Monday, June 23, 2008

Hope for Malaysian Tin Legacy?

Tin was an integrated part of Malaysia.

Millions of Malaysian Chinese today can trace their ancestry to the waves of cheap coolies brought into Malaya to labor in the God forsaken, malaria infested tin mines. Many Malays in this country too have their roots traced to groups originated from the surrounding Malay Archipelagoes who came to Tanah Melayu for the same economical reasons (i.e the Mandailing from Sumatera found mostly in Papan, Perak, Bugis from Sulawesi in Perak and Selangor). Unfortunately, this later form of migration is not mentioned promptly in history books or museums.

Calm was disrupted when everyone was caught in a ruthless fight for a bigger share of the tin pie. Throughout the 19th century, Civil Wars erupted in Perak, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang and Selangor and often complicated by bloody royal tussle. Rival Malay/ Bugis warlords would be aided by equally ferocious Chinese Clans fighting territorial control over tin rich areas.

Perfect excuse for the opportunistic British to interfere. With their superior guns and arm twisting tactics, the smoke apparently cleared and the mines were a hive of activity again. The British wasted no time and made iron roads into the Malay heartland.

In a short span of time, numerous British financed railway lines began to dot the landscape and changing the political status quo. It was a mayhem in the villages with superstitious folks frightened to their wits with the arrival of the steam engines blowing fiery smokes into the air. Before too long, the entire atmosphere was akin to doomsday. Wild elephants too stirred by the sights and sounds of fire eating iron horse chugging with their tin ore loads to nearby sea ports.

Soon, foreign steamers were calling Port Weld, Port Swettenham and Port Dickson -and all of them share a familiar trait - Tin.

Needless to say, tin resource brought prosperity to the country.

History will also show that tin from Malaya saved Great Britain from bankruptcy after World War II. Countless millionaires were made and with their nouveau riches, they showed off by acquiring lavish taste for western amenities.

In Perak, car owners have the privilege of having their Morris and Renault with car plates beginning with the letter 'A'. Selangor quickly follow suit with 'B' and Pahang 'C'. They were the three of the wealthier Malay states and their source was primarily tin. Mansions built on hard cash from tin also mushroomed in Ipoh, Penang and Malacca.

The collapse of tin price in the 80s suddenly halted the rosy outlook and hit hard at all levels of the society.

However what's most unfortunate is how quick we were to distance ourselves from the tin legacy. Suddenly, the tin industry became an out-class, sort of taboo and not worth a mention except briefly on the school textbooks.

We became apparently ashamed of our centuries old ties with mother nature's black gift. Their immediate demise was hastened by a national inertia on what properly constitute Malaysia National Heritage.

As a young country, we were confronting depleting treasures from our chequered past yet they were concerns, valid or otherwise by powerful groups who viewed our Colonial eras with dismay. They held a vengeance by collectively imply any symbolic representation or gestures from the last five centuries as a threat to our national identity. Nothing was spared. Mining equipment was sold for scrap.

Miners unemployed for the first time in their life found no support whatsoever. They quickly turned to cooking and manned the many hawker stalls. Options were few for them and they have families to feed. In Seri Kembangan/Balakong, Selangor, the world's largest open cast tin mine was shut down and is now a man-made lake with The Palace of Golden Horses (5 Star Hotel) and the Mine Shopping Mall at its shores.

Other ex-tin mines were condemned too. They are now either popular fishing grounds, haven for migratory birds and worst, completely reclaimed to begin a new life as Taman found commonly in Puchong, Subang and the likes of Sunway Lagoon in Selangor, and in Perak -Kampar and Gopeng areas to name a few.

If you are keen to revisit the tin legacy in this country then you have an uphill task. There are NO historical sites, NO dedicated museum, NO conservation of the mining equipments. Period.

However, I think there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Malaysia in trying to position itself as a tourism destination has taken a renewal interest in everything old, rustic and even colonial. Previously, colonial subjects were discarded because it was just plain un-nationalistic and unpatriotic. Fortunately, the authority also has awakened to the concept that heritage is a valuable asset and can bring in the precious tourism ringgit.

