Monday, December 21, 2015

Fate of Kuala Lumpur’s historic ashram hangs in the balance

Monday, 21 December 2015


The Star

Swami Vivekananda’s bronze statue stands in front of the Vivekananda Ashram in Jalan Tun Sambanthan, Kuala Lumpur. The ashram was built to honour Vivekananda, who visited Malaya in 1893. — filepic

AS WE sum up the year, StarMetro takes a look at some of the issues that dominated headlines throughout 2015.

This year, we saw the Government overturn unpopular decisions such as the multi-million ringgit Menara DBKL 2 redevelopment project.

Also much talked about was the gazetting of century-old Vivekananda ashram in Brickfields as a heritage site and the redevelopment of the Jalan Alor hawker street.

Heritage conservation is a subject that does not get much play in local newspapers unless there is a threat to old monuments in the city.
And Kuala Lumpur has lost many great buildings of its past.
A recent example is the famous Rumah Sultan Puasa, popularly known as Rumah Degil, in Chow Kit, which was built in 1926 by a descendant of Sultan Puasa, one of the founders of Kuala Lumpur.

The small wooden house was recently sold, dismantled and stored away for future use.

Bok House, a charming mansion that was demolished almost 10 years ago, is another example and the public outcry was a little too late.

In the past two decades, city folk have witnessed the destruction of many such sites in the name of development and commercialisation.

Now the fate of one of the city’s other treasures, the iconic Vivekananda Ashram, which is the last remaining heritage building in Brickfields, hangs in the balance as the gazetting of the site has stalled.

The management of the 110-year-old Vivekananda Ashrama building and the surrounding land has applied to initiate a judicial review to compel the National Heritage Department commissioner to gazette only the building as a heritage site.

The management wants to be able to develop the surrounding land and be allowed to use the property as it deemed fit.

Alternatively, the company is seeking more than RM60mil in damages on grounds that it had been denied its fundamental right to use the property for the purposes of development as initially planned.

It is also seeking an order to set aside notices from the department and commissioner for an interim protection order, dated Jan 5 and April 23, denying the company use of the property.

Unlike Bok House and Rumah Sultan Puasa, which were private buildings, the ashram is also a public trust.

Lawyer Sitpah Selvaratnam explained, “Based on the company’s articles, the trustees hold everything, including the ashram land, on trust for the community it is intended to serve.”

Sitpah said the trustees’ move to sell or develop the land would be contrary to the purpose and terms of incorporation.

“The Vivekananda Ashrama was a company limited by guarantee that had been exempted from using the word ‘limited’ in recognition of its charitable purpose and objectives.

“The ashram is meant to serve the community, which is why it got the exemption in the first place,” Sitpah said.

“As a company limited by guarantee, its capital is not paid by members and there are no shares. Instead, it relies on donations, subscription fees and charges,” she said.

She said the company’s articles clearly stated that the trustees were not allowed to return any form of income or profit from their activities back to members.

The ashram land was granted in 1895 for public and charitable purposes, with the condition that a building worth $500 (in 1895) was built on the land within a specified time frame.

“It was not intended for the land to derive commercial benefit and unlocking its commercial value is not the prerogative of the trustees,” said Sitpah.

According to Sitpah, the company’s functions were of a public nature, which is why the community had a say in the proposed sale and development of the land.

City dwellers, especially nearby residents, had a strong connection to the building and were determined to save it at all costs, including taking to the streets by the hundreds in a peaceful protest last year.

For now, only time will tell the fate of the building built in memory of the late Swami Vivekananda more than a century ago.

But the message KL-ites want to convey is clear — the conservation of an iconic building that has inspired people from all walks of life for more than 100 years and continues to do so.

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