OUR future is made of our past. This we cannot deny. But we seem to be doing just that.
Take the case of our heritage buildings. Too many of them are victims of rapacious economics. Dismal science makes for dismal future.
Time then for capitalism to take note of Peter Westbrook’s insight: “So much of our future lies in preserving our past.” Capitalism may love being avaricious, but if it wants to survive into the next century, it needs loads of compassion.
Those who do not know their past may not have a future.
Yes, our past can be perfected if we preserve it. Our heritage buildings are a good place to start. The New Straits Times has given much space to this. Because, like the space in our newspaper, heritage buildings are prime real estate.
Money cannot buy heritage. And it must not be allowed to do so. We have failed miserably in the past. Many will remember the Bok House aka Le Coq d’Or.
Built in 1926 by Cycle & Carriage founder Chua Cheng Bok, it is all of early 20th-century architecture. Regrettably, crass commerce killed it. Bok House’s misfortune was its proximity to global icon Petronas Twin Towers. Call it the curse of the golden triangle.
The evil eye of commerce didn’t spare the Bukit Bintang Girls’ School either. Where “lilliputian” BBGS stood since 1930 stands “brobdingnagian” Pavilion.
Here was where Betty Langlands got girls to learn how to read. Sadly, we live in a time where commerce trumps college. Not many know this bit of history: Langlands built BBGS at a time when parents preferred to keep girls at home.
But the end of World War 2 changed all that. But the point is, we lost this piece of history. Again sadly, we cannot undo this. What we can do though is to not let those that stand to crumble and fall. It is not just about preserving pieces of memory. It is about safeguarding history.
A history that made us. Heritage buildings are more than mere footfalls that echo in a distant past. It is a past that will build our future.
Not that we do not have an example to follow. There is one nearby, across the Causeway: Singapore. In terms of space, this tiny city state puts us to shame. Singapore is 721.5km² versus Malaysia’s 330,803 km². Close to 460 Singapores can fit into Malaysia, yet history speaks loudly there.
The republic knows what to keep and how to keep them new. Take a walk down Cecil Street and you will find The Quadrant restored to its former glory. It once housed the branch of the first central bank of China set up by the brother-in-law of the famous Sun Yat-sen, according to one record. Or visit the Victoria Theatre that was once a makeshift hospital to treat Japanese air raid patients. Today, it hosts world-class performances.
It is not that Malaysia is not doing anything to preserve its heritage. It does. But in dribs and drabs. Like the Sun Yat-sen Centre in Penang, where the Chinese national hero stayed in 1905 and 1906.
For every A Famosa in Melaka or the Royal English School in Batu Gajah, Perak, many others are left to rot. Or worse, are devoured by commerce. If we want to inherit the future, we must preserve the past.