THE Indian restaurant in Section 11, Petaling Jaya, was probably not the best place to conduct an interview. It was a hot Sunday afternoon and the place was packed, and noisy.
This has always been a favourite meeting place for a motley crew of politicians, social activists and academics who can mingle freely with the ordinary people here, unlike their counterparts who hang out at air-conditioned coffee houses in five-star hotels.
It provided the perfect backdrop for heritage crusader Elizabeth Cardosa as she spoke passionately about how we tend to glorify beauty over the ordinary, of how we treat history only as a record of things past, but not of lessons to be learnt.
(Above and below): Elizabeth Cardosa at Suffolk House, one of the success stories of heritage conservation in Malaysia. The project to restore Suffolk House is a good example of public-private partnership between the Penang state government, HSBC and the Penang Heritage Trust. Badan Warisan Malaysia was subsequently given the contract to manage Suffolk House for five years.
Having spent much of her life in cultural and heritage work, the executive director of Badan Warisan Malaysia has a naturally exuberant personality and is determined to put heritage firmly on the agenda of the masses.
She is constantly on the move, which is why it took us some months to finally meet up face-to-face. Because of her current assignment at the restored Suffolk House in Penang, we arranged for the photo shoot to be taken there instead.
Heritage work is not easy, says Elizabeth, because it is still seen as a niche cause.
There is also a tendency to equate heritage work with the grand old buildings, especially those that have been legally granted heritage status, when ordinary homes and little kampungs throughout the country have equally powerful heritage value.
According to Elizabeth, the real heritage value is not just in the physical structure, but in the stories that are part of that building and its surroundings. It is when the stories are known that people begin to understand what it is that they are seeking to conserve.
The problem, as she puts it, is that the people currently in the vicinity are often not the ones who have the real ties to the building.
“As a people, we don’t map our culture. We never map our heritage. We look for what is beautiful, but we never look at what is ordinary,” says Elizabeth. “We have to learn to appreciate little stories, but many people don’t have the means to tell their stories, So the physical manifestation in the buildings cannot come alive.”
Elizabeth uses two examples to make her point – the Bukit Bintang Girls School (BBGS) and Bok House.
“In the case of BBGS, because it was a school, it affected a lot of people, not so much as a physical building but as a place where many lives were touched,” she explains.
“As a physical structure, not many are aware that when the US embassy was being built, the architecture blended with BBGS. The eaves, the varendahs and the columns were done up in a similar style. But without the school there, that relationship is lost. The land was valuable, no doubt, but the constituents had moved out.
“For Bok House, the people who were concerned were the older ones who remembered it as the first fine dining restaurant in Kuala Lumpur.”
So people will react differently even though the core issue of heritage conservation is still the same, depending on their own experiences.
She illustrates the point further with another two examples – Pudu Jail and Carcosa Seri Negara.
“We were surprised that the plan to demolish Pudu Jail excited a lot of young people. It was discussed in their blogs. We felt that even the young people were interested in heritage. To them, this was a very real issue because Pudu Jail was a place they passed by every day so they could relate to it.
“On the other hand, very few people talked about Carcosa. In the press, Carcosa got greater coverage, especially in the business newspapers, while Pudu Jail was ignored.”
Conservationists, says Elizabeth, still has a lot to learn about how to make things relevant to people in a language that they can undertand.
She wonders if the time will come when people will get excited about heritage like they do about environmental conservation.
“People can now identify with the environment cause because it affects everyone,” says Elizabeth. “If there is a drought or the haze comes back, everyone feels it. So for the people involved in environmental issues, they can now talk about the carbon footprint or climate change and these are translated into everyday issues that the ordinary citizen can identify with.”
The key to a greater understanding of heritage, she says, must begin at an early age.
“We are not taught values in school. I love history and had good history teachers in my schooldays. But nowadays, history is simply recording things of the past but not about lessons to be learnt.”
She laments that although Malaysia is very rich culturally, we often come across as bland.
“Why can’t we be a rainbow? Why must we always be a melting pot, when everything mixes together and the outcome is a dull grey?”
By her argument, an understanding of our diversity will invariably lead to an appreciation of our heritage, in both the grand and the ordinary.
And what about the role of government and Corporate Malaysia?
Elizabeth is optimistic.
She sees an increasing awareness and commitment on the part of governments, especially at the local council levels, where organisations like Badan Warisan are able to work together.
“The government is supportive in many ways,” she says. “But we also understand that as long as heritage conservation is seen as a niche thing, it will always rank behind bigger issues like education, poverty eradication. Our job is to collaborate with them and share our research.”
As for Corporate Malaysia, she notes that some companies already see heritage conservation as a social responsibility that transcends economic opportunities. This is a form of CSR, she says, and the challenge is to let them realise that they can own property that may not be on the heritage list but are heritage property, nevertheless.
Elizabeth believes strongly that society is what you build, and if you, as a corporate entity, do not contribute to helping build it, you won’t have much to speak of at the end of the day, “You will have money, but no soul,” she declares.
She cites the example of Stadium Merdeka and how it was thankfully saved from being taken down to make way for a massive commercial development.
“We have to give Tun Ahmad Sarji Abdul Hamid (former Chief Secretary to the Government, and now president of Badan Warisan) credit for saving the two stadiums and restoring them to their former glory,” she says.
“Can you imagine preserving such a heritage site only on a video clip? You tell your children about our independence being declared at Stadium Merdeka, and you can’t show them the stadium.”
To Elizabeth, if even such an important monument can be at risk, what more the ordinary but meaningful heritage sites that dot the length and breadth of the country.
Away from work, spending time with her lawyer husband and their two children, a son, 21, and a daughter, 17, is a wonderful way to relax.
“I read and also go walking with friends… the usual things,” she laughs.
“I am glad that my children understand and appreciate the work I am doing. My son used to complain that everywhere he goes, people ask about his famous mother.
“My husband gives me valuable insights into weighing the needs of conservation with the property rights of the individual.”
I could not resist asking her, at the end of the interview, about her equally famous sisters, Jane and Mary.
She laughs out loud. “They tell me that when they meet people, they are always asked about Elizabeth. Of course, the reverse is true, and I am often asked about them.”
Jane is a professor of virology at University Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas) while Mary is an anaesthesiologist at Selayang Hospital. Which is why, for the purpose of this story, we are using Elizabeth instead of Cardosa.