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  • Writer's pictureAmmar, R. & Izzaty, N.

Heritage Series - Bangunan Sultan Abdul Samad (BSAS)

Taking center stage in the famous colonial district of the capital city, Bangunan Sultan Abdul Samad (BSAS) is undoubtedly one of the most prominent landmarks in Malaysia. Completed in 1897, the building has stood proudly through the bustling tin mining days of the Klang Valley and has continued to command presence in the current-day metropolis Kuala Lumpur. Famous now for being the grand backdrop for the Merdeka and Hari Malaysia parades, its striking domes and bell chimes have defined the city's identity since the end of the 19th century, surviving and witnessing events that shaped our country as it is today.

BSAS frontage, facing Jalan Raja.

The building is located right beside the meeting point between Sungai Klang and Sungai Gombak, a river confluence many believe as being the source of Kuala Lumpur's name (for other theories on name origins, refer: alternate theories). Wonderfully packed with historical venues, its surrounding area is now greatly valued for its heritage and cultural significance.

Being a prominent national tourist spot, visiting BSAS is made to be very convenient. Aside from the multiple walkways around the building, a large paid-car park area is also available in the basement of Dataran Merdeka, around 100 meters away. Staircases link visitors straight up to the Dataran's sidewalk. From here, one can immediately see the front elevation of BSAS across Jalan Raja.

Basement parking space. The floor is connected to Plaza Putra, an underground shopping center underneath Dataran Merdeka.

Exit point directly beside the field.

Dataran Merdeka. Jalur Gemilang fixed onto the 95-meter-tall flagpole (left), Kuala Lumpur Library (bottom center) and Royal Selangor Club (bottom right).

Location of BSAS and its surrounding Heritage District in Kuala Lumpur.

The historical roots of the building can be traced back to political factors during pre-colonial Selangor and the infancy years of Kuala Lumpur, dating back over two centuries ago. These influences greatly shaped the development of its unique design, function, and selection of its prestigious location. As such, understanding the significance of this building warrants a brief walkthrough into Kuala Lumpur's past;

BSAS and Bluff Hill circa1900s. Spires were still attached to the rooftop at the time. Photograph by G.R. Lambert & Co. (Source: KITLV 105899, Digital Collections, Leiden University Library)

Founding of Kuala Lumpur

In the early 1800s, Kuala Lumpur was still a patch of rural land in the deeper parts of the Klang Valley, only populated by sparse numbers of Malay and Temuan villages. Activities in the area mostly revolve around agriculture and simple mining work around Sungai Klang. Major venture was recorded in 1857 when Raja Abdullah, a close royalty to the Selangor Sultanate, opened up a mining settlement at the confluence of the two Gombak and Klang rivers. Instead of applying lampan and sluices on shallow grounds, Raja Abdullah opted for his miners to utilize the more labor-intensive open-cut lombong method, enabling much deeper deposits to be retrieved. The usage of such a profitable method attracted droves of Hakka Chinese and Sumatran workers to Kuala Lumpur, with many of the pioneer miners coming from the mining fields of Lukut.

Economic activities bloomed, starting with miners and traders within existing Mandailing communities (led by Sutan Puasa) in nearby Ampang. Within a few years, tin export from Kuala Lumpur increased through the coastal ports of Klang. As more people moved into the settlement, the east side of the confluence grew into a small town.

Masjid Jamek (middle midground) located behind BSAS, right over the confluence of Sungai Klang and Sungai Gombak.

In spite of initial success, Kuala Lumpur's emergence as a tin-producing district hit turbulent times in the years ahead. The apparent favor given by the 3rd Sultan of Selangor; Sultan Muhammad Shah, to Raja Abdullah, caused friction among the nobilities of the Selangor Sultanate. Despite being a relative 'outsider', Raja Abdullah was awarded the authority to administer the districts of Klang, including Kuala Lumpur.

The chief opponent of this arrangement was Raja Mahadi, the son of Panglima Raja Selangor. As the tax collection authority in Klang valley was previously held by his father, Raja Mahadi believed that he was the rightful inheritor of Raja Abdullah's position. This was exacerbated by the ascension of Sultan Abdul Samad as the 4th Sultan of Selangor in 1857, a title that bypassed Raja Mahadi due to a host of contested factors.

