Tag Archives: Heritage

Guest post: Mrauk U-NESCO-cide or Not?

In this guest post by an Urban Studies major from Yale-NUS College Al Lim, he investigates the implications for inscribing Mrauk U as a heritage site, especially being in the same state as the Rohingya crisis. This is a condensed post of his final paper for the Urban Heritage class taught by Creighton Connolly.

For a tourist thinking about Myanmar, one would typically consider the plethora of stupas dotting Bagan’s landscape, or perhaps, the enormous Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. However, the next site to be on the list is slated to be Mrauk U in Rakhine State. This is the state where the Rohingya crisis is occurring, which the UN has called ethnic cleansing. The Rohingya issue is a migration and humanitarian crisis happening in Southeast Asia. Evidence of the persecuted minority fleeing the country through land routes to Bangladesh, as well as sea routes to other parts of Southeast Asia is undeniable. Current numbers estimate that nearly 700,000 Rohingya people have fled to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh from Rakhine state in Myanmar.

In Mrauk U’s Koe Thaung Temple (1553), a female statue holds a sign saying “wishing to feed the world” (Courtauld 2013: 238). Nearly 500 years later, the world that the statue wants to feed has changed dramatically. Mrauk U, founded on 20 August 1430, was built on an older city with walls dating from the first-millennium (Stadtner 2015). It was the capital of one of four Arakanese dynasties from the 14th to 18th centuries (Courtauld 2013). Today, hundreds of pagodas and temples remain as part of the heritage landscape. The royal palace from the 16th century forms the inner-city core; it is surrounded by city walls running in a discontinuous fashion, punctuated by natural barriers of mountains and tidal rivers (Courtauld 2013).

Despite the overtly Buddhist built heritage, Mrauk U was a cosmopolitan area during its prime. Especially during the 15th and 17th centuries, Mrauk U was a flourishing regional commercial and cultural center. When King Narameikhla found Mrauk U, he had brought Muslim soldiers from Gaur (capital of the Bengal sultanate), who founded a village nearby (Yegar 1972). Numerous kings even took on Muslim titles from the Bengal sultans initially as a proof of vassalage to the Bengali sultanate, but also to legitimize their status with the increasing numbers of Muslims (Yegar 1972). Augustinian Friar Father Sebastian Manrique even records his attempts to convert Muslim prisoners to Christianity, albeit unsuccessfully (Yegar 1972).

These are a few among the many threads of diverse religions and races woven together across socio-historical narratives. Buddhist, Muslims and Christians interacted in numerous ways in Arakan and its neighboring states. The contemporary animistic nat practices integrated into Buddhist temples (from the 10th century) celebrate brothers of Muslim descent shows the diverse mix of ethnicities in what is now considered “Myanmar.” Thus, I argue that prior to the cementing of national boundaries between Myanmar and Bangladesh, the region had hugely dynamic trade mobilities with Mrauk U as a key nodal point—resisting a stable historical narrative and singular religion/ethnicity pegged to the site.

Figure 1: Landscape of Mrauk U


What does the term ‘heritage’ refer to in the first place? The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has coined the term “Outstanding Universal Value” (OUV), which distills principles that apply universally to heritage sites. What this means is that cultural heritage has inherently similar and universal qualities across sites. Specifically, the site should have “cultural and/or natural significance which is so exceptional as to transcend national boundaries and to be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity.”

Considering heritage as a process and going beyond UNESCO’s stabilizing universalism, Mrauk U’s landscape does not conform to the stable rendering from a singular narrative, as its socio-political implications sets it up as a site of contestation. When heritage is considered beyond its technoscientific categories, it opens the space to questions of: what is said or unsaid about the past? Which histories are remembered or forgotten? Often, heritage sites and landscapes of memory have been controlled by elites. This results in resistance from dispossessed or marginalized groups that are ignored in the memorialization process (Alderman and Inwood 2016: 193). The visibility of heritage sites creates a space for actors or groups to participate in the debate on space in a highly public and performative manner (Alderman and Inwood 2016: 193). As a result, the heritage site becomes one of contention, which aims to bring greater fairness to the remembering of marginalized groups. This makes sense in the case of Mrauk U, with reference to disenfranchised groups like the Rohingya or even the Rakhine themselves.

