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Uproar over looming demolition of historic jail
Thu, May 29, 2008
AFP

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - PLANS to demolish Malaysia's historic Pudu jail, where allied prisoners were imprisoned and executed during the brutal Japanese occupation, have Second World War veterans up in arms.

The site of prisoner-of-war tortures, interrogations and modern-day infamous hangings is set to be torn down later this year, to be replaced by a commercial centre and condominium complex on the prime downtown location.

'Pudu jail should be preserved,' said Mr Charles Edwards, 89, who was a private in the Australian 8th Division, part of Commonwealth forces that defended Malaya, as it was then known, at the outset of the 1939-1945 war.

'So many Australians and allied soldiers died in places like Pudu, defending democracy and the lives of the people of Malaya,' Mr Edwards said from his home outside Melbourne.

'They made the ultimate sacrifice and Pudu is a reminder of that sacrifice which led to the freedom we enjoy now,' he said.

Japanese forces swept down the peninsula within days of the Dec 8, 1941 landings on the beaches of Singora and Pattani in southern Thailand and in Kota Bharu in Malaysia's northern Kelantan state.

By Jan 11, they had taken Kuala Lumpur which had been abandoned by the retreating British and pushed further south, capturing Singapore on Feb 15, 1942 and bringing the Malayan Campaign to an end in just 70 days.

With just 30,000 soldiers, the Japanese captured 150,000 British and Commonwealth troops in what wartime British prime minister Winston Churchill called 'the worst disaster and greatest capitulation of British history.'

'I was one of the first 30 Australians taken prisoner by the Japanese in World War II,' said Mr Edwards, who was captured in Johor state which lies next to Singapore.

Along with 1,000 other men, Mr Edwards spent nine months in Pudu, which had been built to house just 600 prisoners.

The cells were horrific, he said, each with a window the size of a shoebox.

'The conditions were shocking with wounded men, the cookhouse and the hastily dug benjos (latrine pits) all within metres of each other,' he said.

'Men were milling around with no leadership, filthy dirty, lice-filled and surviving on a half a cup of water per day.

'More men were brought in as the days went by until there were about 600 men in this small area of about 20 by 20 metres.'

At great danger to himself, Mr Edwards helped six men escape but they were caught and brought back to the jail where they were executed.

Mr Edwards was one of many POWs who were sent on to Changi jail in Singapore and then to Thailand to build the the infamous Siam-Burma death railway, from which most never returned.

After the end of the war, Pudu continued to be used as a prison.

In July 1986, Briton Kevin Barlow and Australian Brian Chambers were hanged there, the first Westerners to lose their lives under Malaysia's tough anti-narcotics laws.

The two were convicted of drug trafficking in an internationally publicised trial, and an appeal for clemency by the Australian prime minister was turned down.

A decade later, Pudu was closed to make way for a prison museum but poor visitor numbers spelt a quick end to the venture and since 2005 it has been used as a holding centre for prisoners undergoing trial.

The Urban Development Authority is now preparing to tear down the jail. Its chairman Baharum Mohamad says the site was handed over in exchange for the construction of a new prison on the outskirts of the capital.

But the decision to demolish Pudu has upset many.

'It is a historic building and there should be some trace of it,' said Mr Ahmad Sarji, chairman of the Malaysian Heritage Board.

'Even if you could keep the facade, about 6m to the left and right of the main gate which shows the date of its founding, that would be good,' he said.

Historians say Pudu's fate reflects a lack of interest in heritage in Malaysia, where significant buildings continue to be torn down, including the charming century-old Bok House in downtown Kuala Lumpur.

An early example of the fusion between European and local architecture, it was nevertheless demolished in 2007 after only a brief outcry.

Intact and undamaged

Military historian Brian Farrell, who has written extensively on the Malayan Campaign, said the authorities should consider preserving part of the building, one of the few intact 19th century prisons in the region.

'The real significance of Pudu is that it is right in the heart of the city and yet it has survived intact and undamaged,' he said. 'If nothing else, at least preserve some of the walls, the gate and have a small museum.'

In contrast, plans to tear down the infamous Changi Prison in neighbouring Singapore were met with stiff opposition in 2001.

'When news leaked that Changi was to be demolished, there was a chorus of protests not only from locals but also from many overseas,' says Mr Jeyathurai Ayadurai, Director of the Changi Prison Museum.

'Five Australian ministers wrote to the Singapore government asking for a reversion of the decision,' he said.

'It was partly due to this protest and outcry that a section of the Changi Prison wall and its iconic gates were preserved.'

Pudu is unlikely to benefit from such a campaign as each year sees the number of veterans decline.

'Unfortunately, I do not think there are enough voices left here in Australia or in the UK to launch a protest in the same way Changi supporters managed,' said Australian historian Lynette Silver. -- AFP

 

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