Tuesday, April 23

A street sign is more than just a sign

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The true city is the imprint of memories of people who have struggled to build roads, donated money and time to construct places of burial, spiritual beings setting up houses of worship of various faiths, helping the blind find meaning through training centres and many more dramatic stories of people intersecting with people; the Malays, Chinese, Indians, Eurasians, the English and so many others.

IN this article, I would like to emphasise that I do not wish to criticise any authority given the right to change street names.

However, I would like to share my personal thoughts about how a street name can have a powerful effect on our common heritage of building this country together as a nation of many “nations”.

Although some would shout “Ketuanan Melayu” or “Ketuanan Islam”, truth be told, for three centuries we have become a new nation based on the intersected history of our peoples.

History and our heritage are what bind us together. Not one of us Malaysians living in the world now can claim that our path and passage of life had never intersected with other races and faiths and that these did not have a huge impact on our lives.

We stand today in all our glory and faults, each one of us, because of those who stood before us, our parents, relatives, friends, neighbours, teachers, lecturers, leaders and so many more.

The clear sense of the greatness of God is simply that He/She does not need anyone to stand on… but we all do. Trying to change road names is easy but denying the truth of who we are and whence we come is folly of the biggest kind.

Once upon a time, I did not care two cents about our architectural heritage or street names. I was brought up with a modernist-functionalist tradition of architecture and the environment-behaviour framework of analysis at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, in the US, where I received my BSc and Master of Architecture.

My idols were architects like Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Henry Sullivan. The first three were Europeans while the last two were Americans.

I read what they wrote and believed that true architecture must be based purely on the present function using the best technology available within the minimalist tradition of economy and structural expression. Beauty is simply the expression of technology over the functions that were needed in the building. No more, no less.

The mantra of my architecture was “less is more” and “form follows function”. In this design approach, there is no place for history and architectural historical precedence. Like Le Corbusier, I imagined new cities like his Ville Contemporaine and Ville Radiuse depleted of traditional streets, masonry buildings and nooks and crannies and cobbled streetways. What was needed was a vision of Utopian dreams of concrete and steel, soaring in mind-boggling structures carrying thin light glass glistening in the sun.

No place for old buildings, worn streets and leaning bell towers.

But as I aged, I found that the true city is not concrete, steel and glass. It is not technology used to give way to cars and vehicles.

The true city is the imprint of memories of people who have struggled to build roads, donated money and time to construct places of burial, spiritual beings setting up houses of worship of various faiths, helping the blind find meaning through training centres and many more dramatic stories of people intersecting with people; the Malays, Chinese, Indians, Eurasians, the English and so many others.

I began to take a real interest in heritage and its efforts in conservation because of two incidents. First was an interview I did with a 70-year-old architect born in Kuala Lumpur. The other was a translation book project with BadanWarisan Malaysia.

In my interview with the Malay architect, I asked him what he thought was a Malaysian architectural identity.

The architect gave a two-hour talk of rambling thoughts on topics ranging from his childhood up to his struggles as an architect, and I thought he had missed the question entirely. This was to be expected as architects are usually brought up in the “artistic” method of training and find great difficulty unravelling their ideas in the strict Cartesian construct which I was trained as an academic to do.

However, when I began to transcribe his comments in order to make an analysis, his words began to form a strong idea about what it meant to be a Malaysian… before embarking on what concrete and steel would look like.
The architect explained how he felt his life was simply a product of all the people who had “imprinted” something on him. He talked about his English headmaster at his missionary school who caught him drawing graffiti and “punished” him by making him draw a whole mural.

The architect also recalled his Chinese teacher who saw his potential and encouraged him to enter a national art competition which he won at the tender age of 14. He recalled his Chinese friend in secondary school who cycled with him all over Kuala Lumpur and how he frequented his house like a second home.

The architect spoke of how his Chinese friend’s mother would always buy back some rice and side dishes from outside to ensure he had a halal lunch or dinner, even though he did not insist on this.

