Photo by Alia Aida Masiri
‘The Merdeka Interviews’ by Lai Chee Kien and Ang Chee Cheong is a poignant tribute to the modern architectural wonders of the country in the pre-independence era. We speak to DR. LAI CHEE KIEN, the man who painstakingly tracked down the architects, artists and engineers responsible for the built environment of our nascent nation. He tells us about his journey in discovering the culture and mindset of our founding fathers, as well as some of the best builders and creative minds of its time.
From dissertation to book, and exhibition
Between 2001 and 2006, I conducted a series of interviews with the architects, engineers and artists who contributed to the landscape of Kuala Lumpur and its outskirts at the time of Malaya’s Independence, through building projects. The ten projects — the Merdeka Stadium,
Merdeka Park, University of Malaya, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, Stadium Negara, Muzium Negara, Parliament House, Masjid Negara and Subang Airport — endowed the capital city with key structures for a functioning nation, and created affect for citizenship in Malaysia.
The interviews had commenced as I formulated approaches for my doctoral studies on the same set of buildings, in 2001. The framework I had adopted stemmed from a speech by the Agong in September 1963, where he extolled the respective virtues of citizenship as intimately connected to a building from that set. A parliament house would ensure the practice of democracy; stadiums would groom healthy citizens; a university would educate citizens at the highest level, and so on.
Collectively, these virtues (and these assigned buildings) were deemed to define the nation and bring it forwards, from that point in time of the formation of Malaysia.
Researching in the 21st century, there was still scant knowledge that I could glean from available documentation and publications on those buildings, apart from mainly annotated descriptions. I determined that I would search out the designers of these structures — architects, engineers and artists — and ascertain the histories and details of these projects for myself. In this way, I hoped to get a clearer or more accurate picture of what had transpired, but also to allow the protagonists narrate their own experiences.
Not only was my dissertation eventually formulated around those interviews, I also had an opportunity to publish close descriptions of those projects for the book ‘Building Merdeka: Independence Architecture in Kuala Lumpur 1957–1966’ in 2007, along with an exhibition at
the Galeri Petronas in the same year. The publication of these interviews at this moment in this publication is thus relevant and timely, as we look back in time to discover the courage and spirit that forged a nation with peoples from multiple backgrounds in the first decade of Independence, and their contributions that shaped the landscape of
Kuala Lumpur today.
A forgotten breed: why the interviews are significant
Sixty over years after Merdeka, many of these protagonists have been forgotten. Many have passed on, and only seven out of the seventeen interviewees are still alive at the point of writing this introduction. These interviews captured what they experienced through the durations of those projects, albeit long after they have moved on with their lives.
Many expatriates did not remain in Malaysia because of the Malayanisation exercise to replace expatriate with local staff. That being the case, they have had to start new careers elsewhere, often when they were middle aged.
Tracking them down was a big task, and it proved to be so as they were scattered in many places after helping to build in Malaysia. The first breakthrough was in 2001 when a colleague, Dr Jon Lim, found out how to get in touch with Ivor Shipley, the architect of the
Parliament House. In the meantime, I also contacted friends in Malaysia as to how I might reach other people, and wrote many, many letters and emails.
I made my first trip to Australia to interview Shipley, and then afterwards to different parts of the world to do the same with the others — those I could find.
I was able to expand this network slowly but progressively, mainly through leads given by the interviewees, or by sheer luck. Stanley Jewkes, assumed to have passed on when I asked his friends, was over 90 years old when I visited finally him in the US. Locating Felix de
Weldon took more than two years, including encounters with those who claimed to be his agent. I had managed to visit Howard Ashley, but he was not in a condition to be interviewed at that time.
After I had completed my studies in 2005, I was able to contact two more important architects for interviews: Dudley Pritchard and Ronald Pratt.
On the challenges of building in the Merdeka era and resulting creative feats
Naturally, the projects that these folks worked on were entangled not only in the historical time of the nation, but also regional and world politics. The era after World War II was not an easy time to be an architect, or more specifically, to be involved in government projects.
The period of 1948 to 1962 was known as the Emergency in Malaya, but it was really a battle between the Communists and nationalists for sovereignty and political legitimacy.
