Chinese Premier, His Excellency Wen Jiabao visiting University of Malaya

A thought-provoking exhibition shows what it is about the nation’s oldest university that makes its brightest students tick.

IT was an unforgettable moment frozen in time: Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visiting Universiti Malaya’s (UM) old Chancellery in 2011, flanked by the tightest security. He had just flown in on an official two-day visit, and would soon be delivering a speech to an audience which had been carefully screened by the university.

Despite being recent graduates who weren’t on the invited guests list, Timothy Cheng, Benjamin Ong and Firdaus Nejim Al-Asedi found a way in. As Cheng recalls candidly: “The situation was tense. The university was really worried that something might go wrong. Once he left, you could practically hear the auditorium breathe a collective sigh of relief.”

Ong chimes in: “He’s a cute old man and remains, despite the strict protocol, one of the most down-to-earth VIPs. We got as near as two metres from him!”

The encounter with Wen would not have happened if not for the trio’s perseverance. They were initially barred from entering the closed-door event but, after much proffering, were eventually accepted as part of the organising committee. Their real motive: to capture the event for an upcoming photography exhibition.

And now, after more than 40 roles of films and 2,000 snapshots, it’s finally complete.

Moving Pictures: Sketches Of The Chancellery, commissioned by the office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor and launched at the university’s new Chancellery last week, is about “life behind the doors of the UM administration”.

“We worked on the assumption that an understanding of the Chancellery’s significance could not be gained without an appreciation of how it works. To this end, we invaded offices, conducted interviews with staff, and wedged ourselves into some major events, such as the visit of Wen Jiabao last April,” says Cheng, 24.

After painstakingly sifting through each negative, they ended up with 49 photographic works that speak volumes about the exhibition’s most important theme – transitions.

“We saw this project as an opportunity to observe and comment, not just on the physical moving of boxes and furniture from the old to the new Chancellery, but on the university as it navigates its way through a transition period in terms of values, directions and goals.

“Yes, it’s about moving boxes; but more so, we asked, “What’s in those boxes? What are the things we ought to bring with us, and what to leave behind? What can we compromise, and what can’t we?” says Ong, 24.

Built in the traditional Brutalist architecture by the late Datuk Kington Loo, the old chancellery – with its concrete walls and fortress-like facade – has been around since the 1960s. A National Heritage Site, it served as UM’s administrative seat until late last year.

In Shapers Of Modern Malaysia, writer Lim Teng Ngiom says: “(It is) unsurpassed in concrete plasticity. Despite its concrete expression, the building is appropriately tropical and has weathered well over the years.” It is now used as practice rooms for the music students from the Cultural Centre.

Meanwhile, the new Chancellery, a gleaming building featuring floor-to-ceiling windows and an alarmingly Arabesque aesthetic, sits on what was formerly the Baktisiswa complex. Built in 1962 in the days of the late Datuk Sir Alexander Oppenheim, UM’s first Vice-Chancellor, it was then called the Union House as it was home to, among other things, the headquarters of the Students Union, a canteen and an open hall.

When this complex was torn down in 2008, Badan Warisan Negara ran an article on it. The writer, a graduate of UM’s 1959-62 pioneering batch, commented: “It is such a pity that the university authorities had chosen to demolish this historic structure in order to build their new and modern extension to the Chancellery.”

Not surprisingly, the trio are more enthusiastic about the old Chancellery.

“We loved how the old building coalesced with its surroundings. And the awesome feeling you get whenever you step inside…you felt like you were part of something great,” says Firdaus, 22, sniffling.

Ong agrees, saying, “The old Chancellery may lose in terms of facilities but it wins in so many other ways.”

Make no mistake, however: the students are not blindly advocating the retention of old structures. According to Ong, “like the generations who have learnt to love the campus, who have learnt to walk and run and live in it – who have thrown their lot in with this university – we cannot stand to see careless decisions made by those who know nothing of UM’s past and care nothing for its future.”

To them, the move represents a desertion of intangible values like heritage and legacy. After all, the old Chancellery was an important historical landmark in UM, playing host to a number of notable personalities over the years. Apart from Wen, former New Zealand Prime Minister James Brendan “Jim” Bolger also visited the building. A jaunty character, he eventually became one of the group’s favourite subjects. A portrait of Bolger and his wife beaming for the camera is among the exhibits.

Still, the group’s favourite photograph is an abstract shot of the old Chancellery, taken by Cheng from the inside of the building.

“Any faculty member would instantly recognise it as the old Chancellery because of its angular geometry,” says Ong.

One would be surprised to learn that none of these three have studied photography. Cheng is a medicine graduate, while Ong and Firdaus graduated in ecology and mathemathics, respectively.

Ong, however, says one doesn’t have to possess a degree in photography to like it. “It has always been my hobby to record day-to-day memories. The artistic aspect of it comes in along the way.”

When asked if the exhibition is meant only for those at UM, he shakes his head. “But for those who haven’t been to UM, it will be a different sort of appreciation,” he says. “The spirit of each photograph goes beyond its context. It’s like how an obscure African tribe can still speak to us even though we have nothing in common.”

Nevertheless, the key to appreciating art of any form is to stop and think. “We put in panels describing each scene and event so that people can read but I’ve just noticed that’s not what they’re doing. They’re looking at each photograph just to see if they’re in it!” exclaims an amused Cheng.

Ultimately, however, the group’s message is this: students are becoming more polarised, and they need to get more involved in non-school related activities.

“Timothy and I saw a lot of petty arguments when we were in the student council,” says Ong. “I think we need to take more initiative instead of just talk incessantly. We need to look beyond merit marks for college and stop working with just the same race and faculty.”

Cheng also feels this age-old university is still a work-in-progress.

“The future is every decision we make today. With the awareness that ‘building’ is not always the same as ‘development’, what part will each of us play in the creation of our beloved university’s future?

“An ancient Hebrew proverb goes, ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish.’ What is our vision for this university, and how will we continue to defend and live out the values that have made it a force to be reckoned with over the decades?” he says.

By Louisa Lim, The Star