“The Day Bok House Died” December 16, 2006Posted by elizabethwong in Heritage, Malaysia, Readings.
(Note: An Open Letter by ‘Badan Warisan Malaysia’ or Heritage of Malaysia Trust. Photos are from BWM. Emphasis and annotations belong to the poster)
After labouring to promote a specific law since the early 1990s, Badan Warisan Malaysia had high hopes for the protection of our historic built environment when the National Heritage Act 2005 (NHA) – gazetted on 31 December 2005 – was effected on 1 March 2006. Albeit this Act was not in the form Badan Warisan would have preferred, but finally, there appeared to be a force of law which would champion of the nation’s heritage cause.
On 12 April 2006, the President of Badan Warisan wrote to the Minister of Culture, Arts and Heritage nominating Bok House as national heritage as provided for under Section 68 of the NHA. The basis for this nomination was articulated in an in-depth Statement of Cultural Significance which clearly stated its architectural, social and historical values – and which referenced the persona of Bok House expressed in published public documents, historical essays and other records over the past few decades. This request to the Minister was to be an acid test on the effectiveness of the NHA.
We have pursued the matter rigorously after the law was enforced, using all means open to us in seeking the opportunity to explain to all levels of government the unique position of Bok House in Malaysia’s national heritage continuum.
The demolition of Bok House, despite our persistent and dogged attempts, sadly demonstrates our failure in getting our appeal recognized and endorsed by Government.
Let us ask one simple and basic question which must be at the forefront of everyone’s minds – is Bok House a heritage building?
If the answer is yes, then it should have been accorded protection under the provisions of the NHA, and in this event, protection would have been in the form of gazettal, regardless of financial implications. Why then has it been allowed to be demolished? If there was objection to its gazetting, the laws of the country offer recourse for the landowner, and logically, the law should be allowed to take its own course. Or were there not powers to gazette it?
We can only presume that the decision-makers at Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur (DBKL) have approved the demolition. Can we assume also that the highest authority in DBKL would have deemed it expedient to refer to his superiors before making this momentous and unpopular decision. DBKL could not but be aware that Bok House, and its future, was already an issue, expressed not only in a letter from our President to the Mayor, but in the innumerable letters, and public discourse in the national press? It is a subject within the public domain.
In the final analysis, can we assume Bok House has been deemed to be NOT a heritage building?
We have been given to understand that an agency of the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage has written a letter to the Trustees of the Estate of Chua Cheng Bok on 28 February 2006 – precisely one day before the NHA came into force. Supposedly the letter stated that at a post-Cabinet Meeting on 22 February 2006, the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage decided it was no longer interested to take over, or, to gazette Bok House as a Heritage Building, and it therefore did not have any objections to the development proposals for the site.
So, if this building which is of such great historic prominence and provenance has been deemed by the authorities not to be a Heritage Huilding, Badan Warisan Malaysia would like to know what the government’s definition of heritage is and what criteria were applied to arrive at this decision.
Sadly, we cannot but come to the grave conclusion that the demolition of Bok House within the first 12 months of the life of the NHA is an omen of things to come.
The Council of Badan Warisan Malaysia
15 December 2006