KUALA LUMPUR: When former government advisor KK Tan first inspected Carcosa Seri Negara in March 2017 after it was put under his care, he said his heart sank.
He said the building that holds an important place in Malaysia’s story of independence deserved a much more dignified fate than the one that had befallen it.
“I cried treason,” he told FMT morosely.
Nevertheless, as the founder of social enterprise, the Asian Heritage Museum (AHM), he decided to work with what he had and do his best to keep the historical site in one piece.
Many Malaysians may think the most important historical sites in the struggle for independence are Dataran Merdeka or Stadium Merdeka. For Tan, it is Carcosa Seri Negara that deserves the honour.
It was in a chamber of Seri Negara that on Aug 5, 1957, the nine Malay rulers signed The Federation of Malaya Agreement.
This momentous occasion would mark the birth of Malaya as an independent country, which Tunku Abdul Rahman would proudly proclaim on Aug 31.
Carcosa Seri Negara has a proud history that is all but forgotten, much to Tan’s dismay. What was once a beautiful estate for visiting dignitaries, including Queen Elizabeth II, is now only receiving visits from the local wildlife.
Tan said that during his tenure as caretaker, he often visited the site to keep tabs on its condition, and the buildings and their quirks endeared them to him.
He said Carcosa Seri Negara is supposedly haunted by a lady in white, purported to be the wife of British Resident Sir Frank Swettenham.
There are also several unmarked graves around the estate dating back to World War II, when it was used as the Imperial Japanese Army’s headquarters.
Carcosa Seri Negara was in desperate need of repairs and a good clean-up, and help came from the strangest of places.
Shortly after AHM had come in, Hollywood came-a-calling, needing a place to shoot the next blockbuster, Crazy Rich Asians.
The colonial architecture of Carcosa Seri Negara was appealing to the filmmakers and they secured permission to use the site to shoot the film.
In the process, they solved one of Tan’s problems, cleaning up the place and making it look presentable after years of neglect.
Once they had left, Tan decided that Carcosa Seri Negara ought to be put to good use for Merdeka that year, so the AHM organised a non-profit patriotic exhibition, Jalan Merdeka, to mark the 60th anniversary of the nation’s independence.
According to Tan, it was a huge success, with members of the public and politicians as well as several Sultans paying the exhibition a visit and praising its contents.
Even as the exhibition drew to a close, Tan and the AHM group had dreams of turning Carcosa Seri Negara into a regional peace museum and cultural centre.
The AHM even had several priceless artefacts in its possession that it intended to put on display, including an 18th century bronze bell, Chinese porcelain, ship models and a pair of Malay drums.
The story that Tan told about how these treasures came into AHM’s possession involves an American treasure hunter who abandoned part of his haul while escaping the authorities.
As testament to the amount of love and care that AHM poured into its project, Khalid Abdul Samad, the Federal Territories minister at the time, sent a letter commending their efforts.
This was especially impressive as AHM was operating largely without government support and was spending money of its own to keep Carcosa Seri Negara running.
However, Tan and AHM’s hopes were dashed in May last year, when its tenancy was suddenly terminated, despite having nine months left to go.
This was a headache for Tan as many people had reserved the place for events.
The reason behind the termination was murky, to say the least, and whatever plans the authorities had for Carcosa Seri Negara have since fallen through.
For now, Carcosa Seri Negara stands abandoned once more, with its prior resurrection only a brief moment of respite.
Its future remains in the balance, and there is the fact that Carcosa Seri Negara occupies prime land that Tan calls, “probably the most expensive and sacred land in the country”.
“All my life, I have been fighting for my country and justice,” said Tan, explaining why he continues his fight to preserve Carcosa Seri Negara.
There are three ways to destroy a country’s heritage, he said; to destroy the heritage object itself, to destroy the surroundings of said heritage object and to mismanage it.
He said that while AHM is planning to step in to save Carcosa Seri Negara once it has the funds, it is willing to let any other group take up the task as long as it adheres to certain conditions.
“Whoever comes in must be prepared to sacrifice for the sake of society,” said Tan. “Do justice to the place. Do not exploit it.”
“A nation without heritage is like a nation without a soul,” he warned.