Whose Heritage?

Penang is a treasure house of colonial and Asian architecture. For many Malays, though, that translates into an alien culture, which they see little point in preserving


By Lorien Holland

Issue cover-dated May 3, 2001


NAZIR ARIFF is one of a fairly rare breed in Penang--an ethnic-Malay businessman rooting hard to preserve the island's melting pot of Asian and colonial architecture. While many Malays feel little in common with the island's heritage, Nazir has overseen the painstaking restoration of a mansion on what was once Penang's "millionaire's row." And he plans to move his corporate headquarters into the Italianate villa later this year.
The metals trader and investor, who has a high business profile around town, has also served as chairman of the Penang Heritage Trust, a non-governmental organization working to promote conservation. Partly due to his efforts, the island's capital, Georgetown, home to most of Malaysia's finest pre-war buildings, is closer than ever to clinching World Heritage status. The battle, though, is not yet won.
Penang is already on the list of 100 most-endangered heritage sites maintained by the independent New York-based World Heritage Watch, which describes Georgetown as a city "with no peer among the region's ports." By the end of this year, city heritage officials are hoping to submit a full proposal for listing to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or Unesco. As well as bringing valuable prestige, a World Heritage listing also ensures stringent management of heritage controls in order to maintain the site over the long term and provides access to global preservation expertise.
But first, advocates will have to get past the objections of developers and Malay politicians, who continue to challenge the city's efforts to conserve its architecture, which dates from the 18th century when the East India Company made it a key trading post for India, China and Southeast Asia.
"The idea of conservation and preservation of heritage is a new one in Malaysia," says Kamarul Baharin Buyong, director general of the department of museums and antiquities in Kuala Lumpur, and head of Malaysia's committee for World Heritage sites. "We still have to promote the idea to owners of buildings so that they see the economic advantages of a two-storey shop house over a 50-storey building."
According to World Heritage Watch, Penang "faces severe development pressures--new, unsympathetic intrusions, conversion of residences into offices, overwhelming traffic, and developers eager to demolish vernacular treasures." And, indeed, in Georgetown many of the distinctive shophouses have already been lost, demolished in the 1970s and '80s to make way for modern concrete office blocks and hotels. But apart from the demise of the turn-of-the-century Moorish-style Metropole Hotel in 1993, most of the city's larger structures remain intact--from the Chinese Khoo clan association temple to the ramparts of Fort Cornwallis. Also still standing are a warren of narrow streets in the centre and the shophouse where Dr. Sun Yat-sen planned much of the Chinese revolution.
But Penang's fate doesn't just lie in the hands of local developers and politicians. It's also inextricably linked to another city hundreds of kilometres down the coast--Malacca. Unesco officials have indicated that a joint listing of the two former British Straits Settlements stands a better chance of success. The international body believes it is the story of the settlements as a whole and their role in setting the stage for the modern world system of global commerce that is of World Heritage significance. In response, the federal government in Kuala Lumpur has submitted a preliminary joint application for the two cities.
For Penang, being paired with Malacca is a mixed blessing. True, the inclusion of Malacca should help win Malay support for the joint listing, as the Sultanate of Malacca (around 1403 to 1511) is regarded as the golden age of Malay history and the foundation for the present Malay-led political system.
The downside is that Malacca is lagging far behind Penang on preservation issues, and Unesco will only list places that it believes meet certain basic conservation standards and have proper monitoring mechanisms. Although Malacca boasts a far lengthier history, it has seen much of its character altered through land reclamation around its old port. There has also been vocal criticism both from the local press and conservation experts over uncontrolled development in its centre. One possible solution would be to approve Penang, give Malacca deferred World Heritage status, and perhaps even add Singapore (the other Straits Settlement) at a later date.
Ultimately, though, this will be a less significant issue for Penang than the problem of overcoming Malay reluctance to recognize the importance of non-Malay history, which many Penang's conservationists say has retarded the city's progress. "The hard political reality was that Georgetown faced difficulty for several years getting nominated to the Unesco Tentative List by the federal government," says Loh-Lim Lin Lee, co-owner of the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion in Penang, which won the Unesco Heritage 2000 Award for its restoration.
Cheong, who was nicknamed the "Rockefeller of the East," had such strong business interests throughout Southeast Asia that flags were flown at half-mast in Dutch and British colonies when he died in 1916. In his day, Georgetown was an amalgam of many cultures, ranging from mainstream Chinese, Indian and Malay to Arab, Armenian and Acehnese. It's that amalgam that appears to prevent an active Malay voice in conservation in Penang. "The issue is what is heritage. Until very recently the Malays showed very little interest in conserving Muslim heritage in Penang," says Nazir, who adds that most Malays see Penang as "all Chinese, colonial and Straits Settlements."
A particular bone of contention is wakaf land, which is land donated in trust for use by Muslims. Although Penang is predominately ethnic-Chinese, it has the highest concentration of wakaf land in Malaysia, mainly in the form of mosques, cemeteries, and Muslim settlements in the old part of Georgetown. In March, a local Malay politician, Ahmad Hajar, rekindled calls to build high-rises where these settlements now stand by saying development of wakaf land should not be restricted by heritage-conservation guidelines.
He told reporters that the local government was becoming obsessed with conservation: "I am not anti-heritage, and I believe in heritage conservation. But let's be practical. Wakaf land needs to be developed to accommodate the growing Muslim business community in the city."
Similar development frictions also exist between many Chinese landlords and the local government. In a sign of political sensitivity towards World Heritage listing, local government leaders are quick to point out that a World Heritage listing is only valuable if it creates a living city centre, not a tourist mecca that pushes up prices and drives out locals. "We are still keeping a critical view and looking at what are the actual benefits for the local people," says Penang's Chief Minister Koh Tsu Koon.
Still, Georgetown already has its conservation zones in place and Koh is pushing ahead with Penang's final application--and the politicians backing the development of wakaf land for Muslim (and largely ethnic-Malay) residents are facing an uphill battle. "I think the respective parties and authorities should come up with development proposals so that they will fit in to the development of the heritage zones as a whole," says Associate Professor Ghafar Ahmad, a specialist in building conservation at the Science University of Malaysia.
"To me, Penang is relevant to all cultures be it the Chinese, Indian or Malay," he adds. "Historically, long before Captain Sir Francis Light came to Penang [in 1786], the island was under the [Malay] Sultan of Kedah. This is part of history and we must not deny it."