Pudu Jail demolition a slap in KL’s hopeful face
JUNE 26 — In yet another all too familiar Malaysian contradiction, no sooner was it announced by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak that KL would be made a vibrant world-class city attractive to a high-skilled talented workforce than the bulldozers moved in to demolish yet another historic city landmark .
Not only that, cries of protest over plans to flatten Pudu Jail to build shops and offices were met with heartbreaking indifference and risk making a mockery of the prime minister’s invite for the public to share their views on nation building.
Let’s be clear about this: what talented people want is a city that appreciates and cares for its legacy, that is strong on conservation efforts and a cityscape that will stimulate their intellectual and cultural senses.
What they do NOT want is a city made up of soulless shopping malls and office blocks. And they will definitely look down on a shallow government who cannot even appreciate that a 100-year-old prison that survived two world wars and once held the country’s most notorious criminals is in the words of Deputy Finance Minister Datuk Awang Adek Hussin “not a heritage site.”
The strange thing is, the 10th Malaysia Plan announced just a week before the Pudu destruction began seemed to get it absolutely right when it said: “Liveability of cities will be an important driver in positioning our cities to compete for high-skilled talent on the global stage. Today, people not only gravitate to places having employment opportunities, they also gravitate to places that are vibrant and liveable.”
The report also optimistically stated that there would be “urban rejuvenation efforts to restore and protect heritage buildings…”
I have been to many cities that are magnets for global talent — Paris, Melbourne, Barcelona, Geneva, San Francisco, New York. Part of what makes these cities so appealing is their obvious pride in their legacy. Old buildings are carefully preserved and looked after by experts and any development affecting them will require massive feedback from the public. The end results are cities that are beautiful, charming and that make people feel like wanting to work and live there.
Of course, Pudu Jail cannot be left in its present state, that of a neglected eyesore. But see how other cities have made thoughtful use of their own iconic prisons. There is the former Sultanahmet jail in Istanbul that was turned into a luxurious Four Seasons hotel. Boston’s Charles Street Jail is now the swanky Liberty Hotel, and the former prison exercise yard is now a beautiful courtyard garden.
There is also the Jail Hotel in Lucerne, Switzerland. A former KGB torture centre in Leipaja, Latvia is now a hotel as well. And of course, there is San Francisco’s Alcatraz which is now a tourist destination. And it’s not that Pudu Jail is without architectural merit as it has a unique butterfly shape which is particularly striking when viewed from above.
Too many buildings that make up a precious part of KL’s legacy have already been crushed under the dreaded bulldozer — from the Bok House to the Bukit Bintang Girls School, to the gracious, nostalgic black and white bungalows that used to dot the area around the old race course. All fallen thanks to a combination of greed and lack of foresight.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.