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.

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