Grand portico crowned with guldastas and pediment.

A murder incident dispute involving a Bugis guard from Raja Abdullah's faction and a Sumatran villager was the breaking point of the Selangor Civil War (1867 - 1874). Angered by perceived injustice by Raja Abdullah, Muhammad Akib, leader of the Sumatran traders in Kuala Lumpur, pledged alliance to Raja Mahadi in his contest for authority. The eruption of the war saw Bugis Malays and Hai San Chinese (Hakka-dominated kongsi) allying themselves with Raja Abdullah and Sultan Abdul Samad, while Sumatran Malays and Ghee Hin Chinese (Cantonese-dominated kongsi) supported Raja Mahadi on the opposing side.

Kuala Lumpur was eventually attacked and razed to the ground in 1872, before being retaken by Tengku Kudin; the son-in-law of Sultan Abdul Samad. With the provision of fighters from Pahang and British political support, Tengku Kudin finally ended the war in 1874. A year later, a British Resident was ultimately accepted by Sultan Abdul Samad, marking the official beginning of British colonial influence in Selangor.

Extensive use of pointed arches, a common Mughal architectural element.

At first, the British Colonial Administration reigned over Kuala Lumpur from faraway Klang; Selangor's newly established British colonial administrative capital. Despite its active industrial and commercial scene, the Malay Rulers and British advisors initially played an indirect part in governing the district. As external powers were still recovering from the civil war, political and administrative authorities were instead exercised by influential local figures, with one of its most well-known leaders being the town's Third Kapitan China; Yap Ah Loy (in office 1868 - 1885).

Credited by many as the early 'developer of Kuala Lumpur', Kapitan Yap was an important entrepreneurial and public figure in Kuala Lumpur in the late 1800s. Arriving in the town as a miner, he soon grew in wealth and political influence through numerous business interests and positions in secret societies. On top of playing a major part in maintaining social order and building civil infrastructure, Kapitan Yap also acted as a valuable liaison for the Chinese communities in Kuala Lumpur when dealing with surrounding political powers. Throughout numerous struggles in Kuala Lumpur during the civil war, he was instrumental in the formation of pragmatic alliances between local Chinese fighters and warring Malay factions (including Tengku Kudin, Raja Mahadi and the Mandailing leaders Raja Asal and Sutan Puasa).

Kuala Lumpur circa 1880. (Source: KITLV 3990, Digital Collections, Leiden University Library) Before fire prevention regulations were introduced by the British, houses were mostly of the timber and atap type.

As Kuala Lumpur expanded into a commercial center for the many surrounding mines and their peripheral industries, British authorities in Singapore soon realized its growing importance and directed its Selangor administration to take full control of the town. In 1880, the town's status was raised from a mining settlement to State Capital. With a small entourage made up of a British Resident and a handful of officers, government offices were moved from Klang to a new 'official quarters' in Bluff Hill / Bluff Road (now Bukit Aman). A number of timber offices and residential buildings were even dismantled and rebuilt in this new location to save cost and time. During this period, there were already around 220 wooden houses in the town, with its communities involved in an expanding range of commercial activities.

Bluff Hill was located on the western side of the river confluence. The site was strategically selected to provide a more secure elevated ground for British administration offices and barracks, while simultaneously distancing the area from the bustling town and market square on the opposite side of the river. The hill overlooked the police parade field, later known as the 'Padang' (and much later as Dataran Merdeka).

The clocktower's dome is the only one that has a chattri applied as a cupola.

Curating an Identity

Kuala Lumpur's British administration was at first quite problematic, as it was headed by the 'hot-headed' Acting British Resident Bloomfield Douglas. The administration found itself often at odds with local traders and citizens, on top of being unable to properly manage the settlement. The town was overcrowded, while its streets were described as full of 'chaos and filth'. Furthermore, fire hazard was a recurring concern due to the materials and layout of the packed timber buildings. One such incident in 1881, which destroyed a large part of the town, was caused by a simple accident in one of the town's opium dens.

