Carcosa Seri Negara: A historical and national treasure left to die

Located in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, Carcosa is an important historical site that has been all but forgotten.

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia has a long and rich history as a melting pot of different cultures and faiths, with an abundance of great food to match. It is a heritage to be proud of.

This Merdeka, as the world goes through a crisis the likes of which has not been seen in living memory, is a time to remember and be grateful for what makes Malaysia Malaysian.

However, heritage can be eroded by the passage of time and once lost, it is almost impossible to revive. Nothing is more emblematic of this than the current unfortunate state of one of Kuala Lumpur’s most historical sites, Carcosa Seri Negara.

Sitting neglected in the heart of the capital city, its sorry state betrays the site’s importance in the country’s history and the role it played in the struggle for independence.

Situated within the Perdana Botanical Gardens, Carcosa Seri Negara consists of two colonial mansions, Carcosa and Seri Negara, occupying a parcel of land a little over 12.14 hectares.

The land is considered prime property, and it is not hard to see why. Located next to Parliament House, on a clear day, one can see the peaks of the Petronas Twin Towers gleaming just over the treeline.

But despite being smack in the centre of the concrete jungle of the city, Carcosa Seri Negara’s grounds are lush with greenery. This unofficial green lung is home to various species of animals, and bird watchers would certainly appreciate the avian diversity to be found here.

Carcosa was constructed in 1897 by Sir Frank Swettenham, the first Resident General of the Federated Malay States, as his official residence.

A colour photograph showing Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tuanku Abdul Rahman and High Commissioner Donald Gilllivray on the steps of Sri Negara after the Merdeka Agreement was signed.

It was quite a luxurious work of art for the Resident General, with more than eight bedrooms and 11 bathrooms, with a price tag equivalent to nearly RM16 million today.

According to a letter written by Swettenham, the name Carcosa is the portmanteau of the Italian words, “cara” and “casa”, which together mean “desirable dwelling”.

Seri Negara was built in 1913 as a government guest house for high-profile dignitaries, and it was alternatively known as the King’s House.

During the World War II, Carcosa Seri Negara was used as the headquarters of the Imperial Japanese Army stationed in Malaya.

Several unmarked graves from this time period are dotted around the estate.

In the lead-up to independence, Carcosa Seri Negara would be a silent witness to several historical events that, unfortunately, few people remember today.

In the chambers of Seri Negara, the Constitution of Malaya, which forms the legal backbone of this country, was drafted from 1955 to 1957.

And in 1957, in Seri Negara, the Merdeka Agreement that ensured Malaya would finally be free to choose its own destiny was signed by the nine Malay rulers on Aug 5.

As a sign of goodwill to the British, Tunku Abdul Rahman gifted the deeds of Carcosa and its land to the British government.

Carcosa would be used as the residence of British High Commissioners until 1987, when the building would return to the ownership of the Malaysian government.

Sri Negara served as the official guest house for Tuanku Abdul Rahman and was where the Merdeka Agreement was signed. (KK Tan pic)

After independence, Seri Negara would be used by the first Yang Di-Pertuan Agong, Tuanku Abdul Rahman, as the official guest palace. His successor, Sultan Hishamuddin Alam Shah would die in Seri Negara in 1960, and the king would lie in state there.

After the return of Carcosa to Malaysian ownership, Carcosa and Seri Negara were restored and opened as a boutique hotel in 1989, with much of the colonial architecture and interior design maintained.

That same year, the 1989 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting was held in the city, and the Carcosa Seri Negara would host Queen Elizabeth II, the head of the Commonwealth, and Prince Phillip.

However, despite the quality of the hotels, business failed to pick up and by 2015, the hotel business was shut down entirely and the buildings were left to rot.

There was a brief moment of respite for Carcosa Seri Negara when the social enterprise, the Asian Heritage Museum, was given stewardship over the place.

By coincidence, Hollywood was looking for the right place to shoot its latest blockbuster, Crazy Rich Asians, and the colonial charm of the place led them to use the building as the home of Nick Young, the hero of the movie.

This proved beneficial to the caretakers of Carcosa Seri Negara as the film crew cleaned the place up and after they left, an ambitious “Jalan Merdeka” exhibition was organised in 2017.

The exhibition was a stunning success, with the buildings receiving a stream of visitors ranging from students to royals.

However, this new lease of life was not to last as the Asian Heritage Museum was abruptly dismissed in 2019, for questionable reasons.

Since then, the site where the dream of an independent Malaya came to life has remained in darkness, devoid of activity, hoping for a new chance at life.