This arrangement is far from perfect in conservation sense but it does offer a glimpse of hope to conservation work and the need to protect heritage sites and the artifacts despite some reservation about colonialization and the diverse cultural and religious backgrounds.

Below is a list of museums and visitor centers offering fascination insights on the tin legacy in Malaysia.

The newly upgraded Gallery C of the Muzium Negara has an impressive exhibition on the subject. The gallery is also a good start to get acquitted with the subject of tin and the different methods used in mining for tin ore. Tin ingots and model of tin dredge are on display too.

Not to be missed is The Royal Selangor Visitor Centre, Kuala Lumpur. Highly recommended. A dedicated venue to highlight pewter-smithing business that has gone global. What I find most interesting is that the visitor center offers visitors stimulating and engaging exhibits not just the history of the Yong family and the trade. Visitors will leave with a profound appreciation of how tin is used and the pride involved in the making of pewter-ware. Look out for the giant dredge bucket replicas hanging from the ceiling. The buckets were used to dig tin ore found deep in the ponds and there are some 100 buckets in just one floating tin dredge alone!(model available in the Tin History section). Admission is free.

The Sungai Lembing Museum, Sungai Lembing, Pahang. Recommended. Known once as the El Dorado of Malaya because of its unsurpassed richness, now a dying town with largely an aged population with their grandchildren. One of the few perfect in-situ museums in Malaysia. The diorama of machinery and life in the tunnel can literally transport visitors back to the site itself and worth the trip. The museum authority deserves a pat for putting the displays and presenting the history of Sg. Lembing. Admission is free.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Political Hands in Museum Director Removal?

The new political landscape following the 12th. General Elections in Selangor may have a hand in changing the Director of Perbadanan Muzium Selangor (PMS) - The Sunday Star- Jun 15, 08. PMS is the museum authority overseeing the Shah Alam Museum and the Bukit Melawati Museum in Kuala Selangor and several Royal Burial sites in the state.

While the new Mentri Besar was quick to refute any claim of political victimization, many would view this development with trepidation. Such a move is likely to signal how the Pakatan led state government want a new approach in museum establishments under the auspice of PMS.

For the political pundits, the removal of the state museum director is akin to the tug-of- war between UMNO and PKR. However for museum aficionados this is another worrisome trend to position state museums as vehicles to propagate myopic interpretations of history.

These public funded museums supported by our hard earned money will continue to be feted with vested interests groups who have no qualms about distorting historical events and cultural practices. Some are even guilty of cultural cleansing in this country. Their overzealous endeavors to champion a particular race or a political party, and to completely sideline the other communities have made local museums into a mockery institution.

Changing of the top guards in Malaysian State Museums according to the whims and fancies of the political masters is nothing new. Nevertheless, Malaysians should be aghast with these subtle interference. Only with restraint can we be hopeful that Malaysian museums would become the rightful institution that embodies the richness of our multi-racial and multi-religious heritage.

Malaysians museums as political fall guys are not completely a strange phenomenon. A quick check on museums in Penang, Malacca and Sarawak over the last decades would reveal astonishing political vendetta in play. One can only conclude that the latest development in Selangor is a political boomerang which has come back to haunt the once perpetrators from UMNO. Like the old saying, what goes around comes around.

In 2006, Penang Museum Curator and conservationist, Khoo Boo Chia - The Sun, March 24, 06 - was removed from his post prematurely by the state executive in charge of culture and arts, a rising UMNO political stalwart himself. The museum under Khoo's tenure was besieged by calls to showcase more of the communities from Penang's mainland side, previously an UMNO powerbase. Few but loud disgruntled voices from their members also lamented about the SMuseum so-called 'over-emphasizing' communities from the Penang Island.

Further south, in Barisan stronghold state of Malacca, PERZIM, the state museum authority went a step further in galvanizing this prominent political establishment when it opened a dedicated UMNO Museum in the tourist belt in Banda Hilir.