The slating of Mrauk U is fraught with contention. Recently, there were protests by hundreds of Mrauk U residents against the government’s ban of celebrating the 233rd anniversary of the Rakhine’s fall. Seven were killed and twelve injured during the police response to protestors. This disrupted the work coordination meeting for the Mrauk U nomination, which brought together the culture minister, the Chinese and Italian ambassadors to Myanmar, Arakanese historians, and members of UNESCO. The final submission to be a World Heritage site to UNESCO is still slated be delivered by January 2019, with the archeology department having formed 14 sub-committees to prepare for this.

From this confrontation, it is clear that the international and state-led authorities are working in tandem with each other, but opposed by local villagers. There is clear contestation between the multiple claimants to the site, where the power relations include the local villagers too. Hence, the landscape of Mrauk U is fraught with shifting power relations that need to be reckoned with, especially in light of its space’s production.

Directly applying concepts of heritage to the context of Mrauk U, I argue that there are two broad implications that that directly affects the Rohingya situation: (1) possible economic and regional revitalization, (2) as well as an instrumentalization of cultural heritage to mitigate or deepen entrenched discrimination. In other words, I spell out how Mrauk U might (or might not) boost the regional economy or act as a landscape of reconciliation.
First, many practitioners believe that Mrauk U’s instatement as a site will help the regional economy. According to former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Mrauk U is the “greatest physical manifestation of Rakhine’s rich history and culture,” and he promoted this effort because it would “eventually serve to boost tourism to Rakhine, and thus help strengthen the state’s economy.” This seems to make logical sense, where the influx of tourists into this area would enable a steady stream of revenue that would boost the regional economy.

However, this seems idealistic because it does not account for present economic realities and the precedent of Pyu’s ancient cities. While inscribed on the world heritage list, there does not seem to be much touristic interest there. According to a tour guide, despite Halin’s world heritage status, he does not think it will attract many tourists as low heaps of brick in farmland do not seem very attractive. What is to say that even with UNESCO’s inscription, Mrauk U may not be as highly prized a destination as originally thought.

This also requires creating enormous amounts of infrastructure to ensure mobility and places that can cater to tourists. If boats are currently the only way to reach Mrauk U, how many more boats would need to cope with the influx of tourists? Further, there would need to be more hotels and accommodations in Mrauk U itself. This calls for huge amounts of infrastructure for water, sanitation and transportation, way more than is currently available. In addition, who will institute these infrastructural developments? With the ongoing political tensions, the idea of a possible economic revitalization seems to be faced with challenges like Pyu’s precedent of low tourist numbers, the need for infrastructure, and the timeline for construction to be created within a fragmented government.

Second, a more productive approach might be cultural reconciliation through heritage to avoid deepening the Rakhine/Rohingya crisis. The landscape contains immense potential for the redrawing of the strict “us versus them” boundaries that exist today. Christopher Carter, the UN’s senior adviser for Rakhine state, comments that even hardline nationalists were welcome to grant Mrauk U as a site for world heritage status seems to be promising. By encouraging cosmopolitan shared histories, this space creates the platform for a possible set of reconciliatory efforts to begin. Pointing out aspects of collective histories enable some basis for a common understanding. In spite of this possibility, the local villagers’ outcry remains unaddressed, with existing tensions between the users of space and what state or UNESCO officials’ efforts have been.

The outcome of these efforts remains to be seen. There is now clear progress towards the instatement of the site on the World Heritage list, however, the implications are not simple. Along the economic axis, there are potential economic benefits that tourism revenue could provide, yet there are challenges with its implementation and timeline. A more productive lens of a reconciliatory landscape to develop a sense of shared heritage could be explored. This involves possibilities of further studies to identify how sites of memory can be used to enable organic processes between communities, which may ameliorate the tense ethnic boundaries.

The narrative is incomplete and that is the nature of space. An important stakeholder within this pluralistic public are the village inhabitants in Mrauk U itself. Beyond the concern for the suppression of Rakhine celebrations, what are their concerns with UNESCO branding the site as a one of “Outstanding Universal Value?” Additionally, can Muslims and cosmopolitan histories be included as part of Mrauk U’s history, or will the exclusionary Buddhist built heritage triumph at the expense of potentials for reconciliation? As the statue in Koe Thaung Temple endeavors to feed the world, what kind of world will it be inhabiting and wishing to feed?

