A hundred kilometres (60 miles) north of Kuala Lumpur, amid highland rainforest, stands the former colonial hill station named after Scottish adventurer Louis James Fraser. It is overshadowed in tourist literature by the Cameron Highlands and ignored by the pleasure seekers of Genting, but there are two compelling reasons to visit Fraser’s Hill, in Pahang’s Raub district: the mock-Tudor architecture, which has earned the town the nickname “Malaysia’s Little England”; and the wealth of wildlife, which includes panthers, gibbons, sun bears and more than 250 species of bird. Yet both are under threat. In August 2020, a year after Fraser’s Hill celebrated its centenary, two colonial-era bungalows – Maybank Lodge and Jelai Resort – were unceremoniously demolished. This came as a surprise to the 1,000 or so residents, who had not been informed beforehand and were given no explanation afterwards. Only much later did signboards appear advertising the construction of a 15-storey resort and spa, complete with “181 rooms, a sky viewing deck, and a heated infinity-edged swimming pool”. Then the fightback began; conservationists criticised the Raub District Council for approving the development without obtaining a proper environmental assessment and local activists decried the loss of their heritage. ‘Little England’ isn’t just a tourist slogan. It’s a way of life. Nik Jassmin Hew, co-founder, Fraser’s Hill Nature and Heritage Association (PAWBF) In its defence, the developer – the Selangor-based Ikhasas Group – argues that the resort will create jobs and boost tourism. Nevertheless, the dispute has made national headlines and questions have been asked in parliament. One of the loudest voices condemning the development belongs to the Fraser’s Hill Nature and Heritage Association (PAWBF – Persatuan Alam dan Warisan Bukit Fraser, the organisation’s name in Malay). It was only after the activist group had galvanised public opinion that the district council, perhaps hoping to defuse the situation, issued a stop-work order against the development. That, however, is only temporary, while Ikhasas resubmits the building’s designs to better fit the mock-Tudor style of the hill. Meanwhile, the fate of another bungalow owned by the developer remains uncertain, as does the future of the town as a whole. “[The PAWBF] started as a Facebook group [called] We Are Special, We Grew Up In Fraser’s Hill,” says co-founder Nik Jassmin Hew, laughing, when we meet at a cafe near the centre of the town that doubles as a base for the group. The page was intended as a space for current and former residents to reconnect and reminisce, but the PAWBF came into being when several members banded together to protect the hill and restore some of the traditions they had grown up with. “‘Little England’ isn’t just a tourist slogan,” says Hew, who was raised in both Fraser’s Hill and a village outside Bath, southern England. “It’s a way of life. If you grew up here, that’s what it was like.” The man the town is named after was an adventurer who vanished in the area while prospecting for tin. According to one version of the story, a search party thought the elevation and cool climate would be suitable for a hill station and, by 1919, a road had been hacked out of the jungle and the first of a dozen or more bungalows were being built. “The scene used to be very vibrant,” says the PAWBF’s other co-founder, Sean Yap, whose grandparents came here from China’s Hainan island to work as caretakers for colonial bungalow owners. “My parents and their friends, they would dance, play golf, drink tea. Things were still very much influenced by the British.” As younger people have sought opportunities elsewhere, those British traditions, passed down by generations of bungalow caretakers as well as owners, have been disappearing, along with the social fabric of Fraser’s Hill. “We used to have a town centre but it was closed,” says Hew. “There’s no high street any more that pulls people together.” One of the more striking aspects of the town is the sad state of several of the bungalows – known locally as banglos . Some are privately owned, some are state property, but many have been abandoned. None have yet been successfully listed, according to the PAWBF. “Once you name a place as a heritage property you face a lot of restrictions in all sorts of development,” says Yap. “So that [would stop] people from making money from the hill.” As a newly registered non-governmental organisation, the PAWBF was in a position to resist when Ikhasas’ intentions became clear. Members contacted politicians, blitzed the media and canvassed concerned citizens to appeal to Novotel, the French hotel brand the resort is being built for. The group’s efforts resulted in a series of legal threats from the developer, according to the PAWBF. “[The developer] really didn’t expect to get that much attention,” Hew says. “Especially not in parliament.” The PAWBF argues that the hill is ill-suited to the commercialisation a 15-storey resort would bring. “They want to turn Fraser’s Hill into a heritage theme park,” says Hew, referring to a district council-produced tourism development plan for the wider area. “They want to make it like Sapa, in Vietnam . But we can’t be Sapa. We can’t have people walking around in costumes.” Michelin shows that Malaysia is another country it has no place judging For those for whom architectural heritage or notions of a Little England are of small concern, there is another, more pressing issue: the proposed construction is likely to have a serious impact on the environment, which is already under stress. Covering 83,000 hectares and spanning an elevation from 1,000 to 1,500 metres, Fraser’s Hill is home to a large variety of animals. Along with panther sightings, tigers have been recorded here, while the forests are home to langur monkeys, pangolins and slow lorises. The hill is famous for its birdlife and before the pandemic, an annual “bird race” drew an international crowd of birdwatchers (the “race” involves spotting as many species of birds as possible in 24 hours). While such abundance may not be unique to Fraser’s Hill, it is uniquely accessible, thanks to the road and a number of trails established under the British. Yet the PAWBF claims there is growing evidence that the local ecology is tipping out of balance, with some bird species having been absent from the hill for many years and a lack of predators having led to a surge in the wild boar population, to the irritation of the locals. “Recently, a Japanese tourist came here to look for certain beetles,” says Yap. “There were no beetles for show – can you imagine it? This guy flew from Japan.” The reasons for these changes are varied, with pesticides, poaching, deforestation and climate change all playing a part. Heavy construction would only make the situation worse, believes the PAWBF. Work vehicles on the narrow, poorly maintained roads could trigger landslides, which would not only pose a danger to human life and property, but also affect water catchment areas, and in turn natural habitats. Soil displacement could cause Allan’s Water – a spot favoured by birds – to silt up. The noise and vibrations caused by construction would likely frighten away wildlife while the size of the resort would pose a danger to migrating birds. For those who wish to turn a profit on the hill, these may be acceptable risks. But the PAWBF believes the authorities are starting to listen to the critics; the latest district plan includes proposals to limit new developments on the hill to a maximum of five storeys and expose them to greater scrutiny, under two stages of planning, at local council and state level. And although the hill has yet to achieve national heritage status, the term “environmentally sensitive area” has been added to the tourism development plan, which gives PAWBF more scope to argue for its protection. While rumours suggest construction on the resort is to begin soon, the PAWBF believes the hill has one other asset that may dent the ambitions of developers and tourism departments: its size. “Fraser’s Hill can be saved from over-commercialisation because the hill limits itself,” says Hew, pointing out that only so many visitors can be squeezed in. “It stops you from making money.” Be that as it may, one suspects Hew, Yap and the other members of the PAWBF will continue to do everything they can to protect what is, after all, their home as well as that of panthers and sun bears.