Monday, December 14, 2009

Has the bell tolled for Pudu Prison?

"I know not whether Laws be right or whether Laws be wrong; all that we know who live in goal is that the wall is strong; and that each day is like a year, a year whose days are long."
- "The Ballad of Reading Gaol", by Oscar Wilde.

Penal institutions, in my opinion, have immense historical value in that they help us trace the evolution of the criminal justice system of a country. The now abandoned Pudu Prison in Kuala Lumpur, constructed by the British in 1895, even had an important role to play in our road to Independence and should therefore be remembered as such.

Pudu Prison once housed Japanese prisoners of war of Australian, New Zealand and British nationality during World War II. It would be a dishonour to the memory of the Allied troops who had fought valiantly in the War to demolish Pudu Prison in the name of development and convenience.

The fading mural on the external walls of Pudu Prison was painstakingly painted by the prisoners, led by an inmate, Khong Yen Chong, in the course of over one year. Their effort earned the mural a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the Longest Mural in the World at 384 metres.

The last execution reportedly took place within the prison walls in 1986. Kevin Barlow and Henry Chambers, two Australian nationals who were convicted of drug trafficking, were hanged in 1986. The prison officially closed in 1996.

Even in a place filled with such sorrow, pain and horror, one cannot help but acknowledge its air of quiet dignity and elegiac beauty. Here, the watchtowers along Pudu Prison's walls display a touch of local flavour -- Minangkabau roofs! The watchtowers were constructed in the 1970s.

Why should we preserve a structure in which people were deprived of their freedom, and subjected to torture, grievous harm and death? I believe it is because the criminal justice system forms an essential part of any civilised society, and penal institutions such as Pudu Prison once held prisoners of war and thus play an important role in our nationhood.

Pudu Prison is gradually being muscled out by development. The real estate value of Pudu Prison is estimated at RM300 million. UDA Holdings Berhad has already commenced tunnelling works under the Pudu Prison complex to construct an underpass in an effort to reduce traffic congestion in the Bukit Bintang area. Civil society groups have called upon the authorities to preserve at least the prison entrance gate, sections of the wall and a few of its watchtowers.

A Blast From My Past! I visited Pudu Prison on 17th June, 1997, with my college classmates when the prison first opened its doors as a museum. I remember that my friends and I were absolutely fascinated with the prison trucks and we had fun locking each other in the prison cells.

The most confounding thing about Malaysia is that we very frequently destroy or renounce our heritage and history and only lament its loss after it is gone. With a little political will and innovation, we could easily incorporate our heritage buildings into mainstream development and preserve them for posterity.

Our built environment often defines, or at least documents, our social history. I wonder what is says about our community that we keep tearing down unique architectural assets in order to invest more resources, energy, fuel and manpower into erecting structures that are forgotten almost as soon as they are completed.


louis said...

This issue of preservation or destruction of heritage architecture is as troublesome and as difficult to resolve in Malaysia as it is here and I would guess, in most urban areas. Evidently some hard choices have to be made. Space is finite, priorities have to be established for resources, cultural sensibilities accommodated, for better or for worse communities and environments have taken root all around the heritage sites. It is not a straightforward choice between preservation and progress.

Would it really be a good idea to preserve in its entirety a site as expansive as the Pudu prison, almost in the heart of the most important city in a progressive country? Can it really be incorporated, in an essentially unchanged form even at great expense, into a modern KL, without too many compromises, without unsatisfactory results?

"I wonder what is says about our community that we keep tearing down unique architectural assets?" Yes, as you said the answer may be a renunciation of its heritage and its history. But that assessment may be too harsh in a given situation, such as the case of Pudu prison, given its size, location, character in relation to the adjacent development and demographics, its significance.

Your blogs are thought-provoking. I sense you will disagree, as you did with my earlier response re transparency, but, as you said then, let the discussion begin, right? That is one great value of blogging, an exchange of insights.

~Covert_Operations'78~ said...

Thank you so much for leaving your footprints here, Louis! I agree with you to a large extent, actually. It may not be desirable or practical to preserve Pudu Prison in its entirety. They have attempted to convert it into a museum, but it generated too little revenue to even cover its own upkeep. What we hope is for part of the walls (perhaps the front area, facing the main road?), the main entrance and a few of the towers to be preserved for posterity. I am sure it could be incorporated into a new development somehow. After all, KL thrives on juxtapositions. The Hindu temple within MidValley Megamall and the old railway station in Sentul's KL Performing Arts Centre come to mind.