A man's dream for peace and the revival of Carcosa Seri Negara

The current condition of Carcosa’s interiors.

The site of the abandoned swimming pool is where Tan hopes a peace hotel can be built.

One of the corridors on the ground floor of Seri Negara.

Seri Negara was built in 1913.

Carcosa was built in 1896. Photos by Low Yen Yeing

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DO you know that more than 60% of the recently released Hollywood blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians was shot at Malaysia’s very own Carcosa Seri Negara?

Indeed, the much-raved about movie has renewed interest in the historic estate which seemed to have lost its shine over the years.

The century-old federal government-owned estate is located in the Perdana Botanical Gardens, Kuala Lumpur.

“It is set in a beautiful backdrop, surrounded by nature and in a most strategic location in Kuala Lumpur next to Parliament House. It is sad that people only remember Carcosa Seri Negara through the movie when Carcosa Seri Negara is the most important historical site in the country,” laments its current tenant Asian Heritage Museum (AHM) Sdn Bhd’s founder and CEO KK Tan.

On the 40-acre Carcosa Seri Negara estate are two large colonial mansions, namely Carcosa and Seri Negara. Both are registered as national heritage buildings.

Carcosa was built in 1896 as the official residence of the British High Commissioner Sir Frank Swettenham after the formation of the Federated Malay States which was probably the first electricity-and-telephone wired building in the country, Tan tells EdgeProp.my in an exclusive interview.

Meanwhile, Seri Negara was built in 1913 as the country’s official guest house for VVIPS.

Carcosa Seri Negara was given as a gift by the then government of Malaya to Britain in 1957. In 1987, the ownership was returned to the government of Malaysia via a land swap deal.

But what’s most notable is its historical significance in the formation of Malaysia.

“The Constitution of Malaya was drafted in Seri Negara from 1955 to 1957. The Independence Agreement was signed by the nine Sultans on Aug 5, 1957 in Seri Negara. How can these two historical buildings for Malaysia be abandoned and allowed to deteriorate?” Tan asks.

Both the buildings were converted into premium boutique hotels at one time and then left vacant — Carcosa in 2009 and Seri Negara in 2015 — until social enterprise AHM took over in March 2017 as a social tenant to clean, repair, restore and maintain the ground floor of both buildings for the Jalan Merdeka Exhibition, which began Aug 31 last year.

The exhibition was officiated on Aug 31 last year by the Ruler of Negeri Sembilan and is continuing indefinitely due to popular demand. Entrance is free.

Tan describes his first sight of the place as “horrible”. Carcosa, which was neglected for close to eight years was covered in moss, mold, weeds and even animal droppings.

“Seri Negara’s condition was slightly better because it was left vacant slightly more than two years before we took over the place,” he says.

Carcosa Seri Negara’s condition was worse than Tan had imagined, but he believes this is the place to realise his dream of building a themed museum to promote the concept of peace.

Proposal for Peace Museum and hotel

AHM has proposed plans for Carcosa to be the venue of a regional Peace Museum and Seri

Negara to be an arts, culture and nature centre.

“Peace is so fundamental for our survival and progress. Without peace and harmony, businesses cannot thrive and a country will not be able to move forward. However, most people take peace for granted,” Tan says.

“This proposed Asian peace museum at Carcosa is not just about the artefacts but to tell interesting stories, good and bad ones, about Asia’s past, including the wars. People need to understand there are no winners in a war. All wars are evil. The only war that can be justified is a national liberation struggle.

“People need to be reminded again and again of the destruction to lives and properties and the horrors caused by wars. The only businesses that would benefit from wars are the arms manufacturers and traders,” he elaborates.

He thinks Carcosa Seri Negara is the best location to set up a world class Peace Museum and art, culture and nature centre because Malaysia is a politically neutral country, is located in the centre of Asia, and most importantly, is a truly Asian country with three of the largest ethnic groups in Asia — Chinese, Malay and Indian, living in harmony in the same land.

The plan is to make the place a must-go tourist destination to promote the story of Malaysia as well as the concept of peace, he adds.

Each building has a built-up space of 25,000 sq ft. As both Carcosa and Seri Negara are heritage buildings, no renovation work is allowed.

“We are also proposing to build a ‘peace hotel’ adjacent to the peace museum Carcosa, on a bare and unutilised land of about 35,000 sq ft including an abandoned swimming pool, tennis court and car park,” he says. The proposed 100-room, low-rise heritage design hotel will be connected to Carcosa via a pedestrian bridge. It will be a 6-star premium hotel targeted at facilitating peace talks organised by UN, ASEAN and government bodies.

“The idea is that before the delegates or government leaders go for their peace talks, they would visit the museum to see the horrors and evils of wars to instil the “fear of God” for going to war in them and we make no apologies about it, they then go for the peace talks next door.”

He says the entire proposed project, including the restoration of both buildings, construction of the new hotel, setting up of the innovative Peace Museum, the refurbishing of Seri Negara into an arts, culture and nature centre and to spruce up the entire 40-acre estate could easily cost more than RM1 billion.

“One thing’s for sure, we will not ask for a single sen from the government or the taxpayers’ money. We are a social enterprise. While we can make money and run like a corporation (for efficiency), our core activities, not secondary ones as for most companies, must be for the good of our society,” he stresses.

So where will the funds come from? Besides being a social entrepreneur and a socio-political analyst, Tan calls himself an investor.

Back in 2004, Tan worked with an American treasure hunter with plans to set up an Asian museum with the backing of the Malaysian government and several investors.

When the deal fell through, the treasure hunter abruptly left the country without paying Tan. The Malaysian High Court then decided to grant him ownership of the abandoned “treasure” or rather artefacts.

“I have over 2,000 pieces of Asian and geological artefacts, which are all legal and authentic. We intend to fund the project via an innovative approach of selling our highly valuable artefacts.

“One thing’s for sure. Those artefacts are mostly from Asia, and they are real, and we legally own these pieces in accordance with the UNESCO Paris Treaty 1970 on Cultural Property,” he adds.

The rejuvenation plan for Carcosa Seri Negara has gained the support of Federal Territories Minister Khalid Abdul Samad, says Tan, who is confident that his dream can be realised soon.

“The project is meaningful because Carcosa Seri Negara is where Malaysia’s history began. It is necessary to bring this place back to its former glory and show it to the world proudly.

“It is also creating tourism value and income for the government. But most importantly, it can help promote the importance of peace and create international peace. Only peace can move society and country forward,” Tan concludes.

 

This story first appeared in the EdgeProp.my pullout on Sept 21, 2018. You can access back issues here.