References
Alderman, D., & Inwood, J. (2016). Landscapes of Memory and Socially Just Futures. In N. Johnson, R. Schein, & J. Winders (Eds.), The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Cultural Geography (pp. 186–197). Singapore: Wiley Blackwell.
Courtauld, C. (2013). Mrauk U (Myouhaung) and the West. In Myanmar: Burma in Style, an Illustrated History and Guide. Hong Kong: Odyssey Books and Maps.
Stadtner, D. (2015). Sacred Sites of Burma. Bangkok, Thailand: River Books.
Yegar, M. (1972). The Muslims of Burma: A Study of a Minority Group. Germany: University of Heidelberg’s South Asia Institute (SAI).

Conference Presentation: 2017 American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting

Earlier this month, AUC member Sonia Lam-Knott presented a paper titled ‘Nostalgic Spectacles: Material Representations of the Past for Popular Consumption in Hong Kong’ at the 2017 American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting at Washington DC, USA. The paper, referencing existing scholarship that explores the centrality of images in processes of knowledge-production across societies, examines how historical narratives can be conveyed through spectacles produced from the built urban environment.

Based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Hong Kong, the paper outlines the two different portrayals of the city’s past that are currently being advocated by the  government and by grassroots actors; with the former focussing on establishing a nationalistic discourse to situate Hong Kong as being a ‘Chinese city’, and the latter emphasising ‘local’ history to assert the city’s distinctiveness from the rest of the Chinese nation.  How such divergent approaches of Hong Kong’s past are expressed in material means are reviewed through an in-depth examination of two structures in the city, these being the Hong Kong Heritage Museum in Shatin managed by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department branch of the government, and the Hong Kong House of Stories in Wan Chai (please see a previous post by Dr. Desmond Sham for a detailed introduction to the heritage contestations surrounding this neighbourhood) that is managed by a non-governmental social enterprise known as St. John’s Settlement in collaboration with volunteers.

The Heritage Museum and the House of Stories are each rendered in a physical form that projects a specific image of the past to the public gaze. Whereas the museum building borrows from traditional Chinese architectural styles derived from the ancient imperial/dynastic eras of China, the House of Stories retains its tong lau (shophouses that are often a product of syncretic cultural exchange during the colonial era) facade and assumes a 19th/20th century domestic aesthetic. But asides from analysing the exterior appearences and internal layouts of both spaces, the paper is also interested in how these spaces are being experienced by those exposed to them, and thus reviews the degree of affective attachments being espoused by the vernacular domain towards each of these sites. Based on fieldwork data, it was found that informants deem the appearence of the House of Stories to be more ‘familiar’, and consider the historical narrative being celebrated at this space as being ‘temporally closer’ and more relevent, to their personal memories (or ‘postmemories’) of the past. What the paper hopes to show is that emergent national-versus-local identitarian debates (exacerbated with the recent rise of localist sentiments in politics), in combination with the way in which different historical narratives are being presented through material-visual means, influences how everyday citizens in contemporary Hong Kong feel and relate to narratives of the past.

EDIT: this paper can now be found under the ARI working paper series.

Upcoming Event: ‘Rhymes of Shui Hau’ Film Screening and Discussion

The Asian Urbanisms Cluster is pleased to invite Dr. Chloe Lai of the Urban Diary (webpage and Facebook) to ARI to give a talk about her experiences and observations regarding the making of the film ‘Rhymes of Shui Hau’.

The film documents the lifestyles and songs of the elderly inhabitants of Shui Hau, a village located on Lantau Island in Hong Kong. Examining the practices of these villagers offers a glimpse of Hong Kong’s vernacular heritage, of what life in Hong Kong was like before the territory underwent rapid industrialisation and urbanisation since the mid-twentieth century. More importantly, the film brings to the forefront the voices of communities that have long been marginalised within mainstream societal and academic discourses.

The film screening will be immediately followed with a discussion by Dr. Lai, titled ‘Everyday Life as a Cultural Right in Postcolonial Hong Kong’. The talk will feature themes addressed within the film;  introduce what the Urban Diary aspires to do; and broadly explore the importance of taking vernacular stories from the domain of everyday life into account, as a means of developing a more sustainable way of urban living for the future.

The event will take place on 26th January 2018, from 3pm until 5pm at the ARI Seminar Room (AS8, Level 4). It is open to all, and attendance is free. More information about the event, and the registration link, can be found here.