A check revealed more bleak outlooks. Visitors to the Historical Museum in Stadhuys will be disappointed to find lopsided interpretations of the key political players and their contributions, in the historic state and also the country. Prominent role played by non- Malay communities in their collective fight for Malaya's Independence were overshadowed by the 'heroic' political struggles from their UMNO brethrens. Needless to say, the exhibitions on the state's colorful and vibrant minorities are best patronizing and mischieviously inaccurate.

Hopefully the change we are witnessing in Selangor marks a departure from the old ways where museums are merely a propaganda tool. Let set our sight to elevate museums into a reputable heritage cum historical establishment that all Malaysians can proud of.

Jun 16, 08

The Sunday Star - June 15, 2008

Khalid tells why Maimunah was removed

SHAH ALAM: The sudden termination of Maimunah Mohd Saidas Selangor Museum director was to give way to young and fresh ideas in its exhibition methods, said Selangor Menteri Besar Tan Sri Abdul Khalid Ibrahim yesterday.

Commenting on the termination, he said the decision was made in consideration of the needs and demands of the future community.

On Friday, Maimunah said she had received a letter that stated her two-year contract with the museum, which had another five months to complete, was terminated on June 9.
State Secretary Datuk Ramli Mahmud signed the letter.

State Islamic Affairs, Malay Customs, Infrastructure and Public Amenities chairman Datuk Dr Hassan Ali was reported as saying that Maimunah was not sacked or terminated but had to be removed as she had reached the age of 60.

Khalid said that although the contract was terminated early the state government could offer compensation to Maimunah.

Asked whether he thought a 60-year-old could no longer come up with fresh ideas, Khalid said: “Of course they can but naturally young people will have a 10-year plan while a 60-year-old has a one-year plan. I don’t want the museum’s officers to be its own artefacts,” he said.


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Talk On Malaysian History

There will be a public lecture on Pre-history of Malaysia of Malaysia at 10 am on Sat. June 14,08.

Venue is at Dept of Museum Malaysia auditorium and key speaker is Datuk Dr. Adi Taha, archaeologist and former Director General of Jabatan Muzium. The event is organized together with Museum Volunteers Malaysia (MMVM). Admission is free. For registration. call 03 2282 6255 ext 206.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Bring Back The Trams To Penang

Article from - The Sun -June 4, 2008
Diana Chin

GEORGE TOWN (June 4) : Citizens groups in Penang have initiated a lobby to have the billion-ringgit monorail project replaced with a tram system in the state. The movement stems from an increasingly popular notion that the monorail is far too costly and would bring about adverse effects to the heritage streets and green landscape of Penang.

'Penangites for Tram' campaign coordinator Anil Netto explained that investment required for developing a tram network would be much lower than for constructing the monorail.
"The tram is a more substantial choice as we can revive the system based on already existing old tram lines that Penang used to have, thereby eliminating excessive additional costs," he said.
Netto said trams would blend in with George Town’s heritage and greenery, while the monorail would obstruct views of buildings and mar the attractiveness of the island.

He said a good tram system would also encourage people not to drive private vehicles within the town area, allowing them to save following the increase in fuel charges.
"If we give the people a better alternative in public transport, there will be less traffic congestion and more parking spaces in town," he said.

As the roads of Penang are narrow, they suited the concept of the trams, he added. The campaign is currently being supported by 25 bloggers and websites.

Heritage writer Khoo Salma Nasution noted that the Penang Island Municipal Council was the first local government to introduce electric trams in the inner city in the early part of the last century.

"People think the tram is a thing of the past, but they are wrong because it is actually the thing of the future," she said. "It is clean, energy saving and user-friendly not to mention fast, efficient and also cheap." She said the tram could provide an iconic identity for Penang and help revitalise the heritage of the inner city.

Khoo, who published a book titled ‘Penang Trams, Trolleybuses & Railways: Municipal Transport History 1880s-1963’,said trams could also help traffic calming in Penang’s roads.
Aliran and Penang Heritage Trust activist Ahmad Chik said the campaign is calling for a traffic master plan for Penang that would include feasibility studies for trams as compared to monorails and underground transit systems.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Conquer This Culture Coup.

