Text by Lau Sook Mei
Photography by Law Siak Hong
Recently, one of the country’s premier Malay schools, the Malay College Kuala Kangsar or the MCKK has found itself in the limelight for the wrong reason: termite infestation in its landmark Greco-Roman-styled building, known as the Big School.
The New Sunday Times (11 April) reported that a pest control company revealed last year that the hallmark building of this sterling institution was under acute termite attack. Termite treatment has failed to arrest the problem. Then, its condition deteriorated quickly, so badly that the building was declared unsafe, and the hostel with 21 dormitories was eventually closed. Even the school’s iconic grand old raintree, fondly regarded as the Big Tree seems to be dying from the infestation. That’s when it hits the news.
It is truly amazing how the problem could have escalated to such an uncontrollable situation. Clearly the seriousness of the problem boils down to the inglorious trait of our culture: no-maintenance. What a shame! Who are those responsible?
Established in 1905 as a fully residential school to train Malay boys for public offices, MCKK is the pride of the royal town. Its alumni includes such national heroes as the founder of UMNO, Dato’ Onn Jaafar and former Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, as well as a great number of prominent national leaders and corporate figures. In 2004, the building was spruced up for its centennial celebrations. Then, in 2009, it was declared a national heritage by the Department of National Heritage, or Jabatan Warisan Negara (JWN). Today this outstanding heritage may be lost to the termites.
MCKK is owned by the Education Ministry. The alarming situation has prompted the Education director-general Dato’ Abdul Ghafar Mahmud to announce immediate rectification of the problem. The Menteri Besar of the state was quick to appeal to the Education Ministry to speed up funds for repairs. The situation has also earned the wrath of the alumni who turned to Heritage of Malaysia Trust (Badan Warisan Malaysia) for advice.
A national heritage building deserves proper management: a long-term plan with specific guidelines and a yearly inspection. But who should fund such work, the owner, the state, the JWN or the alumni? Remember, it is of national and public interest.
Questions beg to be asked: was there a thorough inspection on the state of the building before its listing as national heritage? Is the JWN in the position to advise on building maintenance if it is not backed with adequate allocations to assist owners in repairs and restorations? Beyond ownership, what is the line of responsibility in managing our heritage buildings?
To quote one heritage expert: “The protection of heritage is a shared responsibility. But without a deep understanding of what is heritage, and how it is relevant to our present and future, and that it crosses boundaries and time, all heritage is vulnerable.”
It makes sense, and more economical in the long-run to spend a little money for a regular inspection and repairs than to spend a large sum for restoration. It does not make sense to gazette buildings as heritage and not follow up with a yearly budget for a long-term management plan.
After much hue and cry, the Ministry of Education and the JWN had come forward with the assurance that they would tackle the termite problem and look into restoring the Big House to its former glory. What about the other period buildings in this significant complex such as the bungalow houses for its teaching staff? What about its educational excellence and sporting prowess which marked this historic college? Who should and how would this shining institution be upheld? And what about that heritage tree?
Important decisions need to be made quickly.