Padang Pahlawan: A historical beauty desecrated in the name of “development”

By Nor Zalina Harun

 

MY interest in spatial studies began in 2008, at the time of the global financial crisis. The story begins with a brief business trip to Bandar Melaka.

What a surprise and astonishment it was to discover that an old field in the heart of the city was encircled by a 12- to 15-foot-high zinc fence. I began by enquiring the locals. What is going on?

With a shake of their heads, they expressed their dissatisfaction with the situation. In fact, some people are maintained a deafening silence. Some sighed deeply and held their breath for a long time.

I was told that a commercial structure will be constructed on the site. My heart started pounding fast. My mind quickly wandered back to elementary school memories.

At that time, my uncle took me to A Famosa, a historic Portuguese fort. Padang Pahlawan was a must-see for me every time I visited Melaka. Padang Pahlawan was the exact destination I chose every time I went on a school excursion, not just during the family trip. I will be the first to sign up for the trip by filling out the form. It is as though you are at a theme park.

Photo credit: National Archive

Go down Jonker Street after climbing St Paul’s Hill. We usually start lining up for a rickshaw trip in the early evening. If you have any spare cash, riding a bullock cart around Padang Pahlawan is another must-do activity while there.

What is Padang Pahlawan anyway? Never heard of it before? It is a historic field that dates back to the early 1920s. It has a wide range of applications. Sports fields, parade ground, recreation area and a picnic area.

Above all, it was the first spot where Malaya’s Independence was declared in 1956 by our First Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman. The solemn briefing drew thousands of people from all over the country. As a result, it has been known as Padang Pahlawan since then.

Since the country’s Independence, this field has served as a venue for the state’s Merdeka Day celebrations as well as other cultural performances. Padang Pahlawan also served as a theatrical venue, depicting Melaka’s fight against the colonialists. It was also the site of a number of other important rituals.

If no formal ceremony is held, Padang Pahlawan becomes a gathering place for retirees. It also serves as a source of income for a group of young people who work as artisans. In addition, hawkers from across Melaka also used the place for their business. Back then, the field served as a one-stop shop for small traders and a variety of creative artisans.

That was my recollection of the beloved Padang Pahlawan. However, in 2008, I learned that the field would be turned into a commercial complex with a warehouse sales supermarket and fast-food restaurants.

Photo credit: Johannes Widodo

 

Names, locations symbolise identity and roots

I was heartbroken! Is this how we value an independent social space where people pursue happiness? Local young people make up some sections of the field. What will happen to the artists who find their inspiration at the historic field? Where will the hawkers sell all their locally made goods?

In 2008, I was lured into the subject of spatial and urban community research by a short journey that was supposed to be a business excursion.

My heart was racing as I wonder if I am the only one who was astounded by the news of Padang Pahlawan’s development, or should I call it devastation?

As a result, in the same year, I began planning a study to probe into the hearts and minds of the people. Do they agree for this historic field to be buried? Are they pleased that the field has been converted into a wholesale supermarket?

More than 200 people took part in the survey. In an in-depth interview session, 40 respondents backed my suspicion. My estimates were spot on! When asked about their sense of pride and affection for the field, there was no cheerful tone, only honest tears.

In fact, some people have compared losing the field to eating doughnuts without sugar. Some have compared the field to a tray with a number of different dishes on it. It is a sign of Melaka’s identity and proof that the people live in peace.

Everything is now a distant memory. In 2017, I returned to undertake a study on the impact of urban design on small hawkers’ social and economic well-being. The study’s findings were unsurprising; the majority of the youth appeared to be unaware that on the location of the shop, there once stood an iconic space called Padang Pahlawan.

A place that had observed Melaka’s people living in love and harmony. A spot that saw the rise and fall of an independent nation was located under their feet.

That information has been erased from the system. It was removed by a hand that does not want to see the world come together. The only thing left there now is a business zone with no history!

Photo credit: Melaka Kini

 

Padang Pahlawan’s beauty has passed into history. This story is inextricably linked to the topic of the lecture I attended last week. It was a talk about the significance of a place’s name. The topic of topophilia was brought up in the talk.

Despite not hailing from a history department, it turns out that the panel, who have a background in social sciences, were quite interested in history.

In a similar spirit, he emphasised how the alteration of a historical area’s name has significant ramifications for community knowledge and understanding of its history. The disposal of history occurs when a place’s name is changed.

The loss of history wipes out a person’s knowledge of his or her past, sense of belonging and identity. The spirit of patriotism is weakened as a result of this process. It also tarnishes national identity and threatens to undo the peaceful coexistence that has existed for so long.

The hour-long forum provided me with a wealth of new information. It made me consider the gravity of the responsibilities of those in charge of changing or approving a place’s name. There may have been instances where individuals believed the name change was simply making it more difficult to locate the area. Perhaps it will perplex someone who is attempting to learn the ins and outs of gaining access to the location.

Such actions, however, represent a manifestation of cruelty. Take the case of Padang Pahlawan, for example. Have you ever considered how many small businesses are forced to close their doors? How many young children from the middle-class and low-income families are deprived of recreational and social opportunities?

As a result, regardless of how little or huge the place is, we must understand. It has its own history, whether it is beautiful or ugly. Obviously, it may have some distinct social characteristics.

It could take decades to create a peaceful country. It can, however, be easily broken in a single day. But one thing is certain: the anguish of those who have to deal with this loss is unlikely to be alleviated. Aren’t we meant to help young people regain their sense of self-identity, belonging and patriotism?

And we may never know how many sites like Padang Pahlawan have been destroyed in the name of development until today. – July 18, 2021.

 

Assoc Prof Nor Zalina Harun is a senior research fellow at the Institute of the Malay World and Civilization, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.

The views expressed are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Focus Malaysia.

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