Following that, Indonesia declared a period of Konfrontasi against Malaysia from 1962 to 1966.
Jewkes encountered the ‘insurgents’ in the jungles while planning the Klang dam, and the Tugu Negara was damaged for the portrayal of the defeat of one side in 1975. For regional and international security, the early missions flown from Subang Airport included military forays to guard the border between two states in Borneo, as well as part of the UN peacekeeping mission in the Congo.
By the 1950s, the reparation of war damages to infrastructure and buildings had commenced, but there was still a scarcity of certain building materials like steel, which had to be imported. For that reason, substitutions or improvisations were sought to deal with this
situation. The lighting towers of the Merdeka Stadium, for example, were improvised from Hume monsoon drain pipe sections but with prestressed cables strung across the sections around the pipes’ circumferences.
The roof of Stadium Negara was constructed with an internal compression ring to span 300 feet, held in tension by an outer ring. The roof surfaces were made of compressed paper, stocked by the PWD for war-time use, but which found a new purpose after
Independence. The excavated earth from Stadium Negara became landfill for the ravines on which Masjid Negara now stand.
The excellence in engineering achieved by this time needs to be stated, in both the public and private sectors. Stanley Jewkes was asked to head the Design and Research Department at PWD by 1950, which he kept up to date with importation of measurement and calibration tools, as well as periodicals and literature in the field. The Merdeka Stadium alone boasted two records upon completion, for the tallest prestressed towers and biggest cantilever shell roofs.
Baharuddin Kassim narrated how the form of the Malay roof was multiplied and rotated to form the shape of the folded-plate roof. Meanwhile, the series of experiments with shell roofs in the private sector by firms such as BEP led to the bold decision to have 60-feet square shell roofs (subsequently reduced to 48 due to budget constraints) for the primary
design of the Subang Airport terminal building. Elsewhere, the concepts and tenets of modularisation were experimented on by Ivor Shipley, who first tried it with the design of the Balik Pulau Fire Station, then successfully with the Standard Office Block, and then enlarged for the Parliament House project.
On why the 50’s and 60’s were a time of great change for the building industries
Many of the interviewees revealed the changing face of the industry in the 1950s and 1960s. While the KL Technical College offered architecture and building courses, the apprenticeship system was still in place. A few locals studied overseas, and returned to helm large projects either at the Public Works Department (PWD) or existing private sector companies. For builders, the traditional kepala system comprising a main foreman and his group of itinerant workers evolved into professional companies of contractors that were able to mobilise labour from different sources, and use better construction methods.
As multinational companies moved to occupy the new factories and sites at Petaling Jaya, so did other foreign suppliers, who brought in newer technologies and building materials for the industry.
On the interview process
While training at the Oral History Archives in Singapore, some friends and I were introduced to huge recording machines and these were suggested to be the standard equipment. They were, of course, not useful for what I needed to do — to travel to different parts of the world to interview folks who were getting on in life, and who would probably be intimidated in front of such equipment.
Fortunately, a friend — Sachi Choo — introduced me to the MiniDisc system that Sony had developed in the 1990s, which gained popularity and became affordable as I started on my field work after 2000. Each disc provided 74 minutes of clear, digital recorded sound and the entire kit of recorder, microphone and a couple of tapes could be placed in my backpack.
“The excellence in engineering achieved by this time needs to be stated, in both the public and private sectors.”
More than a decade later, such a system has become replaced by other voice recorders and even the mobile phone with recording functions. The interviews had been transcribed soon after my interviews over a decade ago, but it took several rounds of editing, including by my collaborator Ang Chee Cheong and his team, who initiated and drove this present publication project.
Through these interviews, perhaps, we may also hear the inflected voices of the hundreds and thousands of other consultants and workers who have worked on the projects, whose efforts were not recorded. They toiled to create the physical forms of a nascent country. May this book be a witness to that amazing time.
‘The Merdeka Interviews’ by Lai Chee Kien and Ang Chee Cheong is available at major bookstores in Malaysia and www.pamonlinestore.com This story was first published under the now-defunct Think City Channel.