Friday, September 30, 2016

Dire straits for Malaysia’s world heritage - Why Melaka and George Town are at risk of becoming ghosts of their former selves

In 2008, the Malaysian cities of Melaka and George Town were jointly listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. As often happens in World Heritage Sites, a label meant to highlight and safeguard heritage has also opened the floodgates of tourism. The subsequent wave of gentrification and speculative development has caused mass-evictions and damage to both social and urban fabric.

Now, these cities risk losing their World Heritage status.

The mounting urban crisis in these historic cities highlights a couple of issues. Firstly, the weak enforcement of building codes – especially to protect heritage. Secondly, the need for careful planning to mitigate the unintended social and spatial consequences that accompany rapid development.

These issues are structural, not partisan. Melaka is governed by Malaysia’s ruling Barisan Nasional, while Penang – whose state capital is George Town – is an opposition state led by the Democratic Action Party. Yet the two cities share many of the same problems, and are therefore good case studies in urban governance in Malaysia.

While in theory there are rules to protect the built fabric of these historic cities, the reality is a little more complicated. For example, the George Town Special Area Plan – a set of guidelines required by UNESCO as part of its listing process – was only gazetted on 1 September this year, a full eight years after the city was listed.
Patchy enforcement of guidelines has been an even greater challenge for these cities. Illegal construction, renovation and demolitions have plagued both Melaka and George Town. NGOs like George Town Heritage Action (GTHA) have sprung up to address the perceived gaps left by city officials.

GTHA has been vocal about the lack of heritage monitoring and enforcement in George Town, but illegal works continue to chip away at historic buildings. Meanwhile, Melaka’s World Heritage Office quietly shut its doors in July this year, absorbed into larger municipal structures. It is unclear what this means for future monitoring of the site..

If both states have been slow to enact and enforce heritage legislation, they haven’t been shy in courting development. Land reclamation is a substantial part of growth plans in both states. Melaka is now the focus of a RM30 billion deal with China which will see three reclaimed islands rise from the waters of the Malacca Strait. Residents, however, have raised concerns about the impact this development will have on the old town.

Penang also has a number of major land reclamation projects planned – some postponed and others in progress – though these are further away from George Town’s World Heritage Site. While money from this sort of development has helped keep budgets in the black, there are concerns about the social and ecological consequences.

If authorities are struggling to manage built heritage, intangible cultural heritage is an even more complex challenge. The explosion in tourism has had a resounding echo in local real estate values, and rising rents have pushed century-old trades and businesses out of these historic centres. This undermines the very traditions for which the two port cities were listed as World Heritage Sites.

In George Town, one Singaporean developer alone has purchased over 200 historic shophouses just outside the boundaries of George Town’s World Heritage Site. Each of these land purchases has been accompanied by a flurry of eviction notices.

The dwindling population of these historic towns is a social crisis as much as a cultural one. Increasingly, the historically working class population of these port towns is being pushed into more affordable housing further out of the city centre. The problem has become so severe in George Town that Penang’s state government is now considering re-introducing rent control. The question now is who has the rights to the city?

In June, things came to head when a group of NGOs, Penang Forum, wrote to UNESCO to raise concerns about a proposed transport hub at the edge of George Town’s World Heritage Site. Penang Forum argues it was ‘duty-bound‘ to alert UNESCO before the state committed itself to any construction work, particularly at the archaeologically rich area called Sia Boey.

UNESCO subsequently contacted Malaysia’s federal heritage body for a report. The state hit back, with Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng describing the letter as ‘a stab in the back‘. The letter sparked a war of words, with politicians and even the Consumer Association chiming in.

Malaysia’s twin heritage cities are contested spaces. There are conflicting ideas about how they should develop, and what development means for them. With their rich history and human scale, Melaka and George Town have the potential to be Malaysia’s most liveable cities.

But sensitive planning is needed to protect both built heritage and local residents from gentrification. As it stands, however, they seem well on their way to becoming ‘Disneyfied’ ghosts of their former selves.

Soon-Tzu Speechley is a research assistant at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD)’s Architectural Conservation Lab. He has written for numerous publications in Malaysia, Australia and the Netherlands, including Penang Monthly and Failed Architecture. He has also edited a number of books on Malaysian architecture and history.

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