Thursday, September 23, 2010

Heritage Sabah takes State Agency to task


KOTA KINABALU (23rd Sept 2010): Recently formed group Heritage Sabah wants a State agency to clarify its statement that commercial development next to the Atkinson Clock Tower will not have a negative impact on the 105-year-old structure.

The group led by architect/writer Richard Nelson Sokial said there was simply no logical argument to justify building a 16-storey shopping mall next to the city’s oldest historical landscape, with the excuse that it would enhance the aesthetic value of the clock tower.

He said this today in reaction to a statement by Sabah Housing and Town Development Authority (SHTDA) chairman Datuk Rubin Balang that the proposed project would instead “give a much needed facelist with proper infrastructure that would make the clock tower a real tourism attraction.”

Sokial said an upgrade of the area close to the clock tower should be translated into better paving, lighting and repairing broken staircases and signages to help promote the structure.

“In what way does a 16-storey commercial mall-cum-hotel built metres from the clock tower beautify the place?

“Based on approved building plans, the tower will only get the full view of the mall’s parking lot, which is actually the rear of the building,” he said in a statement.

He said based on his understanding of the development plan, it looks as though it will involve the cutting of a nearby hill.

“They will have to cut trees at the slope in order to build their mall. Is this their idea of upgrading? It does not enhance the tower. It just destroys its cultural significance,” he said.

On Tuesday, it was reported that the State Environment Protection Department (EPD) had rejected the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the proposed project, but that the developer could appeal.

The project which came into the limelight recently, is a joint venture between the SHTDA and a private developer.

Sokial pointed out that the proposed project at the city’s oldest heritage landmark would jeopardize any hope of further promoting the structure for tourism.

“This is not an ordinary project. It involves the well being of the city’s most enduring heritage landmark.

He added that one does not have to be a town planner or architect to see that the project does not enhance the lives of people living in the city.

He said based on feedback received from the public, there are too many malls in the city, some of which are still empty.

“Heritage Sabah represents the public who would rather see the clock tower and its surrounding area turned into a public recreation park for everyone to gather.

“We hope that the SHTDA will reconsider their plans and do the right thing for our city,” he said.


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Scrap Development Next to Historical Landmark, Group Tells Government

Press Release by Heritage Sabah

KOTA KINABALU (21st Sept 2010): A newly formed heritage group here has welcomed the Government’s decision to turn down the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report submitted by the developer of a 16-storey shopping mall in the vicinity of the Atkinson Clock Tower.

Heritage Sabah now wants the Sabah Government to take a further step by acquiring land surrounding the city’s oldest surviving colonial structure and turn it into a public park.

Architect/writer Richard Nelson Sokial who initiated the formation of the group when talk surfaced about the proposed construction of yet another mall in the city, thanked the State Environment Protection Department for rejecting the developer’s EIA.

“We read the statement made by Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Masidi Manjun on the rejection of the EIA. We want to see an end to this project and the State Government must intervene to save the hillside of the 105-year-old Atkinson Clock Tower.

“The proposed mall would ruin the natural surroundings and intrinsic heritage value of the historic Atkinson Clock Tower,” Sokial said in a statement issued today.

It was reported today that the State Government has ordered the central town planning board to re-study plans to build a commercial complex next to the tower, following growing public anxiety over the proposed development that would include a hotel and shops. Masidi was also quoted as saying that the Environment Protection Department had rejected the developer’s EIA.

Sokial said the group was glad Masidi had stated that proposed projects should not affect heritage sites and other areas of environmental importance.

Sokial said the clock tower is a crucial link between Padang Merdeka (another historical area that has existed since 1900s), the heritage row of shops along Jalan Dewan towards the Kota Kinabalu Community Centre and links up to the city Observation Tower through a scenic pathway of huge jungle trees.

Joggers and cyclists also use the clock tower as a rendezvous point for their weekly recreational activities.

“Alternative economic opportunities can be proposed if the clock tower site is re-acquired. Stalls selling t-shirts, souvenirs and other paraphernalia are viable options. Local artists and photographers can ply their trade talents at base of the clock tower.

“Small food stalls and cafes with roof heights that do not break through the green canopy of the existing trees can be considered. Traditional crafts and services of Old Jesselton can also be centered here.

“The heritage branding and promotion of the century-old clock tower is the key towards this achieving this solution. But it will not materialize if we have a 16-storey shopping mall dwarfing the historical structure right at its own doorstep.”

“All the area needs is an upgrade of non-intrusive, low density infrastructure, better landscaping, good lighting and continued maintenance. Not another shopping mall,” Sokial said.

The wooden clock tower, named after Francis George Atkinson, the first district officer of Jesselton (the colonial name for Kota Kinabalu), sits on the foothills of the city’s famous Signal Hill.

Heritage Sabah has set up a Facebook page that now has over 2,032 members since news of the controversial plan became public knowledge.

In addition, there is an online petition at that has already garnered 599 signatures since it was launched on September 16, 2010.


Thursday, September 16, 2010

The history of the Atkinson Clock Tower

The Atkinson Clock Tower is the oldest standing structure in Kota Kinabalu. It was originally known as the Atkinson Memorial Clock Tower and sits in solitary on the bluff along Signal Hill Road overlooking this seaside city and capital of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. 

The clock tower was built in the memory of the late Francis George Atkinson, Jesselton’s first district officer who died of Malaria or ‘Borneo fever’ at the age of 28 on December 1902. His mother Mrs Mary Edith Atkinson had presented a two-faced clock to Jesselton town as a tribute to the memory of her son and it was decided later that a clock tower would be built in his honor. The structure was commissioned on 20th April 1905.

A road was also named after him – Atkinson Drive, now renamed as Jalan Istana that links Tuaran Road over the ridge and downtown Kota Kinabalu.

The clock tower was originally built using Mirabau wood. Its construction was financed by the late Atkinson’s friends and most probably built with additional funds channeled from shiprights of visiting naval vessels (the internal carpentry of the clock tower has all the hallmarks of a ship’s carpenter). While still under construction the clock started working on April 19, 1905 and its chimes could be heard all over the town. The structure was finally completed in 1905.

Measuring 50 feet (15.24 metres) high x 6’3” x 6’3” at its base, clock tower stood from its lookout point on the hill facing towards the township of Jesselton. A weather vane with initials of the wind direction added a few more inches to the height of this elegant monument. Ships calling port at the wharf used the Atkinson Clock Tower as their navigation landmark, as it could be seen from the sea. The clock tower was illuminated at night and was used as a shipping landmark right up to the 1950s.

It is hard to imagine how this relatively small but historical clock tower, standing on its own on this hill could ever be any ship’s point of reference; after 105 years, the narrow strip of land in front of the tower has been extensively reclaimed, with tall commercial buildings blocking the views of the clock tower to the sea. But one has only to look at early photos of Jesselton township from its formation in 1900s to present day to see how vital the clock tower was as a reference point – and still is – as a marker for the growth of this quaint former British Colony township known as 'Jesselton' into 'Kota Kinabalu' - the bustling modern Malaysian city that it is now.

Over the years the clock tower underwent many transformations. Subsequent repairs and renovations have altered its appearance. Machine-gun fire during the war had damaged the dial and cog of the clock tower’s mechanisms. It was repaired by Yick Ming Watch Dealers of Kota Kinabalu who have continued to be the maintenance contractors till today, a practice passed down from father to son. Therefore, the story of this historical clock tower is intricately tied to the lives of generations of Sabahans who have lived in its vicinity over the past one hundred years.

The clock tower was extensively renovated and altered for Jesselton’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 1959. Defective structural members caused by the tropical weather were substituted with other hardwoods, while the roof timbers were stripped and replaced. Its new facelift was completed in November 7, 1959. However, the brass plaque that was placed at the foot of the clock disappeared after the Jubilee renovations.

In 1961, the Atkinson Clock Tower's clock face was altered yet again. The dials of the Clock were changed and the face replaced with translucent Perspex, with black figures on white background for internal lighting. But the building itself has remained intact in its exact location for more than a century.

Radio Sabah’s broadcasting department used to be located near the clock tower in the 1950s and some old timers still remember the chimes over the radio before the BBC world news broadcast.

Sadly, for its centennial anniversary in 2005, there was virtually no celebration to mark the centennial anniversary of this important historical KK landmark. Despite this, the Atkinson Clock Tower continues to watch over the citizens of Kota Kinabalu, a silent but reassuring constant reminder of our proud history.

In conjunction with Malaysia Day - it is time for us, the citizens of Kota Kinabalu and people of Sabah, to appreciate and watch over our beloved clock tower – our only remaining link to a glorious history and a important lesson for our future generations. The clock tower has seen the formation of our city, the determination and resilience of our people in surviving two harrowing world wars, our people’s struggle for its own governance, and finally, the clock tower watched as our independent state of Sabah - together with Sarawak and Singapore - joined Malaya to form the country we now know as MALAYSIA on 16th September, 1963.

