A Visit to Carcosa Seri Negara

29 May 2018

As Malaysia celebrates Independence Day on 31 August, we look at the history and future of the building where the Merdeka Agreement was signed 60 years ago, in 1957.

From the balcony terrace of Carcosa, it’s possible to see the top of the Twin Towers, just peeking over the trees in the distance.

Over a hundred years ago, when officials of the British colonial administration stood in this spot, the view over Kuala Lumpur was very different. So, too, was life inside the building. Once the seat of powerful diplomats, Carcosa hosted national events and the finest of balls. In recent years, it’s become a home to a few lingering lizards.

The Carcosa estate is shared by two grand buildings: Carcosa and Seri Negara. Both still show signs of their former splendour. There are glittering chandeliers, elegantly tiled floors, and golden fixtures in the bathrooms. But the rugs have been rolled up; and dust has settled where there was once dancing.

Soon, that will change. Earlier this year, it was announced that a group known as Asian Heritage Museum will be turning the Carcosa estate into a museum, opening their doors to the public with their first exhibition this Merdeka. New footsteps will be falling in these halls.

Asian Heritage Museum was established by KK Tan, a thinktank analyst, columnist and former government advisor. He’s joined by a group of high profile history enthusiasts, such as Tunku Zain Al-’Abidin Tuanku Muhriz, Chairman of the Council of Advisors to Asian Heritage Museum, as well as Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam, Datuk Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman and more.

For many years, the buildings were open as luxury hotels offering a taste of the past, leased to various hotel companies. The estate was declared an official heritage site in 2007. But the Carcosa building has been abandoned since 2009, while Seri Negara alone continued operating as a hotel under Saujana Hotels & Resorts until the end of 2015. Both buildings have suffered, as the rain and humidity set in.

“I’m very inspired by what I see in Singapore, Penang and even Kuching where heritage buildings are accessible to the public,” says Tunku Zain. “The problem with Carcosa and Seri Negara is that they’ve always been perceived to be elitist or not accessible. I want to change that.”

Asian Heritage Museum’s starting point is a collection of antiquities that were acquired several years ago. Back in 2004, an American treasure hunter came to Malaysia with a collection of rare artefacts, and the group hoped to buy the artefacts and start a museum with the support of the government.

However, in a tale of twists and turns, the seller later absconded with half the artefacts. The Kuala Lumpur High Court ruled that Asian Heritage Museum were entitled to acquire what had been left behind, and they proceeded to authenticate them, finding that several were priceless.

Among the treasures are an 18th century bronze bell, a collection of Song and Tang dynasty ceramics thought to have been recovered from shipwrecks, as well as an ornate wooden chest and a pair of tall, stately drums from the Malay Archipelago.

Together, the artefacts tell a story of the maritime history of the region.

“We want to highlight that trade, communication and cultural exchange occurred centuries and centuries ago,” says Tunku Zain. “It’s something that I think we need to remind people, especially in this highly nationalist age. As we are now thinking about ASEAN, our relationship with China, India, it’s timely to consider the region as a whole. To look at this evidence of exchange.”

“The museum will promote peace, moderation and cultural diversity,” says KK Tan, who adds that he wants to send a message of anti-extremism through the project.

Asian Heritage Museum also plans to organise performances, as well as guided walks of the flora and fauna in the gardens in collaboration with Malaysian Nature Society. Commercially, it will set up an Artefact Trading initiative, connecting buyers and sellers.

Tunku Zain cites the Old Kuching Courthouse as a heritage building that has inspired him personally. “I was there recently during the Rainforest Fringe Festival. It had seen its glory days and had become derelict, and now it’s been rehabilitated into this space where people do art shows and markets and events.”

The first exhibition at Carcosa will be entitled Jalan Merdeka, and it will aim to show the many strands of history that led up to Malaya’s Independence.

“We have the conventional narrative that every schoolchild knows. But we think there is more to the story than that. For example, before the current configuration of political parties, there were other political movements that made a contribution,” says Tunku Zain. “History is something nobody should have a monopoly over.”

The curators of the exhibition include Datin Saidah Rastam, Mariana Isa and Netusha Naidu.

The Merdeka theme is particularly apt, since the Merdeka Agreement of 1957 was signed in Seri Negara, once known as King’s House. Carcosa’s estate was long tied to changes in the country, having first been built in 1896 for Sir Frank Swettenham, the first Resident-General of the Federated Malay States.

In its heyday, the estate was visited by Malayan royalty as well as the British royal family. In the lead up to Independence, Tunku Abdul Rahman decided to make the Carcosa estate a gift to the British government, as a symbol of goodwill. Carcosa therefore remained a British property until 1987, when the Malaysian government brought it back under their ownership.

Currently, the estate falls under the purview of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, which has supported Asian Heritage Museum’s plans. With an initial lease of three years, the team will need to work quickly. But they are enthusiastic about their vision: one where schoolchildren, tourists and history buffs alike are welcome at Carcosa.

“It was a pity that in the past, these buildings were not used to promote heritage,” says Tan. “We want to do justice to these two buildings.”

This Merdeka weekend, Malaysians will be able to visit the room where the future of the nation was once sealed. And the buildings will once again feel the warmth of people, after standing empty for too long.

The Jalan Merdeka exhibition at Carcosa Seri Negara will open from 1- 30 September, 8am – 5pm.
Find out more about Malaysia’s heritage sites at
www.heritage.gov.my and www.badanwarisanmalaysia.org

Text by Ling Low
Photos by Wong Yok Teng
Video by Teoh Eng Hooi


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