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Details about the film:

Executive Producer: Chloe Lai
Director: Chan Ho-lun Fredie
Aerial Cinematographer: Herman Lau
Wai Tau Waa Translation: Mink Chan, Chu Tsz-yui, The Hong Kong Bird Watching Society
Text: Haider Kikabhoy, Teresa Ho, Hung Wing-hei, Charlie Lam, Jenny Li
Length of Film: 49 minutes

Exploring the Forgotten Port Town in Singapore

The Asian Urbanisms Cluster (AUC) organised a two-day interdisciplinary conference titled “Remapping Arts, Heritage, and Cultural Production: Between Policies and Practices” on 16 – 17 August 2017. In order to extend our discussions beyond the classroom setting, with the support of members of other departments and institutions, we also held several excursions to heritage sites and cultural institutes across Singapore.

On a sunny Friday morning, Dr. Imran bin Tajudeen, Assistant Professor of the Department of Architecture, led the conference speakers on a guided tour titled “Cultural heritage district framing, architectural clues, and toponymic palimpsests: A walk through the other port town at Kampung Gelam” (more information about this walk can be found at the end of this post).

For many people, ‘Kampung Gelam’ (also known as Kampong Glam) refers to small area identified by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) as a historic district subject to conservation practices, bound by Ophir Road, Beach Road, Victoria Street, and Jalan Sultan. However, the area of Kampong Glam in the past was much more extensive, being regarded as a port town comprising of four districts: Kampung Gelam, Kampung Bugis, Kampung Kallang, and Kampung Rochor.

Starting our tour at the Lavender MRT Station, we walked past the Rochor River, where Dr. Imran showed us the location of this “forgotten” port settlement in what was the Kampung Rochor ward, once the merchants’ quarter within Kampung Gelam, now overshadowed by the Singapore River. Dr. Imran discussed the gradual demolition of the shophouses and street networks within the Kampung Rochor ward, and its overwriting as ‘Precinct N1’ with public housing blocks. Although the history was overwritten by urban redevelopment projects, the prosperity of the port town could still be seen from the now conserved Masjid Hajjah Fatimah (Hajjah Fatimah Mosque).

In this multiethnic vibrant merchant’s quarter of Kampung Rochor, men and women were permitted to own businesses, and under Islamic law, women had the sole right to their property and income in a marriage. The prominent role of women in the business domain is reflected by the fact that there are four mosques in Singapore named after their benefactors, who were women (one of these mosques has since been demolished, and sadly, its successor bears a different name). For example, Hajjah Fatimah was a very successful businesswoman of Bugis descent who hailed from Melaka, and was in Kampung Gelam during the 19th century. She donated finances to build one of the earliest mosques in Singapore.

Dr. Imran drawing comparisons between what the area looked like in the past and in the present era (Photo: Minna Valjakka)
Dr. Imran explaining the history of the neighbourhood (Photo: Desmond Sham)
Masjid Hajjah Fatimah, a mosque on Beach Road in the Kampong Glam area (Photo: Minna Valjakka)

According to the URA, the Kampung Gelam conservation area is officially recognised as a Malay-Muslim “ethnic enclave”. But as Dr. Imran emphasised throughout the tour, the area was historically an ethnically-mixed neighbourhood. (Different ethnic groups were able to communicate with each other by using the lingua franca of commerce in the region, which at the time was Malay). Yet this multiethnic past is lost in the process of state-led heritagisation. This is seen from the designation of the former Istana (palace of the former sultan) as the “Malay Heritage Centre”, as opposed to using a more encompassing label such as the “Kampong Glam Heritage Centre” which would project the diver array of communities and histories associated with the place. By focussing solely on the racial/ethnic tag “Malay”, the historical diversity of the area was undermined. For instance, the Javanese community had a significant demographic presence in Kampung Gelam, but because the physical makeover in the early 2000s followed an emphasis on Malay and Arabian identities, their histories have been subsumed under the new heritage narrative and urban design packaging. Meanwhile, in order to promote an exotic image for the tourists, Turkish and Lebanese restaurants were introduced to convey a sense of “Arabian ambiance”.

The Malay Heritage Centre was once a royal palace of the Sultan (Photo: Desmond Sham)
The group in front of the Masjid Sultan (Sultan Mosque) in Kampung Gelam (Photo: Minna Valjakka)

This walking tour, which was enriched with insightful historical details of cultural history, architecture, and urban policies, lasted for 2.5 hours. At the end of the event, our group stopped at the junction of North Bridge Road and Ophir Road. Looking at the wide highway and new developments in the vicinity, Dr. Imran concluded the walk by remarking that the city once harboured a continuous multiethnic landscape. Yet, in the process of urban redevelopment, Kampung Gelam now seems to be self-contained, thus creating the image of a separate ethnic enclave.