Are we going to allow our precious historical landmark to be smothered by the ambitions of a developer's 16-storey commercial shopping mall?


NOTE: Francis George Atkinson was appointed Acting District Officer of Jesselton including Papar on 24th January 1901 and District Officer of Jesselton (South Keppel district) on 23rd May 1901. He died on 16th December 1902 at age 28 and was buried in the Labuan Cemetery. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Heritage in danger: The Atkinson Clock Tower (historical site)


It has been confirmed; Kota Kinabalu City Hall - Dewan Bandaraya Kota Kinabalu (DBKK) has APPROVED a joint-venture proposal from a commercial developer and its government department counterpart to build a multi-storey commercial complex right next to Kota Kinabalu city’s most enduring structure – the 105-year old Atkinson Clock Tower!

The Atkinson Clock Tower was built in 1905 in memory of Francis George Atkinson, Jesselton township's first District Officer, who died from Borneo Fever in 1902.

Standing alone amongst the lush greenery on a bluff on Signal Hill, the clock tower remains as the only visible architectural marker of Kota Kinabalu's urban growth, after a century of land reclamation for commercial purposes.

This is what the developer, Benteng Pulangan Sdn. Bhd. plans to build directly adjacent to the Atkinson Clock Tower site:

…another giant commercial complex of concrete, glass and steel – in a city already filled with white elephant commercial projects.

The proposed 16-STOREY SHOPPING MALL-CUM-HOTEL COMPLEX threatens the long history and cultural significance of the Atkinson Clock Tower as our city landmark; images of the proposal sourced from the developer’s clearly show that the project will visually overpower the pristine hillside – and physically overwhelm the clock tower with its massive development.

UPDATE: This website has been taken down by the developer, after receiving strong criticism about the project from irate citizens of Kota Kinabalu.

The initial proposal by the developer
...was to relocate/remove the historical clock tower!
The proposal was rejected by DBKK.

Clearly, these developers aren't people who value our city's history at all!

Who will benefit from this commercial project?
Certainly not the people of Sabah.

This photo was taken from The Sabah Architectural Heritage Blog ( – showing soil testing works being conducted to determine suitability for piling. Note that the proposed commercial development extends right up to the fence of the clock tower perimeter and will engulf the clock tower, further obscuring the tower from public view.

The developer is exploiting a legal loophole in the State Antiquities and Treasure Trove Enactment 1977 that protects the Atkinson Clock Tower from being removed. However, by allowing a commercial development at least 44 meters (144 feet) high to be built just mere metres away from the 15.2 metre (50 foot) tall clock tower, the historical significance of the clock tower will be severely and utterly compromised.

This is the commercial shopping mall's Development Plan - already approved by DBKK.
The monstrous development will SMOTHER the clock tower with its sheer size and height. The Atkinson Clock tower is the small red patch indicated at the end of the staircase, seen on the left side of this development plan.


A FaceBook community page - Heritage Sabah has been set up by concerned individuals urging the Sabah Government to review and halt the upcoming commercial development. At the time of this post,690 people have joined this community page. An online petition is currently being drafted to urge the Sabah State Government to consider turning the site into a public recreation park.

Here's the link to the community page:

This is an important turning point for Sabah and its policy towards the protection of its heritage buildings.

Unless Sabahans and other concerned Malaysians voice their protest and make their voices heard, we will lose our last and most beloved landmark of this city.

We must make a stand.

We must speak up and ask our state government to intervene.

The clock tower built in 1905 has endured two devastating World Wars and witnessed the liberation of North Borneo from the Japanese Imperial Army in WWII. It has seen the township of Jesselton grow to become the metropolitan city of Kota Kinabalu, while standing proudly on Signal Hill as a beacon of our historical legacy.

This is what the Atkinson Clock Tower hill will look like...

Generations of the past have had the wisdom and integrity to value the clock tower's continued and solitary presence - and have left the site alone in its blanket of lush greenery despite the rapid changes of the city.

The upcoming commercial development of the 16-storey shopping mall/hotel will uproot and strip away the big trees surrounding this historical site. The clock tower will become a prisoner of its commercial neighbour - with a high wall of concrete, industrial windows and branded signages taking away the its calm and dignified ambience.

We owe it to the next generation of Sabahans and Malaysians to carry on the legacy and enduring spirit of the clock tower by allowing it to stand alone for perpetuity. If we allow the site to be compromised by this commercial development, it will be an indelible mark of failure of our generation to protect the last heritage site in Kota Kinabalu.