How teamwork between races transformed a KL field into the Merdeka Stadium

Retired civil engineer Lee Kwok Thye recalling the days he supervised the construction of the iconic Merdeka Stadium.

PETALING JAYA: Young Chinese women in black samfoos balancing pails of concrete on either sides of “kanda” sticks over their shoulders, struggling up narrow pathways and ramps were a common sight during construction of the Merdeka Stadium.

“Their faces could hardly be seen,” retired civil engineer Lee Kwok Thye recalled. “They used to wind lengths of cloth around their heads, and put big hats on top to protect them from the sun.”

“They were afraid of getting tanned,” said Lee, who remains as sharp as ever as he remembered the days when the stadium was being constructed back in 1957, in an interview with FMT.

The 89-year-old, a graduate of KL Technical College in 1953 and a KL native who now lives with his wife in Damansara Heights, remembers how hard the labourers, both male and female, worked.

“They had to prepare the concrete by hand at the site. The men would mix it and shovel it into pails for the women to carry. It was like a conveyor belt.”

“I felt sorry for those young girls. Their shoulders would be blistered, as well as their fingers. Those loads were really heavy. But they were poor and so they had to do it,” said Lee.

Construction was very labour intensive, with close to a thousand workers toiling day and night. The workers came from all Malaysian ethnicities but generally stuck to their own trades.

A black and white aerial view of the Merdeka Stadium, which was completed just two weeks before the declaration of Malaya’s independence.

“The carpenters, barbenders, and concreters were all Chinese. The departmental workers and those constructing the roads were Indians,” said the ex-supervisor.

“There was a group of Malabaris from India. They specialised in erecting steel structures. They were responsible for putting up the floodlight towers.

“There was no discrimination of any sort in those days,” he said.

Work on the stadium had started in late 1956, and the Public Works Department completed the project in 11 months, just a few weeks before Merdeka was celebrated.

Lee said the stadium was designed by the then Public Works Department deputy director, Stanley Jewkes, a British civil engineer.

“The prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj, had called Mr Jewkes in before Merdeka and asked him if he could design, construct and complete a stadium in time to celebrate Merdeka.

“Mr Jewkes agreed to do it. He carried on with his normal job during the day and did all the stadium planning after office hours on his own, at home, on his dining table.

“There were only three of us in the design office at the time. We did not report directly to Mr Jewkes, but he would bring his calculations to us and we would transfer them into drawings,” he said.

Lee was full of praise for Jewkes, calling him a brilliant engineer who designed the 22,000 capacity stadium in such a way that the crowd would be able to exit within minutes.

“Tunku would tell us what he wanted, such as the seating capacity, and Mr Jewkes then came to us and asked us to put it all together in the drawings,” he said. “He even got someone to construct a model of the stadium to get Tunku’s approval.”

The stadium site was then just a football field called Coronation Park. It was not a level playing field. A survey revealed that from one goal post to the other there was a fall of about five feet.

“When Mr Jewkes was told this, he realised construction was going to coincide with the northeast monsoon season so the first thing he did was construct a culvert from the stadium bowl down to Birch Road to channel the water. This ensured construction would not be interrupted.”

The multiracial workforce never stopped. “We worked round the clock, seven days a week. Under floodlights at night,” remembers Lee.

“We didn’t really bother about clocking overtime. And there were no hard hats or safety boots. We just had one objective – to complete the stadium before Merdeka,” he said.

The entire construction was very rushed, and Jewkes never had the whole design completed, coming up with bits and pieces as work progressed.

The turf was laid by gangs of Chinese girls before it was rolled, fertilised, and mowed. “I remember whenever I had a little spare time I would push the roller across the turf to even it out. By Merdeka, the field was perfect. It was green and level,” he said.

At the time he was supervising the construction work, Lee said he was also courting his future wife, Lee Lian. Lee said they would go to the cinema and afterwards he would return to the site to see what needed to be done. There was always something that needed his attention and sometimes he would be on site for most of the night.

“Mr Jewkes himself would also visit every evening after work without fail, I would accompany him to inspect what we had done throughout the day,” recalls Lee.

Jewkes had a car and driver, a rarity in those days. In the afternoons he would send the car to pick up his wife and she would bring his tea to the stadium.

“Mrs Jewkes was very gracious. She would insist I join them for afternoon tea. Unlike most Caucasians then, Mr and Mrs Jewkes had very high regard for Asians,” he recalled.

When the project was completed, Lee said he felt a great sense of satisfaction from completing such a huge challenge, adding that when you have a good boss, it makes all the difference.

Tunku himself was very appreciative of the work they had carried out, and hosted a dinner for them at his official residence.

When asked for any memorable moments during construction, Lee recalled the time his earth-moving plant operators discovered some human bones under the football pitch.

“They were quite worried and asked me, ‘Should we report it?’ I said, no don’t. They will start an investigation and delay the whole construction. Just rebury the bones and carry on. Nothing more was said about that.”

When all was complete and ready for Merdeka, Tunku organised a ceremony to lay a foundation plaque at the stadium.

“Behind the plaque, Mr Jewkes put a time capsule with the original plans, newspaper cuttings, details of various parts of the structure and other memorabilia.

“Years later, Permodalan Nasional Berhad (PNB) wanted the stadium to be heritage listed, and they asked to see the plaque. I had to go and show them where it was.

“I hadn’t seen the plaque for years and was shocked to discover it had changed. The original was written in English, but this plaque was in Bahasa Malaysia.”

No-one there could explain who had been responsible for switching the plaques.

But that was not all that puzzled Lee that day.

“Behind the plaque, where Jewkes had stowed the capsule, there was now nothing. The box and all its contents had completely vanished.

“I couldn’t find anyone who had any idea what happened to the plaque or the box. I still wonder about it even now.”