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The Decline of the Traditional Malay Kampong House

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By Mariam Mokhtar

This photo of the “transformed” kampong house (traditional Malay dwelling) reminded me of the entrance to Room 101. Room 101 is a place in George Orwell’s novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Room 101 is a torture chamber in the Ministry of Love in which the Party attempts to subject a prisoner to his or her own worst nightmare, fear or phobia.

I don’t think anyone who has seen the before and after pictures of the kampong house (above) is prepared for the shock. The first photo shows a pretty little Malay kampong house in an idyllic, albeit litter-strewn setting.

Like most traditional Malay homes, the timber house raised on stilts, is at one with the environment. The long driveway, the fruit trees in the garden, the ornate woodwork and shutters help give the Malay house an identity of its own. In the olden days, the roof would have been made of attap, which was soon replaced, by corrugated iron or zinc sheets.

The person who took the photos is angered by what has happened to the house. She claims that it is one of her favourite kampong houses just outside of Terong, Perak, on the way to Lumut. She has taken photos of the house over the years and “was totally shattered to find it had been turned into a swiftlet house with speakers blasting like crazy”.

Several Issues are at Stake

First. The Malays are losing their heritage if they permit vandalism of their traditional homes. What is being done to address this?

Second. Swiftlet farms are profitable commercial enterprises. Why are these businesses allowed to flourish in residential areas?

Third. Penang has seen an explosion of swiftlet farms. Is Perak going to suffer the same fate? Are these businesses regulated by the authorities?

Fourth. Anyone who owns a home beside these swiftlet farms suffer intolerable noise (from the tape recordings of birds), odour and other health concerns from the bird droppings. Is the Department of the Environment monitoring noise, amongst other things?

Fifth. What has the government done to preserve traditional Malay homes or is it only interested in promoting bricks and mortar, in the name of progress and development? Successive governments have ignored the socio-economic, cultural and environmental patterns of house owners. They have also ignored the psychological effects of overcrowding in cramped ‘modern’ town residences.

Sixth.  Those living close to these swiftlet farms find that swiftlets encroach upon their homes.

The traditional Malay house was evolved by the Malays over generations and they adapted it to their needs, culture and environment. The house also reflects and expresses their way of life.

If kampong houses are now being converted to swiftlet hotels, then this is a serious threat against the continued existence of the traditional Malay house.

Many Malays have now abandoned their traditional dwellings and relocated to the cities in search of work. Have unscrupulous swiftlet farm operators moved into these abandoned dwellings without the permission of the original home owner?

In many cases, the inheritance laws of the Malays/Muslims mean that no one person inherits the house. Homes that are not lived in easily fall into disrepair. Homes with several owners, suffer as no one person feels obliged to maintain the home.

Perhaps, this is where the swiftlet farm operator takes advantage of the situation and pays a small fee for use of the premises. It is cheaper to modify a traditional home to house swiftlets, than to build a swiftlet hotel from scratch. The operator pays a small rental to the various home owners for the use of the home, but he gets to keep the massive profits enjoyed by selling the birds’ nests.

Elsewhere, swiftlet operators are upsetting many people. Residents in the centre of Georgetown in Penang, complain that commercial premises are being converted to swiftlet farms. In Kuala Lumpur, the residents in an up-market area of Damansara, are angry about the noise of the birds as well as the tape recordings of the birds, from nearby swiflets farms.

Here in Perak, many of our buildings of great heritage and architectural value have been destroyed.

Now that swiftlet farming seems to be a craze and a money-spinner, the traditional Malay house is now at risk and is undergoing a retrogressive use. This vulgarisation may cause the traditional Malay house to become extinct in the near future.