Written by Amy Tan on 10 Mar 2005 with 2 comments. Contribute!
The children watch as the hundred-year-old Cengal house is torn apart into about fifty different pieces. This is a conservation project. You see, the best way for the children to understand the unique architectural structure of a Malay house is to break it down and see it rebuilt beam by beam.
Of course, this can only be done with a traditional Malay house as it is built to be dismantled and relocated in case of floods or for whatever reason. In this case, the reason was to rehabilitate the house as well as to educate 50 specially selected students on the eroding heritage of the traditional Malay house - all part of Digi's Amazing Malaysians programme.
For 2005, Digi has identified five Amazing Malaysians who have made outstanding contributions to Malaysia's rich cultural and environmental heritage. One of them is Terengganu's renowned architect, Raja Datuk Kamarul Bahrin Shah, 50. Some of Raja Bahrin's most beautiful works include the Tengku Tengah Zaharah Mosque (known as the 'Floating Mosque') in Terengganu, the Aryani Resort and The Andaman and Lanai resorts in Langkawi.
Today, on August 29th, Raja Bahrin leads a group of 50 notepad-bearing and camera-snapping children as they document the reconstruction of a century-old traditional Malay house. He switches effortlessly between Bahasa and English as he tells the children how tough the 100-year-old Cengal wood is. Termites can't get through it and nails would have trouble too. But that's not a problem because like all traditional Malay houses, this East Coast model doesn't use a single nail or screw. The structure of the house is held together by specially designed beams which have grooves at the end so that they fall into place perfectly with each other. Just like Lego.
"See, any school boy can do it," says Raja Bahrin, as we watch the Master Builder fit the main pole into a groove. "This shows that Malaysia was already making pre-fabricated homes over 100 years ago!" The completed house will become a museum-cum-craft centre and is situated on the grounds of Raja Bahrin's Aryani Resort.
The rehabilitation happening at Aryani is just a fraction of what the Terengganu state government has in store for the state. Menteri Besar, Dato' Seri Idris Jusoh is planning to transform Terengganu into a heritage waterfront city. Raja Bahrin's role as consultant is to advise the state government on areas to rehabilitate and how to go about doing it. So far, three core areas have been identified - the Shahbandar Waterfront, Bukit Putri and Kampung Cina.
As Selangor proclaims its 'developed state' status and Melaka builds another 'travellers pub' on Jonker Street, what is Terengganu's conservation plan? The core areas have been identified so the next step is finding a suitable use for the buildings. "It's not just a matter of touching it up and making it look good," says Raja Bahrin. "We must find out how it can be economically viable and allow the public to enjoy the building...and let the building pay for itself in terms of maintenance."
As for new buildings, the Menteri Besar aims for something within the character of Terengganu as opposed to something super plush or super modern. "Instead of building huge supermarkets or department stores, we would rather go for a more façade-type development," explains Raja Bahrin. "Where the people coming to this part of Malaysia can explore (the place) - something closer to Central Market or Jalan Masjid India type of experience."
In a world with Starbucks, Mc Donald's and Nike on every corner, the urban cityscape is not exempted. Raja Bahrin calls it 'international style' - where buildings are starting to look the same everywhere in the world. "You go to Nikko Hotel in Singapore or Tokyo, and you'll find the same hotel built in KL."
For this connoisseur of culture, his ideal city would be Marakesh in Morocco. It has elements of modernity in it but it does not dominate. "It does not overwhelm, not like Tokyo or New York where everything is glass. It's a very Moroccon city," he concludes.
Vision 2020 is not far away and everyone seems to be rushing to reach this developed status, which brings to mind images of skyscrapers, high-speed trains and sprawling highways. Where does conservation fit in and how important it is to a developed country?
"To go forward, you have to be aware of your own cultural identity first, then you can strive with more confidence," Raja Bahrin says. "I think that's why a society like Japan can be more confident. They are culturally very aware and appreciative of their own background. That's why even in Japanese architecture, if you look closely, they use traditional elements such as tatami mats and the zen concept - but the modern version. They don't borrow blindly."
Raja Bahrin pauses to ponder his thoughts. "I think the problem with our society is that we tend to be more guided by the West. Whereas, the Japanese look towards themselves, and as a result, even the Western countries are following them."
Go to London and there's Westminster Abbey. Go to Melbourne and you see rows of 18th century Victorian houses. These are so-called developed countries and they have clearly seen the importance of preserving the creations of their predecessors. So why does Malaysia seem to be facing a problem with conservation? The main problem is that public awareness is not there. People don't see the need for it.
Secondly, how do you turn a building into something commercially viable? Or as Raja Bahrin puts it, "How do you save the bits that remain?" "If you don't, foreigners will snap it up and you'll never see it again!" he says, gesturing to a beautiful wood-carved door that decorates Aryani's main foyer, which was rescued from a 100-year-old Malay house.
Of course, it is not true to say that Malaysia has not done anything at all in conserving its heritage buildings. Some examples of buildings which have been transformed into commercially viable entities are Central Market, The Asian Heritage Row and the old Borneo Court House in Kuching (now Sarawak's tourism centre) which recently won the National Heritage Awards 2005, organised by Badan Warisan.
Cultural and building conservation is also a good way to bring in the tourist dollar. The very beautiful and very traditional Aryani Resort is a good example. According to Raja Bahrin, the resort is full almost all year round, some tourists book one year in advance and 85 to 90% are foreigners from UK, Germany and Scandinavia. What are they looking for? "These tourists are easy," Raja Bahrin says. "Give them privacy and good food and they're happy." The guests sleep at about 9pm. All the resort does is organise cultural performances from time to time, and have some soothing gamelan music at night.
Has Terengganu's conservative laws affected the number of tourist coming in? Apparently, nothing much has changed on the ground. Even when the previous state government was in power, Terengganu still had a good number of tourists coming to its shores. In terms of boosting the number of foreign tourists, one problem however, may be the airport. Terengganu does not have an international airport.
Forget 'look East' or 'look West' policy; Raja Bahrin's policy is to 'look within'. "Why can't we look within instead of copying what's outside?" he says. What does this mean? Ecological homes in the future? Homes that don't need air-conditioning? Homes with singorrha clay tiles and bamboo walls that breathe? Who knows. Right now, Raja Bahrin has more important matters to attend to.
The children are waiting to say goodbye. Clearly, Raja Bahrin is a man that understands that conservation isn't just about saving the bricks, clay and tiles but in educating the people who will bring this culture forward to the next generation. Conservation is not just about preserving a place or a house but also understanding the cultures and values behind it.
While multi-national corporations spend thousands of ringgit on the most attention-grabbing billboards and TV commercials, it's surprising that Digi has chosen to take this unconventional path of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). "That's the easy way out," says Jon Eddy, Digi's Chief Technical Officer, referring to what other telco giants are doing. "We wanted to do something for Malaysia. Hopefully, one of these students remembers something from this and takes it forward," Eddy adds.
It is indeed a winning strategy on and off the balance sheet. Digi's Norwegian parent company, Telenor, is already taking notice of this brave new CSR programme and looking at emulating it in other countries.
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Amy Tan is a freelance writer who was previously from the advertising world. She loves travelling and rock climbing; the former is the result of growing up with a pilot-dad and the latter she says, keeps her sane.... more inside »
Amy Tan also contributed 2 other articles in this section: