Historic Convent Bukit Nanas should be declared a national heritage site, not demolished

The news that Convent Bukit Nanas has not been granted an extension of its land lease by the Federal Territories Lands and Mines Department was met with horror and disgust by many of us. That was followed by the thought, “Lease? Shouldn’t it have been gazetted a long time ago, along with the Victoria Institute, as a heritage site?”

Convent Bukit Nanas, fondly known as CBN, was established in Kuala Lumpur in 1899. It was founded just five years after the Victoria Institution and is one of the oldest schools in the country.

CBN has humble beginnings, it did not start with government grants or grand funding. The land that CBN stands on was bought by the nuns (of the Lady Superior of the Society of Saint Maur, which operates the school) with contributions from the public.

When I took my children on a tour of my old school recently, they marvelled at its majestic appearance. The English Gothic-style architecture that gives CBN its regal look is not replicated in present day public schools and is something I am very proud to show off.

The land that the school sits on and the space it provides gives its students the opportunity to develop various non-academic skills. The Bukit Nanas Forest Reserve (now call the KL Forest Eco Park) located just a stone’s throw away teaches an appreciation for nature and is often frequented by students. The frequent visits by monkeys along with the wonderful view and cooler temperature due to the proximity of the forest is something we still talk about to this day.

CBN was one of the first schools to be distinguished as a Cluster School of Excellence by the Education Ministry. It was also one of four schools – the others were Victoria Institution, St Thomas in Sarawak and All Saints in Sabah – that were honoured in 2008 for their superiority in academics, sports and extracurricular activities by being featured on commemorative stamps – this speaks volumes of CBN students’ achievements. Academically, CBN has constantly been among the top performing schools in SPM in KL, emerging as the top in 2010.

Apart from academic achievements, CBN also has historic ties to the community. During WWII, the school acted as a temporary shelter for hundreds of civilians that the nuns looked after throughout the Japanese occupation of Malaya. This act, which saved hundreds of lives, surely makes CBN deserving of a permanent stature in the country’s history.

CBN has also been home to orphans, many abandoned babies, and special needs children, all of whom were well taught and raised to be self-sufficient adults. There are not many schools that can claim such a legacy.

Many of us still reminisce about the beautiful chapel in the primary school that was our go-to place to seek peace and solace. Despite not being a Christian, I visited the chapel frequently to enjoy the calm it offered. In no way did its presence on the school’s premises or my visits there threaten my beliefs or make me change my religion.

The grand pianos that accompanied us as we sang the national anthem during assembly were a sight to behold for the little ones and something that piqued my interest in music early on. I eventually completed my training in music at the Royal College of Music, UK. The pianos also inspired the formation of many choir groups that went on to win a number of interschool choir competitions, another of our many non-academic achievements.

CBN is one of the last few all-girls schools remaining and has produced many successful nationally and internationally recognised personalities ranging from royalty and ministers to lawyers, doctors, sports luminaries, TV presenters, politicians, actresses and more.

It’s the last all-girls school in the city that houses both primary and the secondary schools, which offers great convenience to parents as it allows children to complete their schooling in the same institution. The fact that CBN is located right next to our “brother school”, St John’s Institution, allows parents to easily send off both sons and daughters.

This is not “just another building” that can be torn down. It’s easy to demolish a building but it’s so difficult to establish and develop an institution that truly stands for something. CBN should be gazetted as a national heritage site and left to stand in all its glory. The school should have been gazetted a long time ago by the government given its place and prominence in history.

This is not the first time CBN has been in the news; previously there had been talk of relocating the secondary school. A survey conducted in 2016 showed 99% of the parents of CBN students were against the government’s decision. Now is the time to ensure such ideas are not entertained ever again by gazetting the school as national heritage, which will protect it from developers and “decisionmakers”, current and future.

Other historically and culturally important institutions have had their stature and existence assailed too. Victoria Institution faced a possible change in its name several years ago. The VI Old Boys’ Association fought the proposal successfully – VI’s name and its national heritage status is a source of pride for the Old Boys.

Similarly, in 2014 there was an attempt to sell the renowned Vivekananda ashram in Brickfields, KL, to developers with plans to replace it with a residential tower and a car park. This attempt was made despite the offer by the National Heritage Department then to gazette the building as a heritage site, which it clearly qualifies as. In the end this attempt was aborted due to public protests.

CBN is a treasure trove and should be declared a heritage site so that this land lease issue will never crop up in the future. We CBN-ers have a duty and responsibility to protect and preserve the institution that moulded us and that is a source of immense pride. I call upon the alumni and all CBN-ers to vehemently protest and fight this move by the Federal Territories Lands and Mines Department to demolish our “second home”, where we grew up, received our education, formed life-long bonds with friends and shared unforgettable memories.

I am a proud CBN-er. Wherever I go, when I speak of my educational origins, it’s always met with a look of respect. Such is CBN’s reputation that to hear of plans for a probable demolition to make way for development inspires great anger and sadness.

How do we define the word “heritage”? The legacy an institution or structure leaves behind is a good way to start and CBN embodies that. It is 122 years old. CBN is a monument to be preserved and left untouched. Even if it stands on so-called “prime land”, some sites ought not to be touched and CBN is definitely one such site. It’s about time we get this institution gazetted as a national heritage site.

“Simple in virtue. Steadfast in duty.” Always a CBN-er in spirit and soul.

See: Jayaraman, K. (2021b, April 20). Historic Convent Bukit Nanas should be declared a national heritage site, not demolished. The Star.