People are rallying to save a 122-year-old British-colonial school in the middle of Kuala Lumpur from city developers.
The online petition Save SMK Convent Bukit Nanas has gotten more than 12,000 signatures since it went up last night, calling for the need to preserve the rich history of the all-girls school’s building, which was erected in 1899 by three sisters from a Roman catholic institute, the Congregation of the Holy Infant Jesus.
“SMK Convent Bukit Nanas occupies an integral part of Malaysia’s history and not renewing the land lease endangers the uniqueness and the richness of that history,” the petition by Convent Bukit Nanas Alumni said, adding: “We need to preserve it for the future generation of young ladies who aspire to pass through its corridors.”
The lease for the Convent Bukit Nanas, or CBN, is due to expire on Sep. 6 and has not been renewed although the school had applied for an extension five years ago. This means that the government can take back the land and do whatever it wants with it.
Last December, the Land and Mines Department told CBN that the lease for its school would not be extended when it expires. The school has applied to challenge the government’s decision to take back the land. The case will be heard at the KL High Court on May 4.
Marina Yong, the president of the CBN’s alumni group of about 4,700 members, expressed her gratitude for the support CBN has received.
“It shows you how important it [Convent Bukit Nanas] is to a lot of people,” the 57-year-old told Coconuts today. She does not know why the Land and Mines Department has decided not to renew the lease, but called it “alarming and very disappointing.”
“Disappointing in the sense that it seemed like it was just so easy to dismiss the rich history of the school. If we do that, we have to ask, then, what is the value of history?” she said.
The Land and Mines Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment via phone and email.
There is more to the school than its old age and rich history. The school stands out for its Gothic-style architecture, complete with patterned tiles and great pillars. Notable names like veteran host Adibah Noor and former minister for international trade and industry Rafidah Aziz have also walked through its doors as students.
We take a closer look at this very old school in the middle of the city.
It’s not just one school on top of a hill
Convent Bukit Nanas consists of two primary schools and one secondary school, which sits on top of the 11,000 sq m Bukit Nanas hill, and can altogether accommodate about 2,000 pupils aged 7 to 17.
Along the same road, Jalan Bukit Nanas, there is the St. John Cathedral catholic church, and the boys’ school St. John’s Institution, which has been gazetted as a National Heritage site. A forest reserve is located right next to it.
Many notable women in Malaysia have walked along the spacious corridors and graduated from CBN, including local author Hanna Alkaf, who wrote the historical fiction The Weight of Our Sky based on the 1969 racial riots. There was also veteran singer-actress Adibah Noor, human rights advocate Ambiga Sreenevasan, and former minister of international trade and industry Rafidah Aziz.
Hanna also shared the petition to her Twitter followers, saying: “KL DOES NOT NEED ANOTHER HIGH RISE.”
Some have speculated that the land might be used for urban redevelopment.
Sanctuary from war
CBN once served as a World War II sanctuary during the 1941 Japanese occupation, becoming a safe space for about 400 civilians, including orphans, until the war ended in 1945.
Sports houses named after former headmistresses
For sport activities, the school divides the students into four houses named after former headmistresses who reigned from 1923 to 1966. They were Aidan (Red), Adele (Yellow), Xavier (Green), and Pauline (Blue).
Every year, members of each house will compete in a range of sports including short-distance running and high jump to collect points for the team and eventually win a trophy.
The furry CBN family
The school gets regular visits from friendly neighbours too, and no, we’re not referring to the boys of St. John, but monkeys. Friendly macaques from the KL Forest Eco Park forest reserve have greeted the girls of CBN, sharing meals with the students and teachers alike.
Sometimes, the students would climb up the hill as part of a supervised after-school activity, because why not? Eventually, the 20-minute climb up would lead to the popular tourist spot KL Tower.
See: Yeu-Gynn, Y. (2021, April 20). Ex-students of a century-old convent school are fighting to save their alma mater. Here’s why. Coconuts KL.