THE iconic clock tower at Bangunan Sultan Abdul Samad has bore witness to many historical events. In the series on our articles on “heritage” clock towers, HALIMATUL HAMID, together with photographer AIZUDDIN SAAD, got an insight on Malaysia’s very own “Big Ben”.

The clock tower at Sultan Abdul Samad building has not only withstood the test of time, it has never missed a chime in its 113 years of existence.

The clock’s caretaker, Kunasegaran Velliah, 54, said during the mid-1950′s, the chime of the clock tower could be heard clearly from his home in Bangsar, where he grew up. This was a distance of 4km. “The clock tower does not chime as loud as before. Only visitors and those who work near the building can hear it.”Also known as “Big Ben”, the 40 metre clock tower is topped with a golden dome and flanked by two domed towers on both sides. 

It was constructed during the British administration in 1896 and was launched a year later in Jalan Raja. Since then, it has witnessed many historical events like the lowering of the Union Jack when Malaysia (then Malaya) gained its independence, Merdeka parades throughout the years, New Year’s Eve celebrations, international and local marathons and annual cultural events like Citrawarna.

Kunasegaran, who has been the clock’s caretaker for 35 years, said he winds the bell and clock at the tower on Monday, Wednesday and Friday every week, even on public holidays and during festive seasons. On Saturday mornings, he is there to conduct maintenance work. To wind the clock, Kunasegaran has to climb a black spiral staircase, then three wooden staircases till he reaches the fourth level of the tower where he would find a room.

The clock is in the room, protected from dust and animal droppings while the bell is on the third level. The caretaker said sometimes when he is paged by the guards at the Information, Communication and Culture Ministry to do maintenance work early in the morning he encounters ghostly images. “I would ignore them and continue doing my work. It has never disturbed me before. I would usually say out loud that I’m here just to do work and nothing else,” he related.

He said the clock was imported from South Croydon, Surrey in England and manufactured by Gillett & Johnston (Croydon) Ltd. “The clock is very sensitive and works almost the same way as an old grandfather’s clock. “Before winding the clock I must first wind the bell 320 times,” he said adding that task takes between half an hour to one hour to complete. To wind the clock, a medium-sized weight must be placed to lock the parts and stop the pendulum from moving before pushing the lever clockwise 24 times. “I have to continuously push the lever so that the gears of the clock won’t jam and the weights that churn the clock could go up the cable to meet the weights of the bell.” Kunasegaran said the only time the clock stops is when repair work is being done. “Usually we would stop the clock for a day when we need to change the cables. That only happens once a year.

During Merdeka celebrations, the bell won’t chime for two hours to make way for the parade. “A part from that there has never been any major repair works done and the clock has never missed a ‘ding dong’ in its 113 years. If it is well taken care of, I’m sure it could last another 100 years,” he said.

The bell, which weighs 500kg, is a mixture of brass and copper. It is attached to a wooden beam and is chimed by an iron hammer that weighs 40kg.

Kunasegaran said the second hammer there is no longer used. “It was used to replace the siren during the emergency period. It functions the same way as a church bell and has a long rope where officers could pull to signal people when they see war planes approached.” Kunasegaran said he was the 40th caretaker and was the last of the seven caretakers trained by the Department of Survey and Mapping Malaysia (Jupem) in 1975. “We were trained by our seniors before us, the 1960′s batch. I was just 19 then and my guru was Aziz Shakir. He has retired a long time ago. Now, I am training my replacement before my retirement,” said Kunasegaran.

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