The appointment of Sir Frank Swettenham as the 3rd Resident of Selangor in 1882 charted a better course for Selangor and Kuala Lumpur. Great effort was put towards clearing up the roads, rebuilding public facilities, and mending relationships with Malay and Chinese local leaders. Industry growth was promoted through development of coffee and tobacco estates, while transportation of produce and minerals was much improved through the construction of the railway from Kuala Lumpur to Klang. It was during this time that the population of Malays and Indians steadily increased within and around Kuala Lumpur.

BSAS (left wing, front elevation). Notable use of onion-shaped pediment on the gable ends.

Colonial administrative offices operated in mostly timber buildings after the relocation from Klang. Rebuilding of the government offices was conducted in 1884, but the replacement structures were still made out of timber, with only its piers made of bricks. By the early 1890s, there was already a widespread movement of rebuilding traditional papan and atap dwellings into full brick and tiled structures. As the town increased in stature, the administration was looking toward moving and combining the current government offices into a larger, more 'impressive' building. Said offices included the Audit Department, Post Office, Treasury Department, Survey, Land and Mines Departments, Sanitary Board, and the Public Works Department.

The push for the project was brought forward by William Maxwell, the 5th Resident of Selangor and later Acting Governor for Kuala Lumpur. Maxwell started the venture in 1891 by appointing Edwin Spooner as State Engineer in the Public Works Department, followed by approving an exceptionally large budget for the building in 1893. An initial Renaissance 'mock temple' concept by architect A.C. Norman was rejected by Spooner, who only retained its F-shaped floor plan. Perhaps influenced by his service in Ceylon, Spooner felt that the 'Mahometan' style was a more appropriate design for the building.

The turrets feature a mixture of Western elements (keystone design, circular fanlights, bracket cornice) and Islamic components (double columns, ablaq, horseshoe arch, pointed crenellation)

This 'Mohametan / Mohammedan' style chosen by Spooner is in fact known today as 'Indo-Saracenic' architecture. Also called 'Neo-Mughal' or 'Mughal-Gothic', this style was widely used in British Colonial India starting in the mid-1800s. After the defeat of the Mughal and Maratha empires at the hands of the British, the newly formed British Raj government was in search for an architectural style that establishes their legitimacy and right to rule India. Instead of completely destroying the symbols of the previous empires, the British took the path of amalgamating the architecture of the past Mughal Kingdom with Western styles (commonly Gothic, Romanesque, and Neoclassical elements).

Mughal architecture itself was greatly influenced by classical Hindu forms and a host of Islamic styles, particularly Persian and Moorish architectures (thus the suffix 'Saracenic', a Western term referring to the Muslim peoples of the Middle East and Northern Africa). As a result, the combination of this vibrant mix of styles with European elements created one of the most distinct British Imperial architectures of South Asia.

Portico supported by wide four-centered arches. White plaster is used to decorate and visually frame the brick structures.

Interestingly, Spooner thought that this foreign Islamic style was suitable for a major administrative building in Selangor, instead of integrating the more locally-evolved Malay architectural styles that already existed in the state. It's worth noting that despite the Muslim-majority demographic of Malaya, Middle Eastern and Indo-Islamic architectural languages were virtually absent in the mid-1800s.

After the initial design rejection, Spooner instructed the talented Chief Draughtsman R.A.J. Bidwell to produce a proposal that fits his vision, with additional ideas provided by himself along the way. For the building site, the plot selected was a patch of private land purchased at a cost of $30,000 (allegedly owned by Swettenham himself) just a few hundred meters across from Bluff Hill. The building frontage was to face the parade field, the newly rebuilt Royal Selangor Club, and St. Mary's Church.

Royal Selangor Club, located across BSAS. At the back was Bluff Hill (now Bukit Aman).


