Condemned to history

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 August, 2011, 12:00am


Located in one of Kuala Lumpur's more dilapidated districts, Pudu Prison clearly belongs to a different age. Half-demolished and covered in mould and graffiti, the building is just weeks away from being torn down completely. Just a few metres from the jail stands one of the Malaysian capital's newest mosques, the gleaming white Masjid Albukhary, past which the futuristic monorail glides.

Home to a busy execution chamber (hanging was the preferred method), Pudu was once the most-feared correctional facility in Malaysia. It may be about to fade into the history books, but it once stood in the full glare of international media and at the centre of a long-running spat that for years soured relations between Malaysia and Australia.

In July 1986, two Australians convicted of heroin trafficking swung from its gallows. The Pudu Prison gate (designed in the Moorish architectural style seen in a number of old buildings across the city) was the last thing Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers would have seen on the 'outside'.

With cultural insensitivity typical of the day, the British colonial government built the prison on a Chinese burial site, spooking the local population even before the facility swallowed up its first inmates.

One aspect of Pudu, however, was a source of local pride: for several years it was adorned with what was reportedly the world's longest mural, at 394 metres long. Starting in 1984, inmate Khong Yen Chong painted idyllic local landscapes on the prison's boundary walls. It was not a work of outstanding artistic merit: the wonder was that it got painted at all.

In 1996, after 101 years as a maximum-security jail (and a prisoner-of-war camp operated by the Japanese), Pudu Prison was closed. For a couple of years, the building was used as a museum, with a light-and-sound show in the execution room drawing big crowds. The museum also became a destination for school trips aimed at discouraging youngsters from experimenting with dadah (drugs).

The building was finally closed in 2008 and is now beyond salvaging. Many Kuala Lumpur residents are expressing regret that this relatively young city is about to lose one of its few historical buildings.

A block north of the prison, Michelle Lee is passing a quiet day at the reception desk of the Classic Inn. She was only three when Barlow and Chambers were executed, but dozens more traffickers were to meet their demise in Pudu as she was growing up.

'[The demolition] is a terrible pity,' she says. 'It's an old building. We need to respect our old buildings more, not just demolish them to make way for ugly new ones. Above all, let it stand as a warning: drugs mean death.'