THE new Peranakan Museum in Singapore has opened its doors to visitors (The Star, April 24) and, judging by the success they have had with the Asian Civilizations Museum, it is a safe bet to say that this museum, housed in an old school, will generate the same excitement among history buffs and tourists.

Singaporeans can be forgiven if they show a glint in their eyes over this museum, but it is no laughing matter for the Malaysian Government.

The Malaysian Ministry of Unity, Cultural, Arts and Heritage and the Museum
Department must confront this culture coup earnestly. Heritage-loving Malaysians are disappointed that invaluable Peranakan artifacts are now in the hands of foreigners and we should demand that Malaysia adopt a more proactive stance to champion local heritage.

Malacca, Penang and Kelantan were some of the early points of entry for Chinese immigrants who came here to work. They subsequently assimilated with the locals to form this unique culture we have come to call Peranakan, or the not-so-politically-correct term – Baba and Nyonya.

Singapore or Temasik was then just the occasional pirate hideout. Thus, it is not ridiculous to stake claim that Malaysia is the rightful birthplace of the Peranakan heritage.
Countless theses and study papers from local and foreign universities have been done on the community’s unique racial composition and highlighted the role its members play in Malaysian society.

Whatever the festive occasions, the Peranakan are exemplified for their multi-racial outlook and multi-cultural practices.

There is a popular Baba and Nyonya Museum operated by Chan Kim Lay and family in Malacca. It is a favourite with tourists who are willing to pay top dollar to see first-hand the culture, decorations and architecture associated with the Peranakan.

In the late 90s, there was talk about a Jabatan Museum project to build a similar Peranakan Museum along Heeren Street in Malacca. Nothing came out of it and as we all know now, Singapore has beaten us to it.

It is not an exaggeration if we consider this seemingly “oversight” a tip of the iceberg.
We have new archeological finds and reveal fascinating insights about the A Famosa fortress and its two unearthed Portuguese bastions in Malacca. Yet Jabatan Muzium’s and the state government’s enthusiasm is found wanting.

Lembah Bujang with its 1,000-year-old candis around Gunung Jerai are left neglected, although conservationists have acknowledged that Lembah Bujang is in the same league with Angkor Wat and Borobodur.

However, no proper recognition or planning is forthcoming and this historical treasure is just accorded a brief mention in a tour itinerary, if at all.

Malaysians should not lament that Malaysia has no historical attractions to offer. The Ministry responsible for our heritage and culture must be bold enough to embrace the wealth that our multi-cultural and multi-racial society has to offer.

April 24, 08

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Bukit China Now A Heritage Zone?

In an unprecedented turnabout by Malacca authority, Bukit China and the 10,000 or more graves are now considered worthy of being accorded heritage site. This latest announcement must be music to the souls from the largest Chinese Cemetery outside of China and now they can rest in peace.

This latest twist of event is a remarkable departure from an earlier hostile policy to ‘redevelop’ Bukit China in the mid 80s initiated by the then rising UMNO stalwart and former CM, Abdul Rahim Thamby Chik. This controversial and elaborate scheme calls for the remains of the graves to be exhumed and the entire hill leveled to spur Malacca property markets. Centuries old cemeteries will be replaced with hotels and shop lots. A multilevel pagoda will also be built to house the urns of the deceased and served to remind Malaccans of the sanctity of this burial site.

There were uproars among the Chinese communities and the many living descendents who feared such a move has devastating impact on family fengshui and their future well being.

Opposition politicians from DAP won rousing support and its leader Lim Kit Siang was hailed as hero when he confronted the government on this massive plan. History also showed that locals voiced their displeasure by voting out the Chinese representatives from the ruling component parties in the election in the following year. Following this thrashing at the ballot box, wisdom won the day and the political masters were quick to heed the clear message about the Chinese community.

Owner of the Bukit China, the Chen Hoon Teng Temple and monks then spearheaded a clean up project to make the cemeteries more accessible to the Malaccans. Soon, Bukit China became the favorite jogging site for health enthusiasts. Some well concerned individuals contributed time, sweats and money to green up the entrance leading to the climb to the hill top.

