Categories: Culture

National Treasure: Our Greatest Assets Hidden in Plain Sight

Our heritage is more than just our past. It’s part of who we are. The journey of our lives is filled with stories and moments that have created our identity. That’s why preserving and promoting our heritage is as important as writing down our history in books.

Organisations like Badan Warisan Malaysia (BWM) are crucial in preserving our heritage. We caught up with its president, Ms Lim Wei-Ling, who is an ‘artist turned stockbroker turned art gallery owner’. Wei-Ling followed in the footsteps of her father who is an architect and one of the four founding members of BWM. She recalls how heritage was part of her upbringing, “I attended talks on heritage and went on walks and tours around KL. I was basically drawn into it as a child and subconsciously started to understand the importance of the conservation and preservation of our buildings and history”.

“The late eighties and early nineties were the golden years of BWM, when there was a lot of funding and support, and Council members were influential, committed, and very passionate”. It was during this time that Badan Warisan was the consultant conservator for the restoration and the preservation of Merdeka Stadium, perhaps the most tangible memory of our recent history as a country.

Ms Lim Wei-Ling, President of Badan Warisan Malaysia

How important is heritage?

“You need to respect your heritage and create a legacy that the future generations are going to want to continue. That’s really important. I have a legacy from my father and going forward, it’s the next generation that we need to reach out to.

Everyone has a memory of a place where they grew up in. It could be your grandmother’s home or your school. Or a temple, church, or mosque. I mean these are all built buildings that were made by people for people. Without people there are no buildings. There is a nostalgic element that we glean from these buildings. I am not saying we should stay in the past, but let’s bring these buildings forward; maybe it’s a cool thing to repurpose an old building for a restaurant or a place that you can use. You don’t have to destroy it. You don’t have to demolish it.

In Malaysia, in KL, on Jalan Ampang there were all these plots and, except for the Pakistani embassy, which is a beautiful building, every single one of them is gone. They were beautiful mansions; monumental buildings with so much history. I know Jalan Ampang is part of the CBD [Central Business District] and in the middle of the city, but imagine if that had all been retained and our city center moved to another part of town? Then you would have the old city, the old KL, and you would also have the new city. How interesting would that have been for visitors to Malaysia?”

“Without people there are no buildings”

“I mean it may or may not work for a city but my utopian view on this is to have two parts, and work around with what you have. Like Canary Wharf in London, which is new, and they moved a lot of the city center out of London. So you don’t disrupt what’s already inherently wonderful, like old streets and old buildings and what makes up London. Imagine the wonderful rich history we would have had if we still had our racecourse where the KLCC towers are and all those beautiful bungalows and mansions. Anyway, what is done is done, so now we need to move forward and think about how we can preserve what is left.

Look at this building [Wei-Ling Gallery in Brickfields] for instance. Look at the third floor. The fire was devastating and it was a horrible, awful day for our family. But dad said, you know what you can’t change your past so you build around it, you respect it and you embrace it. Then it becomes a narrative, it becomes a story, it provides context and as you say, it makes you who you are.

Without the preservation of our past and our history what does the next generation hold on to, to remember and to identify themselves with? For example, when you go to Rome and you look at the Colosseum, you are just overwhelmed by it. It’s so surreal. You’ve got this ancient amphitheatre in the middle of the city. It cements everything and it shows the past existed. You know that’s where they had the gladiators fighting and the lions. When you see a building like that, you think, it did happen, it’s real, it’s physical.

That’s part of a country’s history, heritage, and story.”

Projects by BWM: Restoration and adaptive reuse of Central Market into a cultural, arts and crafts market

How do you get people interested in culture?

“If you look at the generation of old industrialists in Indonesia, they have great respect for art and they’re great lovers and collectors of contemporary art. I was curious about that, and I think that stems from Sukarno. When he was around all these young industrialists, these were young men at the time, Sukarno was very interested in art and he was setting up and opening museums or opening exhibitions and collect art. He had a lot of interest in Indonesian and Dutch painters like Arie Smit. Art is one of those things that when you are exposed to it, you live with it or surrounded by it, even if it’s in your office, people’s homes, or public places, then there is this subconscious desire to want art around you. I think Sukarno has inculcated that interest in art in this generation.

In Malaysia, like you said, people like our fathers, Tun Daim and Pak Zain have played that role. In Pak Zain’s case, he used to put a lot of art in his office at his law firm and a lot of lawyers became collectors because they were exposed to his collection of art. So somehow when you are exposed to art when you grow up, you live with it, you have it, even if it’s just there, you immediately have an appreciation for it.”