We sincerely thank Dr. Imran for his informative walk. It provided a chance for both Singaporean and non-Singaporean conference participants to better understand the history and heritage of Singapore.

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Cultural heritage district framing, architectural clues, and toponymic palimpsests:  A walk through the other port town at Kampung Gelam

by Dr. Imran bin Tajudeen

This walk will bring you through areas of erasure and re-inscription in the built landscape of Singapore in selected portions of the northern half of its historical town. We visit the expunged neighbourhoods and extant streets of Singapore’s other port town at Kampong Glam (Kampung Gelam), which has undergone a variegated history of framing and reframing by Singapore’s cultural tourism policies.

We will observe the spatial complexities in the significance of places and sites for different communities, viewed against their re-naming/re-branding as mono-racial blocs. As an alternative framework we consider the evidence from the forgotten Kampung/Campong urban ward toponyms from Singapore’s historical lingua franca, Malay, that was shared across multiple linguistic groups in colonial Singapore, and from a number of old Compound Houses, shophouses and key cultural landmarks.

Upcoming seminar series: Activate! Emergent Forms of Civic Practices in Contemporary East Asian Cities

The ARI Asian Urbanisms Cluster, together with the NUS Department of Architecture, have convened a seminar series that will take place during the Fall Semester of the NUS 2017/2018 academic year.

The seminars will critically present and examine the novel forms of civic practices that have manifested in the Asian urban context through a transdisciplinary framework. Bringing together a range of individuals (for example, academics, practitioners, students, and the general public) who are interested in urban spatial strategies, and the relationship such actions have with civil societies across the Asian region, the seminars will attempt to initiate discourse on two main themes:

First, to explore how the varied stakeholders involved in civil society groups, including academics and educators, activists, artists, NGOs, NPOs, informal interest groups and community associations, political parties, and governmental organizations currently de/reconstruct the contextual and physical understanding of shared urban space in Asia. It is of interest to review the main goals of the novel civic practices, and the extent in which these aspirations are realised.

Secondly, these seminars articulate how stakeholders engage in the process of collaborative knowledge production through these practices. More importantly, the aim of the series is to conceptualise civic practices as a product of the distinctive trajectories of socio-economic development, spatial/cultural policies, and the structures of political governance in the Asian region. To reiterate, these seminars provide an overview on the distinctive challenges and opportunities that contemporary Asian cities pose for civil societies, and the kind of local and global characteristics that are emerging in these locales.

Seminars are open to all. Please see below for details on the forthcoming seminars and on how to register:

11th October 2017
‘Becoming Heritage: Bukit Brown Cemetery’
Dr. Liew Kai Khiun, Nanyang Technological University
Register here

25th October 2017
‘More Grows in the Garden than the Gardeners Sow: The Roots and Shoots of Social Agriculture in Singapore’
Ms. Sarah Ichioka, Urbanist and Curator, Former Research Fellow at the Centre for Urban Greenery and Ecology, NParks, Singapore
Mr. Bjorn Low, Edible Garden City, Singapore
Ms. Ng Huiying, Foodscape Collective, Singapore
Register here

1st November 2017
‘Rethinking Cyber Activism in Asian Democracies’
Dr. Natalie Pang, Senior Research Fellow at The Social Lab, Institute of Policy Studies in the Lee Kuan Yew School of Policy Studies
Dr.  Donghyun Song, Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore
Register here

8th November 2017
‘Working with the “Grassroots” for Built Heritage Conservation’
Mr. Kelvin Ang, Urban Redevelopment Authority, Singapore
Register here

Remapping the Arts, Heritage, and Cultural Production: Between Policies and Practices in East and Southeast Asian Cities

Poster: Remapping the Arts, Heritage and Cultural Production

The full program has recently been published for our upcoming conference, ‘Remapping the Arts, Heritage, and Cultural Production: Between Policies and Practices in East and Southeast Asian Cities‘, co-organised by Minna Valjakka, Desmond Sham, and myself, scheduled for the 16th – 18th of August, 2017 at ARI. We are pleased to confirm our two keynote speakers, Professors Lily Kong (SMU) and Andy Pratt (City Uni, London), who will be delivering the opening and closing talk for the conference, respectively.

