Malaysia stadium restored to glory

Published December 5, 2008

KUALA LUMPUR: The iconic stadium where Malaysia proclaimed its independence half a century ago has won a United Nations award after being stripped of modern additions and restored to its retro glory.

Stadium Merdeka – Malay for ‘Independence’ – was built to stage the ceremony that marked the end of British colonial rule.On August 31, 1957, tens of thousands packed the stands to hear the new prime minister shout “Merdeka Merdeka Merdeka!” and lead celebrations across the brand-new nation.

“I think it is a deserving end for the stadium to receive Unesco’s heritage conservation award,” said Ahmad Sarji Abdul Hamid, chief of Malaysia’s Heritage Trust.

“After all, it was here in this very stadium that Malaysia’s first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman declared our country’s independence in 1957,” he told AFP

Built at a then-staggering cost of 2.3 million ringgit ($636,000), the stadium was state-of-the-art for its time, with an eight-lane 400m track, a central playing field, and other top-notch sporting facilities.

It became the leading stage for national life, hosting the 1977 Southeast Asian Games, and serving as the location where boxing legend Mohammad Ali whipped Joe Bugner in 1975.

In the late 1980s and early 90s, international music acts like Michael Jackson, Avril Lavigne, Kool and the Gang and Mariah Carey took centre stage to entertain Malaysians.

But when the Bukit Jalil sports complex was built on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur for the 1998 Commonwealth Games, many felt Stadium Merdeka had outlived its purpose.

It was nearly demolished in the late 1990s after being sold to a private company that was planning to build a one billion ringgit ($276 million) entertainment and office complex on the site.

But the firm ran into financial difficulties and the stadium was acquired by state investment vehicle PNB, which worked with the Heritage Trust to restore it to its former glory in time for the 50th anniversary of independence last year.

“We demolished all the untidy, modern additions to the facility and restored it so that it now looks just like it did when Malaysia gained its independence in 1957,” Ahmad Sarji said. “I felt I had a duty to try and preserve this landmark.”

The extensive restoration involved the demolition of several upper terraces that had been added over the years, including the VIP grandstands, and reducing the capacity from 45,000 to its original 20,000 seats.

Workers took close to a year to restore the stadium, replacing the electronic scoreboard with a manual one, changing floodlights to an earlier model and making the pitch playable once again.

The stadium was one of two winners this year of Unesco’s annual Asia-Pacific heritage conservation awards, along with Herat Old City in Afghanistan, which underwent a restoration of its historic bazaar, mosque and gateway.

Unesco said that Stadium Merdeka was recognised for preserving a national heritage building and recovering “a nation’s collective memory.

“The project has ... demonstrated a thorough understanding and respect for the significance of the stadium at a specific moment in history and recognition of the heritage value of modern architecture,” it said in its award.

Ahmad Sarji said the restored stadium, which was listed as a national heritage building in 2003, would now be maintained as a national monument.

“This landmark is part of the soul of Malaysia and after all the hard work we have been able to conserve this for the future generations of Malaysians.”—AFP

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