Carcosa Seri Negara: Birthplace of Malaysia’s Constitution to be reborn as beacon of peace

Kenneth Tee
Tan said the long-term plan was to turn Carcosa Seri Negara into a renowned peace museum and a cultural centre for the region. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri

KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 31 — Local folklore has it that a ghostly apparition clad in a white dress roams the Neo-Gothic and Tudor Revival hallways of Carcosa, and manifests on the main staircase of the bungalow.

The Lady in White, as the apparition is called, still mystifies those who once resided in the colonial mansion.

“Legend has it she is the late wife of the first British High Commissioner of Malaya, Sir Frank Swettenham,” says Asian Heritage Museum Sdn Bhd (AHM) chief executive officer KK Tan.

Tan said he has not had any personal encounters with the Lady in White, but true or not, the story just adds colour to the historic property a few hundred metres from Parliament and Perdana Botanical Gardens.

Carcosa and Seri Negara have endured over a century of historical turbulence, and in recent times, has served as the film set for the critically-acclaimed Hollywood movie Crazy Rich Asians.

As the older of the two mansions, Carcosa is gazetted as a national heritage site and served as the official residence of then British High Commissioner Sir Frank Swettenham before Independence. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri

Speaking to Malay Mail, 64-year-old Tan, who is the caretaker of Carcosa Seri Negara, said the ongoing plan was to convert the 40-acre site into a regional peace museum and a cultural centre.

“Our aim is to turn Carcosa into an Asian peace museum to fight extremism and cultural terrorism, while Seri Negara will be transformed into an arts, culture and nature centre.

“We cannot fight for peace without fighting extremism manifested in cultural terrorism and our ultimate goal is to transform Kuala Lumpur into the Geneva of Asia,” he said.

He said in the future, the peace museum will compel visiting delegates to witness the horrors of war, virtues of peace and lessons of history.

Owing to a High Court order in 2010, Tan said AHM managed to salvage four freight containers containing almost 2,000 priceless artefacts abandoned by an American treasure hunter who inexplicably went rogue in 2006.

“Many of these artefacts trace their origins to ancient China and the Malay Archipelago, dating back to 6,000 years ago, which we will exhibit once our cultural centre is operational,” he said.

Tan stand next to a bicycle used by the Imperial Japanese Army during the Invasion of Malaya in a room featuring the Japanese Occupation of Malaya which is part of the Jalan Merdeka exhibition currently held at Carcosa. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri

Historical significance

For the uninitiated, Carcosa Seri Negara is actually two separate colonial mansions — Carcosa is the oldest since it was constructed in 1896 at a cost of £25,000 (equivalent to £3,192,650 or RM17 million today).

Then British Resident-General of the Federated Malay States, Sir Frank Swettenham, used Carcosa as his official residence shortly after the formation of the Federated Malay States. The nation’s first electricity and telephone wire originated from this building.

Seri Negara, formerly called King’s House, was built in 1913 as an official guest house for visiting VVIPs, including British monarch Queen Elizabeth who stayed there in 1986.

The colonial mansions also served as the Imperial Japanese Army’s headquarters in Kuala Lumpur during the Japanese Occupation of Malaya between 1941 and 1945.

Prior to independence, the Constitution of Malaya was drafted in Seri Negara from 1955 to 1957, with the Merdeka Agreement signed by the nine Sultans on August 5, 1957.

“In some ways, Seri Negara is equivalent to the Independence Hall of Philadelphia where the US Constitution and Declaration of Independence were both debated and adopted by Congress in 1776,” Tan said.

For three years after independence, Seri Negara was the official guest palace of the first Yang di-Pertuan Agong.

A maintenance worker conducting a routine inspection of the Jalan Merdeka exhibition display for signs of disrepair at Carcosa. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri

Persevering and preserving

During a takeover by AHM in March 2017, Tan recalled the decrepit state of the buildings, saying he and AHM’s council chairman Tunku Zain Al-’Abidin Tuanku Muhriz both wanted to cry.

“How can someone leave this building in such a state of total disrespect? We were so angry at it... it was as if they had committed treason by desecrating this historical place.

“It is baffling that the previous tenant failed to understand the significance of this place at all. Nothing comes close to this heritage site,” he said, adding no words could describe the state of the buildings then.

From 1989 until AHM’s takeover, Carcosa and Seri Negara were used as a boutique hotel before they were abandoned eight and three years ago respectively.

A glimmer of hope appeared after Hollywood chose Carcosa Seri Negara as the fictional Tyersall Park, home of the matriarch played by Malaysian actress Tan Sri Michelle Yeoh in Crazy Rich Asians in July last year.

Heaving a sigh of relief, Tan said Hollywood did them a favour by cleaning up and repairing some of the areas which reduced their overall workload.

Built in 1913, Seri Negara bore witness to the drafting of the Constitution of Malaya and the signing of the Merdeka Agreement by the nine head of states between 1955 and 1957. — Picture by Ahmad Zamzahuri

However, taking over prime real-estate property does come at a price, as Tan revealed he made enemies along the way, who wanted to ‘hijack’ AHM’s efforts to promote peace and unity though Carcosa Seri Negara.

He revealed that a prominent Datin Seri linked to the previous government had also demanded a forceful takeover of the 40-acre site for residential redevelopment purposes last year, but was only stopped after a well-known veteran politician intervened.

Despite financial constraints remaining the biggest challenge of running Carcosa Seri Negara, Tan seemed optimistic that his efforts will be rewarded in the long run.

From a message passed on to Tan through a media liaison officer, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad is expected to visit the site’s Jalan Merdeka (Road to Independence) exhibition in the near future.

The exhibition, which showcases the country’s struggle for Merdeka, was launched in 2017. Admission is free.

Tan said the exhibition — which he dubbed a social enterprise project that has been extended due to popular demand — was AHM’s effort to promote the country’s history at the very place where Malaysia came into existence.

“We want to teach people about patriotism, cultivate patriotism and the importance of national unity by showing how all the races in Malaya fought for our liberation,” Tan said.

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