- 2007/06/03 It takes time to get the job done

The man behind the National Heritage Act 2005 has embarked on a multi-million ringgit plan to restore the Malacca Fort. Culture, Arts and Heritage Minister Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim speaks to NST journalist Tan Choe Choe about the project and other topics close to his heart.

Q: Recently, you announced that the cabinet had approved RM12.8 million for the reconstruction of the Malacca Fort. What is the objective behind this project?

A: Malacca is where our civilisation began, so anything that we can find via the window of heritage there is important. The fort shows that we have lived through some colonial periods and like most countries, we have survived well. Some people don't like to mention our history of colonialism but to me, the occupations of the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British and the Japanese have taught us something. We didn't simply explode and come into being. Our history and heritage are a salutary lesson in nationhood and a reminder to strengthen our resolve to build a better future.

Q: Some are wondering if it's worth spending millions to bring back this piece of the past. How will this project benefit Malaysians?

A: Heritage has no price. We can't compute it in terms of money. But as a developing nation, we have to look at the figures and create an equilibrium of sorts. But I belong to the school of thought that whatever the Department of National Heritage needs in order to make us realise where we came from and where we're going, I would support it. The RM12.8 million is nothing ó it's a drop in the ocean. The public shouldn't think that we're spending anything substantive. This is the first time in the history of our country that the department is taking on a project of this scale. If we don't recreate, how are you or the future generations going to learn about this fort?

Q: Most of the original fort's foundation is now covered with modern structures. Does the allocation involve acquisitions of private land for the project?

A: The plan is to reconstruct on non-private land but it's still embryonic at this stage. The total area of the fort enclosure was almost 11.44ha, with the total wall perimeter at 1.3km. We can reconstruct the parts that are not built up and the total perimeter for reconstruction is going to be about 850m.

I have ongoing discussions with the chief minister as we are working on state land. We cannot superimpose federal powers, as it will be in conflict with constitutional arrangements.

Q: There will be no private land acquisition?

A: There might be, I'm not saying "no". But I cannot say how much and we have to consult the state government. We would also have to think of the cost. The RM12.8 million is purely for one segment of the programme, the details of which are yet to be finalised. Everything is still at the planning stages.

Q: Some would argue that reconstructing the fort would mar the authenticity of the existing archaeological sites.

A: That's the view of pessimists. Some would prefer us not to touch anything and let Malacca go back to the Dark Ages. I don't belong to that school of thought. When you find a heritage site, you should preserve it in a manner that is scientific, that fulfils the pull of appreciation, and through which you can trace history.

If I had followed the thesis that says to leave things as they are, I wouldn't have created the Department of National Heritage. And maybe we should have left Hang Tuah to lie in a well somewhere? Surely that's not the way. But we will let the foundations remain exposed and identifiable when the wall is reconstructed.

Q: The reconstruction of the above-the-ground structure of the fort depends largely on old historical documents but in some areas, it seems smart guesswork has to be employed?

A: I don't agree with the words smart guesswork. I'd prefer esoteric knowledge, scientific knowledge. Our officers have met with some of the best brains in the preservation of archaeological artefacts, including scholars from Malaysia and abroad who specialise in Dutch and Portuguese forts. Besides documentary sour-ces, they will also visit contemporaneous forts in the region. They are not going about this blindly. We respect knowledge and archaeology. My heritage commissioner is the former don of archaeology in USM and she knows what to do and how to jealously guard the artefacts and realign thoughts to become a story.

Q: Who will maintain it once it's completed ó the state or the federal government?

A: Proprietary rights will remain with the state. It does not belong to the federal (government) but under the constitutional arrangement, we will help them. We can register it as a national heritage later.

Q: Once it's completed, will people have to pay to see the fort?

A: That's still being discussed but I can assure you it's not going to be like Disneyland, where you have to pay a hefty sum. I do not want it to involve too much pocket digging for the public.

Q: How about preservation of traditional arts and culture? Not many of those who practise traditional arts and crafts are still around.

A: Apprenticeship is the answer. But I must admit this is a new ministry on its own and we cannot come up with everything quickly. We should not be bigoted here. But we are trying to make this a nurturing place for everybody, although I admit that's easier said than done because of the administrative constraints and various prejudices. We have not lost all; we still have some basic things which we know we can nurture, but the system of apprenticeship is a must, be it for craft, music, theatre, dance, or language.

Q: What about showing appreciation to living cultural icons like our movie veterans? We don't seem to know, acknowledge or remember them until and unless they become very ill, or are dying.

A: For the last three years, we've been doing just that. We identify them, take care of them, and record their memory, their performances. The film and cinema make up just one segment of it. We are also looking at other luminaries like our great historian Prof Khoo (Kay Kim), who is still alive. I've just told Arkib Negara to record his views and ideas. The same goes to people like the widow of (Tun) V.T. Sambanthan. I've had to fight all the way for this because the system hardly recognises this as important, but these people are our living heritage.

Q: There have been outcries in the last few years over what some see as conservation sins ó e.g. the demolition of the Bok House and the building of a revolving tower in Malacca's heritage zone. It seems heritage preservation in the country always takes a back seat to development.

A: Heritage is not just about buildings but in Malaysia, the moment you mention heritage, they think it's a bangunan (building) or a kedai (shop). My ministry cannot preserve everything in private hands. In the case of Bok House, it's a private property and the family wanted to pull it down. They asked us for RM72 million. The actual historical value was not much, so we didn't stop them.As for the Malacca Tower, it isn't something obnoxious. People were saying the same thing about the Petronas Twin Towers, still millions go up to admire it once it was done. Nobody talked about the San Diego Tower or the Shanghai Tower so why should we object to the Malacca Tower?

Q: Conservation has been said to involve conserving the atmosphere of a place, not just preserving historical buildings. Some countries even have guidelines for new buildings to conform to certain architectural specifics. Should we follow this move?

A: We are heading in that direction. I think the Department of Heritage should one day be competent enough to impart advice well before a township comes up; to tell local authorities what must be in that town. Take Cyberjaya, for example. No consideration was given to heritage preservation when we built it because of the urgency we felt at the time. Now that we have learnt from that, we accept the reality that enough advisory input must be made before a town is put up. In time, the Heritage Department will form a caucus of experts to advise on how the building of new townships should be approached.

Q: Are you happy with the state of the country's heritage conservation and preservation?

A: No. But heritage as a subject has just come up seriously in the last two years and I haven't been given enough time on it. I hope they keep me here long enough. I can do it but two years is a short time.

I have started something that I hope my successor would be able to carry on. When he comes on, you must pose him the same question.

Q: Speculation is rife that you've been nominated by Malaysia for the post of Commonwealth secretary-general when incumbent Donald C. McKinnon steps down in March next year.

A: I don't think so. That's just speculation ó speculation that has gone too far among certain people. It's all in the minds of some people. The job only falls vacant next March and it's now only May ó there's still a long way off. I don't see how my answer is relevant. You must ask the prime minister.

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