This interdisciplinary conference brings together a dynamic range of both established and early career scholars, activists, and creative practitioners to explore the role of arts, culture and heritage in developing more progressive societies in East and Southeast Asian cities. The conference includes case studies from numerous cities throughout the region, from South Korea to Singapore, on topics from art districts and art activism to heritage walks and cultural activism. Questions that guide the conference proceedings speak to integrated themes across these topics and sites to further conceptual and policy-relevant insights on the critical role of arts, heritage and creative practices in contemporary cities. For instance:

  • How do arts, heritage, and creative practices provide opportunities for ‘creative communities’ to resist the encroachment of the corporate economy (Douglass 2015)? What challenges do they face in asserting their right to urban space?
  • How and to what extent could ‘gentrification aesthetics’ (Chang 2014) open up new approaches for analysing both positive and negative impact of urban redevelopment?
  • What kind of innovations in governance are needed to support art communities, heritage preservation, and cultural and creative industries in ways that are socially inclusive, viable, and enhance civil participation? Can an approach based on the interconnectedness of cultural and social sustainability (Kong 2009) benefit the understanding of the collective processes emerging in cities today?
  • How does public art reflect the ways in which forms of vernacular heritage, culture, and socio-spatial identity are bound up with the representation and (re)shaping of place and landscape in cities? What controversies and political fault lines might emerge through these processes?
  • What kind of novel forms of ‘art activism’ or ‘cultural activism’ are emerging, and how do they benefit, interact, or hinder the aims of social transformations?
  • To what extent are arts, heritage, and cultural productions contributing to the development of ‘tourist cities’? How is this being resisted or embraced by local populations?
  • Finally, what new approaches are emerging that transcend purely physical space? Can intangible forms, such as digital networks, forums and sites, benefit the survival of local communities?

Please visit our website to download the Conference abstract and register. Admission is free and open to the public, we hope to see you there!

Mediating Heritage Conservation and Urban Development in Contemporary Malaysia

What are the issues surrounding the conservation of urban heritage in Malaysia’s rapidly urbanising cities? This is the seemingly simple question that I set out to explore in my current postdoctoral work at ARI, focusing primarily on the UNESCO World Heritage City of Penang. However, the more that I thought about this question, and began some preliminary research, it quickly became evident that there is more to the question than I initially thought.
I first set out to focus on cultural heritage, as this seemed to be at the core of disputes surrounding redevelopment and urban regeneration in the UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site of Penang.  However, I soon realised that the ongoing conservation efforts in Penang, and concerns about urban (re)development are about more than just the island’s cultural heritage. Rather, the concepts of cultural and natural heritage, which have been largely kept apart both in academic studies on heritage conservation, and UNESCO’s distinction between Cultural and Natural Heritage Sites, are both deeply intertwined. This is particularly true in South/East Asian cities like Singapore, Penang, and Hong Kong, which have an abundance of both cultural and natural attributes that create attachment to place amongst locals and visitors alike. As Jenkins and King (2010: 48) have noted: “recently there has been an emergence of conservation awareness and the realisation among some local groups of the importance of their urban heritage for the general well-being of their environment”.

The importance of both natural and cultural heritage to Penang’s inhabitants have become particularly discernible with the announcement of the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP). Penang’s civil society organisations, most notably the Penang Forum, which subsequently released its detailed critique of the Plan, encapsulated by the slogan Better, Cheaper, Faster. This document critically evaluates the perceived social, economic and environmental unsustainability of the PTMP, while offering a revised plan that would be better, cheaper and faster. Amongst the numerous areas of concern, particular issues are related to the proposed LRT system, which would pose both aesthetic and physical threats to the heritage landscape of George Town. In addition, the proposed undersea tunnel linking Penang Island with Peninsular Malaysia, and the substantial land reclamation required to finance the project, have posed additional environmental concerns.

Various components of the Proposed Penang Transport Master Plan Development, including reclaimed islands in yellow at the south of Penang Island.
Various components of the Proposed Penang Transport Master Plan Development, including reclaimed islands in yellow at the south of Penang Island.

