Fountain at Dataran Merdeka

by Eric Lim

In my last article, I wrote about two Colonial monuments that were initially located at the Government Offices, now renamed as Sultan Abdul Samad Building, at Dataran Merdeka. First, the King Edward VII bronze bust on a marble pedestal, which was positioned right in front of the building and unveiled on 16 April 1912. The second monument is the bronze statue of Sir Frank Swettenham, erected on the front right-hand corner of the building and facing Gombak River. It was announced publicly for the first time on 19 January 1921 and it was a grand occasion attended by the Rulers from the Federated Malay States and top ranking British officials at that time.

During the Japanese Occupation, both monuments were removed and hidden away. After the war, the monuments were returned to their original sites. Today, they are standing tall at the grounds of the National Museum. Besides these two monuments, which originated at Jalan Raja, another monument still exits at Jalan Raja – at Dataran Merdeka.

This only surviving monument is the Fountain, located at the southern end of Dataran Merdeka, close to the 95 metres tall flagpole and near the intersection between the old General Post Office, the current Textile Museum and the former National History Museum, which was closed in November 2007. Prior to becoming the museum, the building housed the Chartered Bank of India, Australia and China (today they are known as Standard Chartered Bank).

Information board next to the fountain

A close scrutiny of the information on the board next to the Fountain, facing Jalan Raja only provides a one line introduction – `At the corner of the square stands a fountain that was built in 1897`. It was no surprise with the absence of facts of its origin and history because since it was erected, it was already shrouded in mystery. This prompted the Malayan Historical Society in Kuala Lumpur to put the record right with the help of the National Archives. They published their findings in their half-yearly magazine called `Malaya in History` volume VIII / number 1 / December 1962 issue.

When the Fountain was completed, KLites believed it was built to commemorate the Chief Inspector of Police, Steve Harper of the Selangor Military Police who died at home in 1896. He was at his prime at the time of his passing. Steve was popularly known to the locals as `Tuan Steeb`. Steve was one of three brothers who were very popular and successful in Selangor. There was Alfred Harper who was the Chief Clerk of the Courts and it was reported that he died at about the same time as Steve. And the third brother, Archie Harper, who founded the well-known firm of A.C Harper & Co. Ltd., which were agents for the Straits Steamship Company and importer for Peter Dawson`s Scotch whisky. Archie was one of the early members of Selangor Club (now Royal Selangor Club) and he was the first and best three Honorary Secretaries of the club. Archie retired in 1906.

The fountain

The publication at that time, the Malay Mail (newspaper) and Selangor Journal (periodical), appeared to support this tradition. The former reported that a fund was started in January 1897 to commemorate the late Steve Harper and it went on to receive contributions from KLites. The newspaper also published the list of contributors from time to time and it further reported that the memorial should take the form of a drinking fountain to be erected at the central market (built in 1888, it is still called Central Market, located at Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock. However, it is no longer a wet market but now houses mostly arts and craft, and souvenir shops). The Fountain was finally completed later that year but it was constructed at the Padang (now Dataran Merdeka). KLites concluded that it was the cop’s fountain and believed it was moved from the central market to the present site at an earlier date.

A year later after the start of the collection of subscription for the Steve Harper memorial, the Malay Mail reported in its 18 April 1898 issue that Mr Bellamy, the Selangor State Deputy Superintending Engineer, had informed in a meeting that the Fountain at the Padang was built by the Kuala Lumpur Sanitary Board at a cost of four thousand dollars. He recommended that the contributions toward the Steve Harper memorial fund be used for other schemes. One of them was to buy school books for the underprivileged students attending the prestigious Victoria Institution.

The Malay Mail followed up on this pending issue and reported in its 2 May 1898 publication that a meeting was organized on 30 April and it was decided after a vote count that the scheme for the purchase of school books was adopted. The three who voted namely Towkay Loke Yew (wealthy businessman), Thambusamy Pillai (leader of the Tamil community and businessman) and Mr Shaw (Headmaster of the Victoria Institution) were appointed the trustees of the fund. (For the record, Towkay Loke Yew voted against the book scheme, instead proposed for another fountain to be erected).

The project to erect the Fountain was given out to an engineering firm Messrs Riley, Hargreaves & Co, which carried out the work in October and November 1897. The materials were imported from England. The company was also involved in the building of two bridges in Kuala Lumpur, on Market Street and High Street (today, they are Leboh Pasar Besar and Jalan Tun HS Lee respectively).

The Malayan Historical Society concluded that the Fountain was erected by the Kuala Lumpur Sanitary Board with their own funds and not erected to commemorate the late Steve Harper.

(The current location of the Fountain is not its original site. It was moved to the current position when the Dataran Merdeka project was completed in late 1989)

(The Kuala Lumpur Sanitary Board was formed on 14 May 1890 and their responsibilities include sanitation, upkeep of roads, lighting of streets, planning and other functions. It would eventually become the Kuala Lumpur Municipal Council (Majlis Perbandaran Kuala Lumpur) and now Kuala Lumpur City Hall (Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur).

References

Three Memorials on Jalan Raja, Kuala Lumpur – A note on their History from the National Archives, Malaya in History, vol. VIII (1), December 1962, pp. 39-40.

Rimba (1922) Bygone Selangor: A Souvenir, Kuala Lumpur: Charles Grenier & Son.

Author: Museum Volunteers, JMM

Museum Volunteers, JMM Taking the Mystery out of History

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