Construction took place between 1894 until mid-1897 by Towkay Ang Sing, a local contractor. Originally proposed by Spooner at $194,000, a more moderately-designed office was considered later at $80,000. This was due to the earlier proposal being rejected by Acting Governor C. Smith on the basis that the price scale should be similar to Singapore's Government House. After Maxwell took the post in 1893, a budget was finally approved at $152,000. While the price tag was reduced from the first proposal, it was indeed a 'mega-project' in Malaya at the time. Although Spooner oversaw the construction until its completion, Bidwell soon left to continue his career in Singapore. He was replaced by Arthur Bennison Hubback, who continued to contribute to the design during its remaining construction period. Inspired by this project, this young draughtsman was soon to be the visionary architect of many famous colonial buildings in the years ahead.

Flushed guldasta, balustrades with mini multifoil arches, muqarnas-like column capitals, and semi-circular arches.

Despite the existence of local suppliers (such as the kilns and brickworks owned by Yap Kwan Seng in Brickfields), the red clay bricks, tiles, timber, and other materials required were instead sourced from a factory under the direct management of the Public Works Department. In total, the materials used amounted to; 4 million bricks, 2,500 barrels of Portland cement, 18,000 pikuls of lime, 5,000 pounds of copper, 50 tons of metal, and about 30,000 cubic feet of timber. Legends say that nearly all of the 4 million bricks were tossed by masons onto the site at two pieces a time, letting not a single one fall. The building's load-bearing structure is a combination of thick load-bearing walls, hidden reinforced columns, and steel girders, with extra attention paid to the perimeter walls of the Ground Floor. These additional reinforcements were done in response to concerns on the building's structural integrity, particularly due to its proximity to the river bank and vibrations from the nearby signal gun (which originally reverberated at 12 pm and 5 pm daily).

Exposed English bond bricks and decorative columns underneath the clocktower.


Named rather blandly as 'New Government Offices' in its early years, BSAS was the largest building in Malaya during its completion, and rightfully the grandest under the Malayan British Colonial Government. Much of the building's original features still remain to this day. The building's main frontage facing Jalan Raja spans around 140 meters long. Its roofline features a central 41-meter tall clocktower, flanked by two shorter circular turrets. These two towers contain eye-catching spiral staircases that could be seen from the outside (a feature that some claim to have been inspired by the Muir Central College in Allahabad, India).

Designed somewhat resembling Mughal minarets, the three vertical structures are topped with copper-plated bulbous domes and decorated with Hindu-influenced elements (kalash-like finials, inverted lotus motifs, and a signature chattri cupola on the clocktower dome). Four smaller fluted domes, in the form of white guldastas, crown the portico roof beneath the clocktower. On the rooftop, many smaller guldastas were installed as well (in the form of mini-minaret spires), but these were removed during World War II to avoid falling hazard during air raids.

One of the two BSAS turrets. Each one houses a spiral staircase connecting the ground floor to the second floor above.

Portico topped by guldasta (left) and crenellation (running from left to right).

The top floor of the clock tower houses the clock mechanism, bell, and its four faces. The dials use typical Roman numerals, while its backdrop glass seems to integrate a vaguely Islamic hexagram design in its panel arrangement. While the current clock is as old as the building itself, it is in fact the second one ordered for BSAS. The original clock was found to be unsuitable for the building design during the project phase, prompting replacement to the current one in use. Manufactured by Gillet and Johnston in England, the clock operates by the application of weights and gears. The system requires manual winding, which takes up to 3 hours every day to complete. Impressively, this clock is presently still meticulously maintained and serviced in its original form.

(Background) Each of the clocktower's four sides features an ogee arch-cum-pediment framed by a portal hood mould.

Metal spiral staircase towards the clock mechanism room above.

Another distinct feature of the building is the 'striped' appearance of the orange-and-white facade. A common characteristic among Mughal buildings, the practice of overlapping contrasting colors on building masonry can be traced back to the much older Mamluk and Moorish architectures. This facade color arrangement is commonly known as ablaq in the Middle East. In the case of BSAS, the darker part of the walls consists of exposed orange bricks, while the white elements were made with plastered bricks (instead of lighter-colored stones/masonry). Sometimes termed as the 'blood and bandages' look, this style became one of the defining features of Kuala Lumpur's famous colonial buildings in the coming decades ahead.

Metal grilles installed later to provide additional security.