Perhaps surprisingly, land reclamation is a recurrent theme in heritage controversies in South/East Asian Cities. Singapore, Melaka, Penang and Hong Kong have all experienced substantial land reclamation, which has been hotly contested by local civil society organisations. In Hong Kong, land reclamation emerged for two reasons: first, given the island’s limited amount of developable land and the high population; and second, the State’s dependence on it as a revenue stream, particularly in the 1980s (see Lu, 2009). This situation is similar to Penang, which receives a limited budget from the Malaysian federal government and thus relies on the unsustainable income stream of land sale to corporate land developers. Since the State Government has now sold most of its remaining land, it now must reclaim additional land, which will mostly be used for the development of high rise luxury condos, hotels and cruise ship terminals. Penang has now also been digging into its forested hillsides for condo development, which has caused landslides, and sinkholes under the nearby roads and properties due to the changing water table. The reclamation of land in these cities is also dialectically related to heritage conservation, because the local governments have sought to overcome heritage-related constraints on development (i.e. UNESCO zones in George Town and Melaka) by reclaiming land to ‘take the pressure off the historical parts of the city’ (King, 2016: 153).

For instance, in Melaka, the State Government’s focus on megadevelopment and tourism revenue has resulted in the destruction of the city’s harbour and waterfront area – which is arguably its historic raison d’être – only to be replaced by a large swathe of reclaimed land (see King, 2016: 151; Cartier, 1998). This reclaimed land has been used primarily for high-rise buildings, hotels, shopping malls, and some semi-detached housing. Despite the failure of the Pulau Melaka development (Melaka Island – constructed of reclaimed land), work is currently underway to reclaim even more land along the Melaka coast, known as Melaka Gateway. This development would envelop the Pulau Melaka development, in order to rid the State Government of the white elephant that it has created since its completion, over ten years ago. Such developments pose not only environmental consequences for the region, but also social issues, particularly for the Kristang (hybrid Malaccan/Portuguese) community and their sea-based livelihood, as their “coastal location has been transformed into an inland one” (King, 2016: 153).

Pulau Melaka (vision)
Developer’s vision of Pulau Melaka…
Reality of Pulau Melaka
Reality of Pulau Melaka – a ‘ghost island’. Will the same happen with the Melaka Gateway Project?

Of course, the dynamics between government, civil society and other stakeholders is also a central component of this research. Penang has been credited with having a more vibrant and successful civil society community than other Malaysian – and, indeed, Asian – cities. The success of heritage preservation there has been credited to the “interplay of fight and talk” between the government and civil society (ibid). Yet, the relationship is far from perfect. For instance, a Penang Forum Member recently wrote a letter to UNESCO, highlighting the considerable impact that the proposed PTMP plan would have on the heritage value of the city. In response, the Chief Minister of Penang, Lim Guan Eng said the letter was “like a stab in the back”, given that the author of the letter is an elected MP in Penang. Lim explained that the PTMP is “crucial, a life changer that can affect every citizen in the state, and will provide for the economic prosperity of Penang until 2050” (ibid). These comments are evocative of the attitude of the Malaysian government’s narrow focus on (capital D) development as the way forward for Malaysia. It also highlights the extent to which constructive criticism on behalf of civil society, and other stakeholders is (not) valued by the government. As Jenkins and King (2010: 46) have lamented: “there appears to be confusion in the Municipal Council (Majlis Perbandaran Pulau Pinang [MPPP]) as to what is meant by conservation as an integral part of development…just as there is a preoccupation with ‘the tallest, the biggest, the longest and the widest”.

If you are interested in discussing these issues further, I would encourage you to attend ARI’s upcoming seminar ‘The Natural Heritage and Environmental Costs of Penang’s Development’ by Dr Kam Suan Pheng, an activist/scholar, and a Penangite, who has been actively campaigning for the conservation of Penang’s urban heritage for a truly ‘Cleaner, Greener Penang’ (31 October, 2016). I will also be presenting a longer version of this post at the later ARI Workshop ‘Resilient Cities for Human Flourishing: Governing the Asia-Pacific Urban Transition in the Anthropocene’(March 2-3, 2017).

References and Further Reading
Cartier, C., 1998. Megadevelopment in Malaysia: From Heritage Landscapes to “Leisurescapes” in Melaka’s Tourism Sector. Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 19, 151–76.

Jenkins, G., King, V.T., 2003. Heritage and development in a Malaysian city: George Town under threat? Indonesia and the Malay World 31, 44–57. doi:10.1080/13639810304441

Lu, T.L. 2009. Heritage Conservation in Post‐colonial Hong Kong. International Journal of Heritage Studies 15, 258–272. doi:10.1080/13527250902890969