Projects by BWM: Restoration and refurbishment of Masjid Diraja Sultan Suleiman

What are you doing for the next generation?

“One of the ideas that I have for BWM is to engage the younger generation; they are more civic conscious and care more. They care about sustainability, looking inwards, preserving, and appreciating our artisans and artists.

I have faith in the next generation, the younger people. Maybe we have to engage them via crowd funding and have projects which they can be involved in. One of the ways that we hope to be able to do this is to create an avenue where people feel a sense of ownership over their heritage. This is something I’m working on but I don’t want to say too much because it’s not been done yet. But I hope that the digital world and things such as blockchain and tokenisation will help us involve the next generation. We hope to engage the public so that they can put their money towards a cause and preserve something as a community.

Our Heritage Centre and the Chen Voon Fee Resource Centre is open to architecture students looking to conduct research. I think for Malaysians to appreciate our culture, be it food, dance, music, movies, art, built heritage, you name it, you can only do that when children are exposed to it at a young age (for instance at school) and made to feel proud about who they are, where they come from, and what their culture is all about. Obviously not all will buy into it, but if they’re given some exposure then they have a chance.”

BWM Heritage Centre at No 2 Jalan Stonor

Where does your funding come from?

“We are entirely dependent on donations for our survival. Arts, culture, heritage comes right at the bottom when you have situations like COVID, pandemic, and real people needing money. There’s only a finite amount of money that goes to CSR programs, so we really have to be more innovative in the way we raise funding. It is challenging now and not an easy ride. I hope to be able to make BWM self-sustaining so that we don’t have to do fundraising every few months.

We will be organising a Heritage Ball in January 2023, at the Four Seasons, to help us raise funding. Our Vice President Zahim Albakri’s movie [Spilt Gravy on Rice], helped raise some funds during the charity gala premiere, and we will keep organising activities and events to raise awareness and appreciation for heritage.

Earlier this year we organised the ‘BWM Talk Series: Spotlight On Sarawak’; an exclusive series of talks curated by Tan Sri Leo Moggie and Puan Sri Elizabeth, in conjunction with World Heritage Day 2022, where experts presented topics such long houses, food, the regatta, forts, textile and costumes, etc.

There’s definitely a lot more happening in the city. I think it’s very good to see that people like Cendana are doing more. There is more money going into the creative sector and people going to do more projects and I think that creates awareness. During COVID when no one could travel, a lot of people were looking inwards. Instead of thinking of Thailand or Bali, they were looking at what’s happening in the city, so people started appreciating what the city has to offer, like arts and culture. But that needs to continue, it can’t just be for just a few months.

We do want to stay independent though. The model that was set up, was that BWM wants to be independent. I think if you come under anyone in particular, you might become restricted, maybe you can’t say this, you can’t say that, or you shouldn’t be talking about this. BWM still has the freedom to express our views and to stand by what we believe in. We can say what we’re saying, within reason, and get the message across when things are not right. Whether it’s government or government linked, if things are not going the way we feel that they should be going in terms of preservation, heritage, etc. we can be a watchdog and say something about it. If you’re governed by someone or funded by one particular body, then perhaps you are not entirely free to say and do as you see fit.”

Projects by BWM: Restoration and refurbishment of Suffolk House in Penang

What are some of your plans moving forward?

“I started with the premise of built heritage, but now we have expanded beyond that into intangible heritage such as food and dance; we are hoping to revive a herb garden at BWM. Although the last two years have put a dampener on the plans, we’re hoping that we will be able to restart programs and maybe work with restauranteurs and highlight food from different states. You could work with indigenous cooks and chefs from various regions or states where you have food that some of us have never tasted, and you never even knew existed, because it’s only apparent in that particular culture or state. I’m sure there are so many other areas or different types of cuisine that we’ve never even encountered as Malaysians.

I would like to acquire buildings for BWM so that we have some buildings under our trust. Most Heritage Trusts around the world have buildings under their care, whether it’s donated to them or whether they are custodians of these buildings. Currently, the building that we have under our care is the Rumah Penghulu Abu Seman.

The other thing that we want to do is to take further an initiative that I began in 2020 with other heritage organisations around Malaysia, which is to be inclusive and work together. We are a collective and fighting for the same cause.

“But most importantly, I think that if we are able to take BWM back up to where it was when it was first founded when people were just buzzing and were excited about what we were doing, if we can create that level of involvement, support, and excitement in the younger generation today, we will have achieved something because it really is about the next generation and where they take it.”

Frank Nelwan

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Frank Nelwan

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