Viewed in isolation, the external design of BSAS can be broken down into a host of influences, used in relation to each other through partially similar themes. Such relationships can be seen in the use of the Gothic ogee arches crowning the clocktower and the onion-shaped pediments on its rooftop. These shapes, while Western in origins, heavily insinuates the 'Mohametan' shapes of mosque domes. Another example is the extensive use of pointed arches of various types and sizes around BSAS, combining Islamic and Gothic styles in its arcaded hallways. These arches are further characterized by striped bricks and plaster, arranged to give a 'contrasting voussoirs' appearance, in line with the ablaq design mentioned earlier. In many parts of the building, these elements can be seen applied in combination with Roman-style imitation keystones. This method of marrying architectural elements is prevalent throughout the building.

(Right) Horseshoe arch doorway leading to the main foyer. Its archetypal Islamic keyhole design is noticeably combined with western-styled entablatures.

Likewise, the plaster ornaments of the building are strongly influenced by both Islamic and Western forms. The basic style of the entablatures and cornices that frame the facade seem to follow the simple classical Tuscan form, while the pointed stepped crenellation running on the rooftops reflect the styles of North African Islamic architecture. Moorish elements can be seen as well on the many circular columns around BSAS, particularly the Muqarnas-like pattern on the capitals.

Colonnaded corridor, Ground Floor.

Like many other colonial-era public buildings, the indoor part of BSAS does not appear to have much emphasis on local cultural forms or architectural languages, aside from Western-oriented functional spaces. The building's 2-meter-wide hallways were built in the form of arcaded loggia with different arches sizes for the Ground Floor and the First floor above, giving BSAS an added sense of scale when viewed from the outside. Within these corridors, Georgian windows and doors are framed by lintels and sills of classical Western moulds. For the most part, the walls are simply plain plaster rendering, while the floor tiles show retrofitted designs integrating Islamic geometric shapes.

First floor corridor. The floor is newly furnished, while the structural elements are largely maintained in its original aesthetics.

Courtroom doors decorated by local arabesque (featuring the national flower), possibly added much later.

Fanlight shape mirroring surrounding arches.

An indoor area that was given the most attention is clearly the main foyer. This entrance hall, located directly underneath the clocktower, contains a staircase linking the Ground Floor to the First Floor above. The doorway has a unique arrangement of elements; a fusion between an ablaq semi-circular arch and a Classical Roman-styled coffered vault. The timber door panels under this barrel vault are adorned with floral carvings and stained glass. The same arabesque-styled carving can be found on the nearby registration counter arches and each of the staircase newel posts.

Unique entrance design, fusing Classical Roman and Islamic styles.

Registration counter, with arches decorated by floral carvings and muqarnas-styled imposts.

(Foreground) Newel post decorated with a floral finial cap.

(Midground) Simple jali railing.

Newel posts featuring floral carvings on the 1st Floor.

Icon of Kuala Lumpur

Perhaps by chance, the completion of the building's construction closely coincides with the formation of the Federated Malay States (FMS). This new federation, established around 1896 under British rule, included the states of Perak, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan, and Pahang. Kuala Lumpur was again selected to become the capital, hence including in its chambers both the offices of the Selangor's State Secretariat and the Federal Secretariat.

Its inauguration in 1897 was as elaborate as the building itself. A fancy ball was held and attended by Sir Swettenham (then FMS Resident-General) and guests from all the four states of the FMS. Its interiors were lighted by electric lamps, while gas burners were lined up to illuminate the outdoor area. A similarly grand event was held a few months later to celebrate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. The building was decorated with thousands of oil lamps, while military parades, theatres, and fireworks were organized on the Padang across. In time, official events of the same stature became more frequent, and almost always accompanied by parades. Aside from the monumental prestige presented to Kuala Lumpur, the clocktower was also an innovation that was well received by the townsfolk, as the public no longer needed to depend on the loud signal cannon on Bluff Hill to tell the time.

Another stained glass feature in BSAS (rear-facing windows of the foyer roof).

