The history within these walls
“It was meant to be temporary in the first place. The ‘temporary’ became more than 40 years.” – Dr Charles Leh on Dewan Tun Abdul Razak.By Patricia Hului @pattbpseeds
ACROSS FROM THE OLD SARAWAK Museum connected by Kuching’s first pedestrian bridge stands Dewan Tun Abdul Razak. While it may not stand out as one of Kuching’s most marvelous building structures at first glance, it is nonetheless one that has played a significant part in Sarawak history.
From 1973 to 1975, it served as the State Legislature complex. In 1982, the Sarawak Museum Department took over management of the building, slowly turning it into a museum exhibition gallery at the cost of RM2.8 million.
In his editorial note in Volume 33 of the Sarawak Museum Journal in December 1984, the former Director of Sarawak Museum Lucas Chin noted that: “The new museum at Dewan Tun Abdul Razak has received very encouraging response based on the many good comments expressed by visitors in the visitor’s book. In the last quarter of 1983 since the official opening in Aug, 208,757 people visited this new museum. For the ten months of this year, 407,484 people were recorded to have visited the museum.”
After 10 years, the hall was officially regenerated into a museum housing archaeological material excavated in Sarawak, a rotating exhibition hall to keep attracting visitors and also housed Sarawak Museum Department’s administration office.
The name behind the building
Widely referred to simply as Dewan Tun Abdul Razak today, most people may be unaware that its official name is Dewan Pembangunan Tun Abdul Razak.
It was named after the late Tun Abdul Razak Hussein who also officiated the hall’s opening on Aug 31, 1973 during his tenure as Malaysia’s second prime minister and built at the expense of the federal government amounting up to RM500k.
In his officiating speech, the late father of our current prime minister had high aspirations for the building: “[…] Dewan Pembangunan ini mempunyai tempat dan kedudukan istimewa sebagai lambang hasrat dan cita-cita rakyat Sarawak yang inginkan kemakmuran dan kebahagiaan […]”
“[…] this development hall has a special place and spot as a symbol of Sarawakians’ desire for prosperity and happiness […]”
“Tidak syak lagi, Dewan Pembangunan ini kelak akan merupakan nadi kemajuan ekonomi dan sosial yang pesat, yang akan meningkatkan taraf serta kedudukan ekonomi mereka setanding dengan rakyat negara-negara yand sudah maju.”
“Without a doubt, this development hall will become the centre of rapid economic and social development which will raise the economic standing of Sarawakians on par with developed countries.”
According to an article in the National Archives of Malaysia written about it when it first opened, the hall was meant to resolve issues of non-available spaces suitable to hold exhibitions, conferences, seminars and courses among others.
Green Building Index: Making the old, new again
After 40 years, the hall will soon be demolished to make way for a more spacious and state-of-the-art campus museum. The state government first announced plans to build a new museum in 2012 while Sarawak Museum Department Director Ipoi Datan confirmed news of Dewan Tun Abdul Razak’s planned demolition in November 2013.
Many went on to social networking sites to express their dissatisfaction with the planned demolition of Dewan Tun Abdul Razak, but only few are aware of the building’s structural integrity and that over the years, more research done and artifacts collected have left the Sarawak Museum out of space to store, conserve and exhibit their findings.
On the decision to remove Dewan Tun Abdul Razak, deputy director of Sarawak Museum Dr Charles Leh said, “It was meant to be temporary in the first place. The ‘temporary’ became more than 40 years.”
Within the walls of the building is a little known fact. According to Dr Leh, Dewan Tun Abdul Razak was a prefabricated building, which may explain its somewhat Spartan and utilitarian design.
A prefabricated building is a type of building made of several factory-built components or units that are assembled on-site to complete the unit.
According to Wikipedia, many prefabricated buildings are meant to have five to 10-year life span but some prefab units have been known to survive a long time.
Since the building was built at the cost of federal government, it was not a surprise when Dr Leh explained that it was prefabricated in Kuala Lumpur and shipped over here.
Part of the prefabricated components of Dewan Tun Abdul Razak shipped from across the South China Sea was a row of iron beams that currently support the roof of the hall.
Dr Leh, who has worked as a curator at Sarawak Museum for more than 33 years, also mentioned that the iron beams have shown signs of rusting, making working occupants of the hall nervous about the safety of Dewan Tun Abdul Razak.
He highlighted another shortcoming of the museum structure: “This building is not handicapped-friendly. We need to build a museum that is handicapped-friendly which meets international criteria for safety.”
For those who worry about the loss of this piece of history, Dr Leh said: “We are going to build a Green Building Index (GBI) museum. For GBI, we need to recycle as much of the previous building as possible so all the wooden carvings and even the stone blocks along the front façade will be reused.”
As such, he said that the new campus museum – set to be the first GBI museum in Malaysia – will retain as much of the Dewan Tun Abdul Razak architecture components as possible.
He added, “The new building will be a museum of Sarawak heritage. We have a lot of native groups here. All of them have a lot of heritage materials that we need to store for the museum.
“When you store, you also going to exhibit. After such a long time, I think this is the right time to have a new one. It must have sufficient space for storage and conservation storage center. Therefore, all the heritage materials presently held in Sarawak will be all stored in a high-tech storage building.”
The future high-tech storage new campus museum may be the second structure to be purposely built as a museum but it will be the first built under the current state government. The first purpose-built museum, of course, is the Sarawak Museum Old Building which was built in 1891 by the second White Rajah, Charles Brooke.
Dr Leh explained: “The old museum is spilling over. That was built in 1891, 120 years is a long time. We need a new building because we need to store heritage materials – of which we have a lot.”
To make for more space in the RM310 million campus museum, the buildings located near the hall are also to be demolished. One of them includes the Yayasan Sarawak hostel where students of Sarawak Foundation used to stay when they transitted in Kuching back in the 1970s.
“When Yayasan Sarawak moved out in 1985 or 1986, the building was used by the museum as storage for archeology and ethnology,” Dr Leh explained.
He also revealed the old Class-B government quarters located behind Dewan Tun Abdul Razak which the museum used to house printing equipment will also be demolished.
To the left of the building is a plot of land where rows of trees beautifully stand. According to Dr Leh the trees were planted the same year that Dewan Tun Abdul Razak was built back in 1973.
“Fortunately, the trees will be left untouched for now.”
Dewan Tun Abdul Razak was officially closed to the public on July 1, 2014 and since then, the staff of Sarawak Museum Department has been busy packing and moving.
The museum department’s administration was the first to vacate Dewan Tun Abdul Razak on Feb 5, 2015 by moving to the former Resident and District Office building across from the Central Police station.
The earth-breaking ceremony of the new campus museum is expected to be held in March or April and expected to be completed by 2019 or 2020.