Tugu Negara is a war memorial of Malaysia. Located in Kuala Lumpur, the National Monument commemorates the fallen soldiers of the World Wars and the Malayan Emergency period that came after.
In the distant echo of my childhood memories, I remember having been here before. But I can’t remember whether I came with my family, or as part of a school trip. I do, however, remember the bronze sculpture, looming on the knoll.
Re-visiting it near Independence Day in 2020, I discovered that the area has since changed. Tugu Negara now has a plaza complex that encompasses both monuments, and there is a pond in the middle. Or perhaps there always had been, only I don’t remember. Outside in the wider Plaza Tugu Negara area, there were a few food stalls. At the time, they were closed, since Malaysia was still under a degree of pandemic lockdown.
How to get to Tugu Negara
Tugu Negara is located within the same larger complex as Taman Tugu forest. It is located in the zone of KL where you can find the eminent icons of Malaysia as a nation, from the National Museum south of the botanical gardens, the National Mosque near the old railway station, the Royal Malaysian Police headquarters, the Central Bank, the National Archives, the works department and health ministry offices, the arts & heritage academy, and of course – the visiting palace of the Sultan of Selangor, who ruled over Kuala Lumpur before it was ceded to the Federal Government.
You would think it would be easy to get to a place near so many interesting attractions. But the public transport options are identical with Perdana Botanical Gardens, with an extra 45 minutes’ walk after.
Instead, Tugu Negara is best reached by car. The parking space is next to the plaza entrance, but is fairly limited. There is a smaller parking area around the bend and on the opposite side of the road, near the entrance to the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (whose acronym now has a different popular connotation…). Although the visitor numbers to Tugu Negara aren’t very high, the parking spots can be easily taken up as spillover parking by visitors to the nearby Taman Tugu. However, weekday visits should be fine.
Pro Tip: In between Taman Tugu and Tugu Negara, there is a restaurant attached to some diplomatic offices. The restaurant spills down the hill slope towards Tugu Negara. Take the steps across the road from the Tugu Negara parking to get to it.
ASEAN Sculpture Garden
As you exit the parking area, you will notice a sculpture garden immediately adjacent. As a garden, it isn’t anything special. In fact, parts of it were a bit overgrown, though maybe that’s due to the lockdown period preceding my visit.
However, the garden houses abstract sculptures contributed by countries in the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the most important geoeconomic union of Southeast Asia. I don’t pretend to be able to critique the artistry of the sculptures themselves. But I liked looking through them, and reading the accompanying plaques. I think that the themes chosen by the respective countries tell you something about their worldviews. Collectively, you would get a sense of the common ASEAN values and priorities from these sculptures. They revolve around economic development, peace, neutrality, and consultation.
Plaza Tugu Negara
Plaza Tugu Negara consists of the two war memorials and a small food court area next to it. The ASEAN Sculpture Garden sprawls around the food court, for food & refreshments are never far from a Malaysian tourist attraction. The area is relatively open, such that you can get from any of the areas to any other quite easily.
The cenotaph of fallen soldiers
The name ‘Tugu Negara’ is normally associated with the bronze sculpture of a unit of soldiers defiantly bearing the Malaysian flag. However, the original memorial was a World War I cenotaph that was originally near the old KL railway station. The cenotaph has since been moved into this complex. It is the first memorial you’ll encounter, coming along the plaza from the parking area.
Built while Malaysia was still colonised by Britain, the war cenotaph is a memorial of soldiers conscripted from the British colonies, who died in Europe’s WW1 battlegrounds. This explains why it bears a striking resemblance to similar memorials in towns across the UK. The dates on the cenotaph have since been updated to also commemorate soldiers from the British colonies who died in World War II, as well as during the Emergency period* in Malaya that followed.
The Tugu Negara vestibule
At the end of the open air plaza, you will come across a vestibule area. The metal enclosure around it is set with the coat of arms for each state in Malaysia, as well as for the Federation itself. Within, a plaque commemorates the opening of the monument way back in 1966. On the cornice below the dome, there are emblems of Malaya’s military units.
From the vestibule, two paths extend towards Tugu Negara, forming a semi-elliptical shape around a feature pond. Look up to the ceiling as you walk to the monument. All along the paths, the ceilings are set with the emblems of allied military units who had fought, and fallen, on Malaysian soil.
The monument popularly associated with the name ‘Tugu Negara’, is the bronze statue depicting seven figures apparently in the midst of battle, raising the Malaysian flag. The statue was designed by Felix de Weldon, an Austrian-American sculptor who had constructed the Iwo Jima memorial in Virginia, USA. Indeed, the two monuments have a similar style. The first Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman, was inspired to commission the National Monument after seeing this memorial in Virginia in 1960, and requested it of the sculptor. De Weldon was even granted the noble title of Tan Sri.
The National Monument commemorates the loss of lives during the Malayan Emergency* around the time of Malaysia’s independence, as well as the struggle to liberate the country from Japanese occupation. Each of the figures symbolise the warrior values of leadership, suffering, unity, vigilance, strength, courage and sacrifice. Upon its base is a dedication, to the warriors who fight to uphold peace and freedom.
Victory in two languages
The dedication at the base of Tugu Negara is bilingual. The Malay version is written in the native Jawi script, which was the default in Malaysia before colonisation.