Rapidly expanding bureaucracy in the following years brought the extension of a new wing in 1903 at the cost of $90,000 (facing Holland Road). However, the departments still found the building to be too crowded, increasing the need for external buildings to accommodate their increased space requirement. This kickstarted a series of construction projects in Kuala Lumpur known now as the "Monumental Buildings Programme". With State Engineer Spooner still at the helm and many of the designs by Hubback himself, the series of public buildings development lasted until the first World War in 1914.

The architectural impact of BSAS is evident through the continued application of the Indo-Saracenic style in the design of these buildings. Among the outstanding ones include; the Printing Office (1899, now KL City Gallery), Old Town Hall (1904, now Panggung Bandaraya DBKL), Railway Offices (1905, now National Textile Museum), General Post Office (1907, now PAM), Masjid Jamek (1909), FMS Survey Department (1910), and the Railway Station (1911, now Bangunan KTM). The style's popularity carried on to spread well beyond Kuala Lumpur, influencing the likes of Klang's Istana Mahkota Puri (1903, now demolished), Kelly's Castle (1915), Kuala Kangsar's Masjid Ubudiah (1917), and possibly Masjid Zahir in Alor Setar, Kedah (1912).

Klang's Istana Mahkota Puri in 1910, photograph by Kleingrothe, C.J. (Source: KITLV 79955, Digital Collections, Leiden University Library)

The Japanese invasion in 1942 was a dark moment in Kuala Lumpur's history. On one side, the city was facing machine-gun attacks and bombs from Japanese planes, while on the other end, the British conducted widespread 'scorched earth' policy, destroying many major public facilities and buildings in the process. BSAS narrowly avoided such a fate, and was instead taken over by the Japanese army during their occupation. The surrounding vicinity again fell under bombing runs in 1945, this time conducted as part of a large British air raid. After the Japanese surrender later that year, BSAS resumed its administrative function through the establishment of the Malayan Union in 1946, and subsequently the Federation of Malaya in 1948.

Nine years later, the building served as the glorious backdrop to the Union Jack's historical lowering and its replacement with the Malayan Flag on the Padang (now Dataran Merdeka), signaling the Malayan Independence of 1957. Kuala Lumpur remained as both the Federal Capital and the Selangor Capital beyond the formation of Malaysia in 1963, extending the building's role until 1974. This year saw Kuala Lumpur being turned into the country's first Wilayah Persekutuan (Federal Territory), followed by the moving of Selangor's State Capital to newly-opened Shah Alam. Following the clearing of both state and federal government offices, the building was renovated and finally renamed 'Bangunan Sultan Abdul Samad', a tribute to the reigning ruler during its earliest days.

Among the numerous patterns and fixtures repeated around the building.

In 1978, the Supreme, Appeal, and High Courts moved in. Since this change of function, BSAS became known throughout Malaysia not only for its historical value and prestigious parades, but also as a venue for high-profile court cases and political movements. A transformation of such a degree came with an equally big problem; the lack of suitable spaces within the building for the court halls.

To solve this issue, another much more thorough renovation program took place in 1979. The focus was the interior portion of BSAS, where the layout and doorways were totally changed to fit the many halls, chambers, and supporting facilities of the courts. To achieve this, a 'building within a building' was constructed inside the walls of BSAS, leaving the external corridors and facade largely intact. This section, much similar to a shell, stands independently through the support of micro piles. Aside from the reorganization of spaces within (including an underground pathway for the transfer of individuals from the lock-up to the court halls), new mezzanine sections were also built in between the two existing floors, taking maximum advantage of the unutilized space.

Opposite side of the window, an opening towards the clocktower. The foyer ceiling is adorned by a large chandelier and four unique rafter-like structures.

BSAS underwent further alterations in the decades ahead, such as the addition of a semi-sunken car park in its courtyard, canteen, offices, toilets, centralized air-conditioning system, and an overhead bridge connecting BSAS to the Old General Post Office (GPO) next door. Multiple corridors and openings were sealed up to make way for office extensions, and many of the existing windows were refitted with double glazing panels to minimize sound disturbance from the busy road outside. On the ground floor, gaps between arches were barricaded with metal grilles for security.