Soon, Bukit China too became Malacca’s scout troopers’ favorite venue. After night fall, countless young scouts were ‘ordained’ here especially after they have successfully ’subjected’ themselves to a test of faith within a stone throw away from the cemetery.

While the latest call from current CM Ali Rustam goes a long way to safeguard Bukit China from wanton development, at least for the time being, one can’t help wondering if these are part of a shrewd political maneuver to win back the hearts of the minority in the country following the 12th General Election.

Malaysians are too familiar with too many instances when promises were broken even before the inks dry.

The on-off development curse that lingers around Bukit China is an example of the complexity that brews out of political necessity but if it is allowed to go ahead will surely have far reaching consequence on the community and Malacca’s unique position as the Malaysia’s foremost cultural melting pot.

The real fear is that Bukit China may again become the pawn of flicked politicians whose agenda is not revealed till the damages have come irreversable.

June 5, 2008

Related Reading

The Star -Thursday June 5, 2008

Bukit China now in Malacca heritage zone

MALACCA: The state’s well-known historical landmark, Bukit China, has been included in Malacca and Penang’s joint bid for listing as a World Heritage Site next month.

The decision to bring the 256ha hill within the state’s conservation buffer zone comes into immediate effect following a recommendation by the United Nations International Council on Monuments and Sites to include it as part of the listing effort.

Chief Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Rustam said the hill was deemed to have historical value and significance dating back to the 15th century Malacca Sultanate.

“Besides being recognised as the largest Chinese cemetery outside of China, the hill is also the site of the ruins of a 16th century Portuguese monastery,” he said after chairing the state exco meeting yesterday.
With this, Mohd Ali said, the buffer zone to protect the state’s 235ha core heritage zone in the heart of the old city would be enlarged to 1,049ha from the previous 793ha.

“This will mean that the hill will now be preserved. Any proposed development must now obtain approval from the relevant conservation agencies,” he said, adding that the World Heritage Council would sit in Quebec, Canada, next month to decide on the joint bid.

“It has taken eight years for us to prepare the dossier for submission to the World Heritage Council in Paris and there’s a good chance that we can succeed,” Mohd Ali said.

He said the state would receive recognition as “Malacca and George Town Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca” if successful.

Secret Weapon to Keep Our Borders

The fight for Pulau Batu Putih (PBP), or Pedra Branca as Singapore prefers it, was over even before lawyers could face it off in The Hague.

Malaysians had apparently embarked on a ‘war path’ without the one vital ammunition which could have delivered the knockout punch on their opponents from across the causeway. Chief negotiator and Ambassador-at-large Tan Sri Abdul Kadir Mohamad revealed the futile search for the correspondence from the British to the Johore Temenggong seeking approval to build the Horsburgh Lighthouse.

This fruitless effort was revealed in the Malaysian Parliament (The Star, May 26, 08) when lawyer cum opposition politician Karpal Singh put the government to task for the loss of PBP. He claimed it was ‘foolhardly to have the case before ICJ” without this solid piece of material.

The missing piece of the 19th. century document proved to be the coup de grace in our argument that the rocky islet was indeed historically ours. It was the vital material to support the claim that the crown colony’s presence in the rocky isle was at the courtesy of Johorean court. Other parliamentarians too joined in the fray and some of their favourite punching bags were the Attorney-General’s Chambers and the National Archives (Arkib Negara).

A backbencher not wanting to be outdone during the heated debate, even go so far to attribute the PBP loss to the lackadaisical attitude from the Unity, Cultural, Arts and Heritage Ministry in living up to its reputation as the guardians of Malaysia’s heritage. Imagine the ministry’s costly oversight in securing and preserving historical documents has now manifested into permanently deleting part of our southern border off from the map.

While there are now frantic calls to preserve documents, maps and relics pertaining to our litoral heritage before more islands are lost, they have come too late for PBP.

At hindsight, these developments could have taught us the valuable lesson to consider another perspective on how best we can safeguard our sovereign integrity. Policymakers no longer can justify protecting our shores by going on shopping spree and spending our hard earned ringgit on military hardware.

