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.
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).
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