“WE shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us,” said Sir Winston Churchill. Carcosa has played its part in the history of the Federated Malay States, the Federation of Malaya, and then Malaysia; and each marking an evolution in our relationship with the United Kingdom.
Some months ago the British High Commissioner to Malaysia suggested that an elegant evening be hosted at Carcosa in aid of charities selected by the Malaysian British Society. The first is Hospis Malaysia, which does so much to provide palliative care to the terminally ill. The hospice was visited in 2012 by the Duchess of Cambridge, who said she was “thrilled” upon the success of the MBS fundraising dinner in 2016. The second is SportExcel, which has long nurtured local sporting talent, including cricketers who play professionally in both countries. The third is Ideas Academy, which educates underprivileged children, including refugees, using the IGCSE curriculum.
Of course at Carcosa’s housewarming in 1898, guests would more likely have been wearing white tie rather than black tie, and many anecdotes about Carcosa should remain unattributed, from alleged attempts of espionage, sex scandals and even sightings of ghosts. One more innocent story is that at towards the end of evening events, one form of entertainment would be to slide down the banisters in teams as quickly as possible. However, apparently one host who got bored at a party slipped down the hill to play squash at the Lake Club.
But one aspect of Carcosa’s history resonates strongly with the politics and diplomacy of today.
After serving as the residence of the executive British High Commissioner since the formation of the Federated Malay States through the Malayan Union and Federation of Malaya – with an interruption as a mess for Japanese soldiers during the war – the Malayan government gifted Carcosa to the British government ahead of independence.
Decades later in March 1984, following an Umno General Assembly resolution urging the government to take back Carcosa, a certain Umno Youth leader, Anwar Ibrahim, noted that “nowhere in the world do people say that if you give us our Independence, we give you something else in return. Independence is our right.”
These were the days of Dr Mahathir’s ‘Buy British Last’ policy, and the then Prime Minister supported the campaign, saying “the government must take heed of the feelings of Umno”. Tunku Abdul Rahman in his column clarified that “I made the gift in 1956 … as a show of gratitude to the British Government for helping us in our fight against the communist terrorists.”
Two months later, in May 1984, the British High Commission issued a press release stating that “Although the British Government have much appreciated the gift of Carcosa, they have always felt that the property was held in trust and believe that the time is now right to return the house to the Malaysian people.”
The whole episode earned this response by the deputy chairman of the Democratic Action Party, Karpal Singh:
“The decision of the British Government to return Carcosa to Malaysia after a sustained and relentless campaign by Umno and Umno Youth in the face of public support otherwise, speaks well of the British gesture and spirit of goodwill. However, the campaign by Umno, which was endorsed by Dr Mahathir Mohamad demonstrates very succinctly the immaturity of our government … it would appear that Umno is the government and the government is Umno. Component parties of the Barisan Nasional like MCA, Gerakan, and MIC and the rest do not seem to count at all … What has transpired would only affect the tender feelings of our eldest and noblest statesman, Tunku Abdul Rahman, who rightly and honourably moved the motion in September 1956 that Carcosa be presented to the British as a gift for their services rendered to the country.”
Today the secretary-general of that same Democratic Action Party serves as Finance Minister in a government led by the same Dr Mahathir, and less than 100 days into the new government, we can see some evidence of similar discontent.
Such are the vicissitudes of politics: but Carcosa – whose name was said to derive either from a verse in the Quran or a fictional house in a novel – certainly sets the standard for buildings in Malaysia that have seen it all.
Adapted from the writer’s speech at the Charity Evening Reception on July 26, 2018 at Carcosa hosted by the Malaysian British Society supported by the British High Commission.
The Jalan Merdeka Exhibition highlighting the role of both Carcosa and King’s House – subsequently Istana Tetamu and now Seri Negara – is still running, and a special exhibition of photographs taken by Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah taken in August 1957 will begin on Aug 2.
Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.