Remembering Tun Ahmad Sarji bin Abdul Hamid

Tun Ahmad Sarji bin Abdul Hamid (b.16 September 1938 - d. 28 August 2021) It was with great sadness that we read the news on Saturday 28 August 2021 morning. Tun Ahmad Sarji bin Abdul Hamid had passed away. With his untimely demise, we have lost a great advocate for the nation’s history and heritage, not least because he absolutely understood our heritage cause and give it his every support. ICOMOS MALAYSIA joins the heritage community in Malaysia and at large in the world in expressing our profound sense of loss and sadness over his passing. Always behind the scenes, Tun Ahmad Sarji set the tempo of negotiating for the preservation of many historic buildings; he invested time, energy and enthusiasm to resist development pressure by negotiation; never by raising his voice or being brash, but standing his ground and working tirelessly and strategically to fend off yet another attempt at the demolition of these historic structures which he so loved.

He regretted the waste from the demolition of buildings such as the Eastern Hotel and the Bok House in Kuala Lumpur; but he delighted when celebrating the preservation of a Malay timber house, Rumah Penghulu Abu Seman which was relocated from its original site to the Heritage Centre at No.2 Jalan Stonor in KL, or the modest early Dutch-style shophouse at No.8 Heeren Street in Melaka. He beamed at knowing he was instrumental in saving Stadium Merdeka from the wrecking ball, restoring it back to its original 1957 form, a monument built for the declaration of the nation’s independence.

Under his stewardship as President of Badan Warisan Malaysia (1996-2013) he pushed for legislative reform to protect the rights and interests of heritage; his persistence resulted in the National Heritage Act 2005 (Act 645) becoming law. He never gave up pushing for tax incentives for works involving heritage and it was always on his agenda whenever he was invited to speak at a conference or give an interview, including long after he had stood down as President of Badan Warisan. But this was not to be in his lifetime, and it is up to the next generation of heritage advocates to take up the cudgel and push forward He believed that it was imperative heritage and history was a core subject in the national curriculum. He opined that to know our past, is to know our future. He was almost obsessive in his drive to get measured drawings done of as many heritage buildings as possible by schools of architecture; this was vindicated when the former Victoria Institution building was completely razed and could be reconstructed because Badan Warisan had commissioned a set of measured drawings of that very building a few years before the fire.

Tun Ahmad Sarji took every opportunity to raise awareness of Malaysia’s built heritage and to protect the rights and interests of heritage. He was saddened, angered even, whenever an old building, big or small, monumental or modest, was lost, damaged, neglected. So much so someone once described him as a “suit and tie gladiator for warisan”. So very apt.

Tun Ahmad Sarji. Honest, good, good-hearted, earnest, sincere, fair, a man of great ethics and great integrity, a man of his word. He was all these and more. RIP Tun Ahmad Sarji. Our heartfelt condolences to Toh Puan Sagiyah and family. ICOMOS Malaysia 28 August 2021