Similarly, they must adopt fresh approach to meet our defensive needs and look at threats from a whole different angle. When we finally arrive at this juncture, the future solution to prevent encroachment to our territory lies not in the billions we spent on the Sukhoi or Scorpene, but the fight is waged closer to our hearts and minds, by protecting our heritage.

Therefore, it is not too far stretched to argue that our vibrant and rich history could well be the preferred armament to avoid more geopolitical skirmish. Perhaps it is not too late yet for Malaysians to come with terms that our fight to settle future disputes and defend our territorial rights begins with the first step to Arkib Negara and the quality and the volume of its heritage collections.

In this new playing field, conservationists, museum curators and historians would join ranks with army generals and panglima in assuming the role of safeguarding our national sovereignty.

Heritage will be the weapon of choice to keep Malaysian borders intact.

New Look For Malaysian Heritage?

The purported guardians of the Malaysian heritage will soon find themselves tasked with redefining the appropriate context for a country with the new political awakening. This scenario may be the direct result from the recent 12th General Poll which saw the country’s minorities voicing their discontent through the ballot boxes. Key amongst their woes is the feelings that the minorities are systematically sidelined from the mainstream of Malaysia’s political, economical, and educational sectors.

Nevertheless, it is perhaps timely too that calls made by those who won in the elections championing the fight for justice and equality in the political arenas should entails similar voice calling for greater representation in matters constituting minority cultural heritage and their historical contribution to this nation. Only through an earnest and strong effort brought forth by this new political reality can the fate of minorities in Malaysia see light at the end of the tunnel.

This noble quest will offer deserving minorities and their forefathers whose forgotten sacrifices made through the generations be recognized and accorded the rightful place in Malaysian History.

Visit Muzium Negara and the State Museums in this country (with the exception of a handful like in Penang), and you are bound to be confronted with a dire situation where exhibit highlights on minorities’ history, culture and social economical involvement is almost non existence and if they are, the exhibits are mere patronizing and left you with a foul after taste.

Nothing is more infuriating when you come face-to-face with minority related exhibitions that sorely lack research and depths, and insult our intelligence. State Museum Boards in Melaka, Selangor and Negeri Sembilan, are in my view the top culprits in marginalizing minority communities in their choice of exhibits. PERZIM of Melaka for example, has over the years founded and built more than ten separately themed museums. A few were runaway success with tourists flocking for ample photography opportunity yet none focus any significant feature on the state’s rich and diverse communities like the Peranakan and the Portuguese.

Recent development in Singapore is another great concern to Malaysians who love our heritage. While Malaysia profusely claims to be the cradle of Baba and Nyonya heritage, the recently launched Peranakan Museum in downtown Singapore opened its door to a few surprises. Featured prominently in its main collection and a pride of its curator is the jaw dropping ancestral Baba Nyonya wares and artefacts from Penang!

This event is tantamount to a Cultural coup and should serve as an alarm to our heritage amnesia guardians. Malaysians can ill afford to have its priceless heritage sold to the highest bidder and let it fell into foreigner’s hands. We must seek answers on why and what happened to the much hyped Jabatan Muzium dan Ankuiti initiative in the 90s to have the Malaysian version of a similar Peranakan Museum in the Malacca historical enclave.

This dreadful situation is also compounded by a band of cultural chauvinists who has for too long guilty of ignoring the historical development in this country. Instead, these self appointed cultural and heritage gatekeepers perpetrated historical interpretation that borders cleansing of the country multi ethnic composition.

Perhaps it is appropriate that we demand a different breed of dedicated historians and conservationists who value and ready to embrace the multi racial and multi religious components of our Malaysian Heritage. They will boldly tackle new role as the heritage and history vanguards to take diversity and historical accuracy in Malaysia to greater heights.

In these 'new' Malaysian museums, they will showcase revolutionary interpretations of our diversity and history. They will be the undisputable establishment and the perfect platform to unify and to usher in a new era of mutual understanding and learning from one and other for all Malaysians.