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De(con)structing Merdeka and the Media

The buildings of Malaya’s independence are very different from those that define Kuala Lumpur’s landscape today. How different are its storytellers?

The Merdeka Interviews : Architects, Engineers and Artists of Malaysia’s Independence
by Lai Chee Kien and Ang Chee Cheong

It’s difficult to write something both original and interesting on a subject that’s already been covered extensively in an almost 700-page book, a dozen media interviews and a handful of talks.

But when my indignation at something Malaysian architect Ang Chee Cheong said at a recent lecture morphed into a troubling sense of self-doubt, it feels somewhat important for me to try.

“The media is not doing its job,” Ang, co-author of The Merdeka Interviews, said at the end of Architecture and Independence, a lecture he gave at Lit Books in early October that was co-organised by Imagined Malaysia.

Really? I’d wondered. Ang has spoken extensively about the book he and fellow architect Lai Chee Kien put together. Since the book’s publication in early 2018, he has gone on record several times to highlight how innovative the architects of Malaya’s first structures were.

Here are a few existing articles on the subject matter covered in the book: The proud first 10, ‘The Merdeka Interviews’ spotlights architects, engineers and artists who shaped Malaysia post-independence and Merdeka Special: The untold stories of 5 historical Malaysian structures.

See, it isn’t difficult to find a narrative – and a compelling one at that – snaking through Malaya’s iconic tributes to independence. I can go on and on about the disciplined yet cheerful work ethic of multiracial and even multinational parties back then (they had a celebratory party every time a floor of the Parliament building was constructed), how an Englishwoman carved the bas relief of Hang Tuah for Muzium Negara and even Tunku Abdul Rahman’s modelling of the Tugu Negara after the Iwo Jima memorial in Washington to remind people of Malaya’s Emergency period.

But that will be nothing compared to the words used by the architects and engineers involved in the design and construction of these structures in The Merdeka Interviews.

For instance, since we’re on the subject of the media, here’s a story from the book about a Malay Mail journalist who showed up every evening at Merdeka Stadium while it was being constructed, as told by the late architect Stanley Jewkes. Sitting alone on the bleachers night after night, this reporter didn’t even ask any questions but instead watched the ongoing work in silence.

We were then on the last of the four towers, and we had got it up and we were just swinging it into position when I said to him: “Look, I read your paper every day and never have I seen any comment or any photographs of these towers.”

And he said: “Well, nothing has happened yet.”

I said: “What do you mean nothing has happened yet?”

He said: “Nothing’s fallen down yet.”

It’s a hilarious story, but it begs the question: has Malaysian media changed today? 

I’m not sure print newspapers can afford sending journalists to stake out construction sites every night anymore. But even if they did, few people pay to read print any more. In a world of instantaneous photos and status updates that take seconds to write and publish for the world to read, it seems ever so difficult to grab and hold attention with blocks of text… so a RM127.50, 668-page book weighing several kilograms might just fail to grab enough attention.

Maybe this article will suffer the same fate.

But if you’ve made it this far, I urge you to get your hands on the book and actually read it. Treasure it. Laugh at the funny stories, be inspired by the odds these people beat to build what they did. Pore through the drawings – intricate and one-of-its-kind – that tell stories words cannot. The outcome of those meticulous works are now hiding in plain sight: once symbols of democracy and independence, they are today backdrops of KL’s infamous rush hour traffic.

Print, like those monuments, isn’t dead or obsolete, but in the noisiness of the virtual traffic today, it’s easy to lose sight of how much it still has to offer.

Wait, but why

If you’re wondering why any of this matters, here are some questions for you to ask yourself and Malaysia’s current builders, both of physical structures and national discourse:

1. What are we trying to build today? 

2. What have we succeeded in building?

3. How will this shape our country, not just tomorrow or next year, but for generations to come?

One tribute to Malaya’s independence has already been torn down and replaced with what its builders hope will become another: the Coronation Park, which later became Merdeka Park, is being transformed into Menara Warisan, or Menara 118, a questionable edifice in KL’s already oversaturated commercial space market. 

Another lost view, says Ang, is the two-part mural on Muzium Negara’s outer walls, half of which is now blocked by the glass entrance to the Merdeka MRT station.

He also noted the poor craftsmanship visible in the six layers of flooring work of the Parliament building.

So what are we destroying in the name of ‘progress’?

“In the past, buildings had agency, programme, meaning. They served a function for a new nation,” Ang lamented.

“Today, Malaysia seems to be striving for the region’s tallest building. But it’s really only competing with itself.”

In such a case, history offers us not only an opportunity to appreciate the hard work of our forefathers, but to learn lessons from their motivations and ethics. 

A pertinent question was asked in a recent conversation I had with some of the people behind Malaysia Design Archive: are we really just preserving history so that we can throw around a bunch of cute fun facts or milk tourism money from it?

Neither are necessarily bad. But maybe there’s so much more that history and the monuments of Merdeka can teach us about nationhood and how to be better, stronger and more progressive as a country.