Translations are rarely exact, since some meanings can’t make it across language worldviews. But in this case, the two versions are more or less faithful. The only shift in nuance is the focus on ‘heroic’ in English, whereas the Malay version merely mentions the warriors as fighting or struggling. I can’t really fault the translation though, since struggling in itself is worthy in our worldview, whether ‘heroic’ or not. And the Malay version demands more from the heroes. It requires that the struggle not merely be ‘in the cause of’, but to actually uphold peace and freedom.
The sentiment on the cenotaph dedication has a similar difference. The Malay version is about the memory of the service of the fallen. The primary emotion is gratitude and grief, not glory.
But I also noticed a different bilingual plaque. The versions were also generally faithful, but there was a single interesting deviation. In the English version, the figures of Tugu Negara represent the ‘triumph of the forces of democracy’ over the ‘forces of evil’. But the Malay version is nowhere so ideological. Instead, it merely says that the bronze figures represent the victory of our troops against our enemies.
And I can’t fault this translation either. Literally translating the ‘triumph of forces of democracy over forces of evil’ would sound utterly ridiculous and cringe, to the pragmatic and semi-feudal Malay worldview. No. For us, the victory of value is the one that defends our sovereignty, whatever ideology we may choose to hold over time, against those who seek to undermine that sovereignty – whatever ideology they may choose to hold at the time.
The ‘foreign’ national monument
Noticing the difference in translation got me to thinking. The English version could have just translated the Malay version, but didn’t. It could have said, ‘the victory of our soldiers against enemy forces’, and it would equally sound perfectly normal in the English worldview.
The geopolitical upheavals of today put it in my head to look up what were the geopolitics of the region in the 60s, when the Prime Minister went to the USA, and then commissioned the monument. There’s no other monument like it in Malaysia. The Malay mainstream are strictly Muslim, and consider such sculptures too close to idolatry. Indeed, Warrior’s Day wreaths are no longer laid at Tugu Negara for this reason.
Both monuments are actually kind of foreign, if you think about it.
You could say that Tunku Abdul Rahman was westernised, and he was. But it was a time of instability in Southeast Asia. The region was trapped in the Cold War struggle between Western capitalists, and Soviet-led communist movements. It’s why the Non-Aligned Movement began with the Bandung Conference in Indonesia. And why ASEAN is so staunchly neutral.
But in the 60s, the USA was still in Vietnam, along with the horror that it entails. Independence of neighbouring territories such as Borneo was in dispute. And Indonesia feared having a suspected British neocolonial state as a neighbour, which eventually led to the Konfrontasi invasion.
Yes, Tunku was westernised. But, even if he weren’t, what else could he do? Given these risks, I couldn’t help thinking, it was safer for us then, if we just had a monument for the “triumph of democracy”.
* The Malayan Emergency period is a period in Malaysian history that is still being studied by Malaysians ourselves, especially now that a couple of generations have grown up outside of any colonial institutions, and educated from the rural heartlands. A brief, accepted historical summary refers to the geopolitical re-organisation in Asia following the weakening of its European colonisers due to the losses in the World Wars. Independence movements quickly mobilised to restore nations’ freedom from colonisation. In Malaya, they were spurred by witnessing the supposedly ‘invincible’ British quickly lose the peninsula, and Singapore, to Japan.
Both monarchist and communist-influenced Malayans were working towards independence. Both resisted the notion of simply returning under British rule, after being abandoned to the mercies of Japanese occupying forces. However, the communist faction chose violent resistance; and while such tactics led to the liberation of neighbouring Indonesia from the Dutch (and other Europeans delegated to rule on their behalf), the Malayan population recoiled from it. Coupled with ethnic divisions and the perceived atheism of the communists, the generally religious Malayan mainstream stood by as the British cracked down on the communists.
Malaya later gained independence through negotiations by the monarchists, and became a democratic constitutional monarchy. However, the situation was not entirely stable then, for the communist faction was dismayed that independence preserved an aristocratic system, and did not mean the liberation of workers. Nevertheless, the mainstream at the time favoured the traditional institutions. In the decade or so after independence, the Malaysian Armed Forces continued to press the communist insurgents into the jungles, right up to the border with Thailand.
Destruction by terrorists
The struggle to assert the newly-formed government of Malaysia continued as late as the 70s. In 1975, the National Monument was bombed, an event widely attributed to communist guerrillas, and had to be rebuilt.
The wider geopolitical context in the region at the time was dominated by the Vietnam War, which was nearing its end. Fought between the independence forces of Vietnam against the USA, it led to millions of Vietnamese fleeing to neighbouring countries as refugees. The young country of Malaysia, itself poor and underdeveloped, set aside Bidong Island to receive the refugees. As the war intensified, the island was quickly settled beyond capacity. It wasn’t until 1991 that the camp was closed.
At the time, and not without the discontent of opposition politicians, Malaysia was aiding South Vietnam despite the Viet Minh’s anti-colonial motivations. No doubt the Prime Minister’s position was influenced by Malaysia’s own troubles with its domestic communist insurgency. One wonders whether the bombing of Tugu Negara had something to do with this aid.
Thinking of a visit, or re-visit, to Tugu Negara? Pin this article for later.