RARE OPPORTUNITY: Members of the public were recently allowed to visit the former Istana Negara, where many historic events had taken place over the decades
KUALA LUMPUR: FOR decades, I have been passing by the former Istana Negara, residence of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, in Jalan Istana, next to Jalan Syed Putra.
For ordinary folks, the imposing building on Bukit Petaling was always something to be admired from afar.
Recently, for a limited period from April 16 to June 15, the palace opened its gates to the public for a special exhibition to mark the installation of the 14th Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Tuanku Abdul Halim Mu'adzam Shah.
Members of the public thronged the palace grounds from 9am to 5pm daily to catch a glimpse of what was behind the palace gates in Jalan Istana.
If not for some inquisitive and curious members of the family, I might not have found my way to the royal household which had been tightly guarded since 1957.
This palace, which has been replaced by a new one in Jalan Duta, has a history that stretched back to 1928 when it was a double-storey mansion known as the Big House.
It was then owned by a Chinese millionaire named Chan Wing. When the Japanese military occupied Malaya, the mansion became the residence of the Japanese governor from 1942 to 1945.
After the war, the British authorities turned the place into a senior officers' mess. When Malaya started moving towards independence from 1950, the Selangor government rented the premises from the then owners of the building.
In 1957, the Federal Government bought the building from the owners, and the rest is history.
For more than half a century after that, Istana Negara -- as all Malaysians called it -- was the residence of the King and a meeting place for State Rulers. It was also a fitting venue for the King to meet special guests from overseas.
On special occasions when official and customary functions were held, VVIPs and ministers would be invited to meet His Majesty at this palace.
Now after nearly a lifetime, mine at least, the royal palace gates were thrown open for rakyat biasa to walk through and admire its opulence and beautifully-landscaped grounds.
Since security was given top priority, members of the public were only permitted to visit the main grounds comprising the long driveway, part of the garden, the main hall and some of the other halls.
Still, the magnificence of the interior gave visitors more than an eyeful of the splendour and pomp of the royal palace that was often talked about but seldom seen by ordinary eyes.
The overall area of Istana Negara is 11.34 hectares. Its splendid, well-manicured garden has an assortment of flowers and plants. There are also an indoor badminton hall, swimming pool, a six-hole golf court, tennis courts and a lake.
The entire royal compound is fenced up. The arch-like main entrance has two guard posts manned by members of the cavalry in full uniform.
The driveway is lined by casuarinas and cypresses. It leads to two entrances, named West Wing and East Wing. The West Wing is where all the State Rulers meet during the Conference of Rulers.
The East Wing is also known as Balairong Seri, or the Throne Room. This is also where foreign diplomats are presented to the King.
Since 1957, the palace has seen many facelifts. The most extensive was carried out in 1980. There are plans to one day turn the place into a museum.
Construction of the new royal palace started in 2007 and was completed last year. The eventual cost of the new Istana Negara totalled RM997 million.
The overall impression of its predecessor is one of old splendour that reflected the charms and unforgettable flavours of a land that was once called Malaya.
I found myself walking in the crowded royal hall with children in school uniforms from other parts of the country. They had come in buses for their holiday outing. For all of us, it was a privilege to walk on the heavily-carpeted floor.
The joie de vivre in the air belied the slightly austere and sombre ambience inside and outside the stately buildings. However, the tall ornate electrical lamps that light up the gardens at night fitted in nicely with the surroundings.
The portraits of previous Kings and Queens inside the august hall lent a fair measure of dignity to this palace which had seen its heyday.
My visit to the old Istana Negara was indeed a learning experience. If I had forgotten about the history and process by which Kings had taken their turns on the Royal Throne, the information that I had gleaned from the huge display boards more than illuminated my mind on some significant chapters in the history of the country.
Istana Negara still stands today with dignity and elegance. Its graceful representation of the country's nobility at the highest level is to be shared and appreciated by all Malaysians.