy cloth-like material, are tears everywhere due to lack of care and poor maintenance.That is probably the main contention of visitors to this museum.

Muzium TUDM has in their procession some of the priceless artifacts showcasing our country’s momentous start in aerial military yet all the exhibits are covered with a thick layer of dust or worst condemned under the unforgiving tropical sun. Many outdoor exhibits including Ferrer Scout Car, Grumman Seaplane and others are left to rust. Information or the lack of it on the displays is another thing that the curator should be dismayed with.

Questions should be asked now if another more committed conservation entity should assume the role as the repository of Malaysian Air Force heritage.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Merdeka Stadium Wins Unesco Award

A jury of 12 conservation experts gave Merdeka Stadium the Award of Excellence and the Suffolk house in Penang the Award of Distinction in the Unesco Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards for Culture and Heritage Conservation held in Bangkok. (NST Sept 8, 08)

For those who fought hard to preserve the stadium’s historical importance, the award is a well earned recognition for a national monument that symbolizes our nationhood and its birth.

Not all share the belief unfortunately, and in the late 90s, the fate of Merdeka Stadium laid precariously in the hands of development juggernaut. A would-be victim of an outrageous trading chip by Tun Mahathir to fund his fancy Commonwealth Sports Complex in Bukit Jalil.

The more cynical ones perceived it all part of an elaborate scheme to discard the memoirs of our beloved Tunku - Malaysia’s first Prime Minister. Merdeka Stadium was to suffer the same fate as Subang Airport in a wipe out exercise of Tunku's legacy.

However, the arrival of Pak Lah at the power helm, finally offered a ray of hope to the iconic football stadium.

Award-winning architect cum conservationist Laurence Loh was put in charge to put the glory back to Stadium Merdeka. Soon, an army of jackhammers and hard hats descended on the bitumen track and concrete stands to give the stadium a new facelift.

Its seating capacity of previous high of 60,000 was scaled back to the heydays of Merdeka at under 20,000.

The reduced seating capacity is far from the days when the Stadium housed Malaysia as an Asian football power house, but the new overall look is similar to what Tunku had envisioned when he led JKR engineers to transform Kuala Lumpur in time to celebrate our independence from the British.

At the core of the conservation plan is the preservation of the main façade of the grandstand. A mini museum cum photo gallery was included to showcase the stadium and its many historical events.