He told a story about how he and two Chinese boys built a raft and floated in the river for 20km and how, when his father found out, all of them got a beating. When the Chinese parents heard that their boys were also beaten by a Malay parent because of their exploits, they came to thank him!

Like Anwar Ibrahim says, we must consider a Malay child, a Chinese child, an Indian child, a Kadazan child, an Orang Asli child as OUR children. Then and only then can we dream of a true Malaysia.

I have always felt, as a Muslim, that the Prophet Muhammad taught me no less than what Anwar had said.
The second incident that drew me to understanding heritage was a translation project on the history of the various streets and buildings in Kuala Lumpur.

I learned the history of peoples and buildings on Jalan Ampang, Jalan Bukit Nanas, Jalan Pudu, Jalan Parlimen, Brickfields and many more.

In the folder of Jalan Bukit Nanas and Brickfields, I discovered schools, churches and recreational buildings set up by Christian missionaries. Bukit Nanas Convent, Methodist Girls School and St John’s Institution are tributes to the Christian English men and women as well as many Chinese philanthropists such as Loke Yew.

Do we deny that many of us Malays were taught at these missionary schools?

I went to St Marks in Butterworth and my wife hails from Convent Bukit Nanas. Our lives crossed with those who were not of our faith and race. This is what the architect was talking about. Our “intellectual blood” and our “social blood” had become mixed and we were no longer lone Malays but full-blooded Malaysians!

The union of my wife and I produced our children, much like the union of the many faiths and races produced who we are now and where we are presently.

Changing the name of Jalan Marsh, named after Madam Mabel Marsh, the head teacher of the Methodist Girls School for 30 years, to Jalan Tun Sambanthan 4 seems a bit sad. Why would Tun Sambanthan need more than one road named after him?

The book by my former students Mariana Isa and Maganjeet Kaur titled “Kuala Lumpur Street Names: A Guide to their Meanings and Histories” is a wonderful kaleidoscope of our multiculturally rich nation.

I learned about Cikgu Lim LianGeok who was said to be the “pejuang” or fighter of the mother tongue, and the birth of the Chinese and Tamil vernacular schools.

Other Malays may think this person disrupted “the concept of Malaysia” but I happen to think Cikgu Lim helped in the enrichment of Malaysia. Cikgu Lim’s memorial stands on a spot along Jalan Maharajalela.

As an academic in architecture history, I understand that there are no ideas or influences that can stand totally apart from anything. All ideas, concepts and thoughts must come from somewhere and are influenced mostly by references from another race, religion or culture.

To think that one ethnic group can stand solely apart is arrogant, bigoted and backward.

I read also that the building of our Masjid Negara began with funds donated by all races regardless of their faith. I understand the same was true for Masjid Negeri in Negeri Sembilan. I understand from my architect friend that the Bangsar Mosque was built on an expensive site given by a Chinese developer in exchange for some concession on plot ratios.

I understand that many of our Malay parents send their children to Chinese schools. Many of these Chinese schools were funded by Chinese towkays in our nation’s history.

I understand that the first Istana Negara was a renovated mansion belonging to a Chinese towkay named Chan Wing. I understand that the first Parliament house was an addition to the house belonging to towkay Eu Tong Seng.

Shall we deny the facts of our history? Shall we ignore that our paths have crossed into many different cultures? Shall we refuse to acknowledge that our “social blood, our political blood and our economic blood” have mixed in the union of history of our parents, grandparents, relatives and friends to produce the offspring we call “Malaysian”? Do we deny this?

So, fellow Malaysians, what is there in the name of a street? It is none other than our Malaysian heritage and identity. If we deny the simple gesture of writing smaller case Chinese, Tamil or Jawi letters over larger case Malay spelling, we miss reminding our people that we really are a product of our common past as we endeavour to rebuild a new nation for all.

This opinion first appeared in Free Malaysia Today. Dr Mohd Tajuddin Rasdi is Professor of Architecture at a local university.