BY Chris Prasad
In turbulent times, it is not uncommon for nations to look to the inspiring monuments they have built to find renewed strength, purpose and fortitude. In Malaysia, perhaps none stands more poignantly in this era of tribulations than the house our forefathers built to cradle our then burgeoning democracy.
It stands on a raised platform in the centre of our capital as a constant reminder of our struggle for freedom, our collective will to be self-ruled and our aspiration to be an exemplary democracy – the great social experiment that successfully moulded a populace of various ethnicities into one common people.
As we forge ahead, let us take time to reflect on what this wondrous architectural achievement meant to a young nation and its people when it was built, and what it will mean to us and future generations to come.
Before lawmakers had a permanent place to call their home, the first parliamentary meetings of “Malaya” were held at Tunku Abdul Rahman Hall in Jalan Ampang, which today is the site of the Malaysian Tourism and Information Centre. It is a pre-war building (built in 1935) that once served as the residence of wealthy miner and plantation owner Eu Tong Sen.
By 1959, Malaya was an expanding nation – on the verge of including Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore into the fold to become “Malaysia” – and the somewhat diminutive building could no longer contain our ambitions.
Our first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman (today affectionately referred to as just “Tunku”) then suggested the construction of a larger building, one which would also serve as a modern icon for the fledgling country.
Designed by Ivor Shipley, a British architect in the Public Works Department, construction on the new House of Parliament commenced in Sept 1962 and it was projected to cost some RM18 million – an exorbitant sum at the time.
The foundation stone was laid by the third Yang Di-Pertuan Agong, Tuanku Syed Putra Al-Haj Ibni Al-Marhum Syed Hassan Jamalullail, on Aug 31, 1962 and construction of the iconic structure took only 14 months to complete.
The 16.2-acre site, atop a hill in Kuala Lumpur’s beautiful Lake Gardens locale, was chosen as it offered a position 61m above sea level, giving it a panoramic view of the surrounding city.
Over one million bricks, 2,000 tonnes of steel, 54,000 tonnes of concrete, 200,000 bags of cement and 300 tonnes of glass were used to construct Parliament House.
It was officially “open for business” on Nov 21, 1963, just two months after the formation of Malaysia, with the inclusion of Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore. From that point on the building would become a regular feature on the Malaysian currency, both on notes and coins, and it provided us with a new national emblem.
Equally important is the National Monument, built just beside it, that depicts Malayan (Malaysian) soldiers who fought forces of occupation and earned the country its freedom. The bronze statue was designed by American sculptor Felix de Weldon, who later also fashioned a statue of Tunku near Parliament Square in 1971.
Designed to inspire
Parliament House consists of a three-storey rectangular main building which houses two national assembly halls. They are the Dewan Rakyat (the Lower House of Representatives), and Dewan Negara (the Senate). Atop this main building are the majestic-looking triangular concrete structures which have 11 sections, representing the original number of states in the Federation of Malaya.
Next to the main legislative complex is a 17-storey tower block which houses the offices of cabinet ministers and representatives of both houses (most of these have now migrated to Putrajaya). At the top of the tower is an open side terrace that boasts a spectacular view of KL.
Ahead of its time, the building was built with heat and light absorbing glass. The design of the tower block resembles a pineapple with beehive-like ‘kerawang’ or ornamental patterns. This provides a controlled environment for light and heat within.
Another outstanding feature is the water distribution system, providing treated water which is dyed blue to prevent the growth of moss. It begins from the top of the building and continues throughout.
Among its many facilities are a banquet hall with a capacity to fit 500, the royalty room for His Highness the King, a library, press room and lounge, a main canteen area and a number of prayer rooms (surau).
There is also a deer park within the compounds of the Parliament House. Here you will find dozens of deer running freely about within the park.
In the halls of history
In the main entrance hall, as tradition depicts, there are always large portraits of the sitting Prime Minister of Malaysia and the present King.
In nearby halls and walkways are the portraits of former leaders and kings. It is said that the total value of the paintings of past and present Kings, Prime Ministers and Speakers of the House is valued at approximately RM4 million.
The Dewan Rakyat and Dewan Negara are associated with the colours blue and red, respectively, and the carpeting in both houses are thus coloured.
The Royal Steps are only used once a year by the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong when officiating the first sitting of Parliament. The remainder of the year, it is covered up with plastic sheets to retain its pristine state.
Rumour has it that there is a secret tunnel leading from Parliament House to the Lake Gardens to be used for emergency evacuations. However, its exact location is undisclosed, either on grounds of secrecy or due to disuse.