The Right to the Padang

27 March 2017

Formerly known as the Padang, Dataran Merdeka continues to be a sacred urban space that commemorates Malaysia’s historic road to independence. We explore the growing pains of Dataran Merdeka and what it means for the public to reclaim meaning and ownership over historical spaces in Kuala Lumpur.

The cacophonous crowd roared like never before. Tunku Abdul Rahman, the country’s first Prime Minister, bellowed amid the crowd of 25,000 people who had the honour to witness the momentous event of 31 August 1957:

“Today as a new page is turned, and Malaya steps forward to take her rightful place as a free and independent partner in the great community of Nations – a new nation is born and though we fully realise that difficulties and problems lie ahead, we are confident that, with the blessing of God, these difficulties will be overcome and that today's events, down the avenues of history, will be our inspiration and our guide.” – Tunku Abdul Rahman’s declaration of independence.

At the stroke of midnight, the Union Jack was lowered, and with a swift succession, the Jalur Gemilang was raised. It was on the grounds of Dataran Merdeka where the people of Malaya had their first taste of freedom. At that moment, the Padang was reclaimed as their own.

Since then, Dataran Merdeka plays its role mostly as an annual space for Merdeka celebrations and parades. On other days, only a smattering of locals hang about the field, taking pictures and then walking away to their next destination.

Ashran Bahari and Hazazi Hamzah, directors of Studio Karya – an architecture and design collective based in Kuala Lumpur – mulls over the deterioration of Dataran Merdeka. To them, the historical space has lost its significance as a symbol for democracy; evident in the way the field itself now functions as a space catered towards tourists, with an underground mall on its deathbed.

Since the 1880s, the British had created their little utopia by establishing their presence in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. In and around the grounds of Dataran Merdeka – which was then called The Padang, and used as a cricket field and marching grounds for the Caucasians-only Selangor Club – are manifestations of the colonial imagination and assertion of power through architecture.

The medley of colonial architecture built at the brink of the 20th century comprised mostly of pastiche ideas of British architects who had previously worked in India and Ceylon. The Mohammedan, Moorish and Mock Tudor styles of the Sultan Abdul Samad Building, Selangor Club and the Old Post Office (1902-1907) stood in stark juxtaposition to Kuala Lumpur’s unorganised Chinatown and Malay kampungs.

“The reason for this is because the British wanted to honour and respect the religion of the sultans of the Malay states, and they thought it best that it was reflected through the architecture of the Muslim Empire in India,” say Ashran and Hazazi.

Indeed, what the British had created in Kuala Lumpur’s colonial centre of administration was a portrayal of power to establish their presence as a political force that governed the city. Architecture in fact, was a form of governmentality – a mode in which power is asserted over a nation’s culture and identity.

In this light, the celebration of Malaya’s independence in 1957 marked a historically momentous event for Malaysians. For the first time since the British had transformed the agricultural land of Dataran Merdeka into their administrative premises, the locals were finally able to set foot on the grounds through a symbolic reclamation of power and ownership.

However, following the years since the event, Dataran Merdeka had ceased to become the people’s Padang, says Hazazi.

“Now, we only use the Padang once a year for the commemoration of Merdeka. There’s a parade, you sing songs, but it isn't the true feeling of talking about freedom,” he says.

In 1990, a project to reimagine and revitalise Dataran Merdeka was commissioned by the Malaysian government, subsequently engaging with local and renowned architect, the late Datuk Ruslan Khalid.

His initial proposal involved a sculpted monolith as the field’s centrepiece and a proposed underground space at which a Merdeka Museum would be situated. The northern end of the Padang was also designed with a meditative garden adorned with shady topiary trees and shrubs surrounding a large pool.

Unfortunately, the idea of the monolith was later questioned by the Kuala Lumpur mayor with the intention of trimming off the cost of the project to a bare minimum.

As a compromise, Datuk Ruslan suggested that a modest flagpole be used, despite it not having the same visual impact and significance of a monolith. However, the mayor seemed unimpressed and instead proposed that the tallest flagpole in the world be built as it was “jaw dropping”, and that “local visitors and foreign tourists alike would have something to gawk at when they come to Kuala Lumpur,” Datuk Ruslan recalls in his autobiography, Quest for Architectural Excellence.

To top it off, the project was later directly awarded to a private developer to continue with the works, and all finishes and design elements were compromised to allow for the most important design feature of the project – the flagpole.

“With the proposal of the monolith and the Dataran museum below, it creates a very specific reason for you to go there. You’d want to go there to learn about the history of Merdeka. But now, the meaning of the place isn't really there,” laments Hazazi.

“The challenge here is to call on the people to reclaim their right to the city by reimagining the city as spaces that could contribute to nation building, and not some attempt by corporations to make more money for themselves,” Ashran adds.

To Ashran, Hazazi and the rest of the folks at Studio Karya, a public space such as Dataran Merdeka is not only a place for joyful celebration but also a ground for communion, civic discussion and a place to exercise the right to free speech, which is essential to the nation’s narrative of participatory democracy.

This means reimagining and re-defining the meaning imbued in the urban commons for the contemporary citizen, starting by rebuilding the missing link between the people and the Padang.

“[Dataran Merdeka is] more a tourist-centric space. Tourists get off the bus, they take some pictures, and that’s it. Maybe you’ll go to the small museum, but even the museum isn’t about Dataran Merdeka. There’s nothing about Tunku Abdul Rahman or the crowd going there to witness the event,” says Hazazi.

“And we think that if it does not serve the purpose of the public, you’ll have to re-think its construction and how it will serve a purpose for the public again.”

Read and learn more about Dataran Merdeka and the urban commons:


By Lillian Wee
Additional research by Studio Karya.

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