George Town’s new heritage predicament

IF YOU are concerned about the country’s heritage, jot down Feb 1, 2011 in your diary. It is on that day, just 17 months down the road, that Unesco’s deadline for Malacca and Penang to submit a detailed conservation plan each for their heritage sites ends.

Both states, whose inner cities were jointly accorded World Heritage Site status by Unesco in July last year, are required to prepare a Special Area Plan for each site.

The plans would then be presented to Unesco’s World Heritage Centre for a review of the joint status accorded to Malacca city and George Town as “Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca” by the world body.

But Penang is running against time. The state is unable to conduct the work necessary to comply with Unesco’s requirement as it is waiting for the release of a promised federal allocation.

The Information, Communications and Culture Ministry had allocated RM25 million for heritage conservation for George Town, but the state has not received anything to date. On the other hand, Malacca has received an equivalent amount, the Penang government has noted.

The money is needed for research on an Integrated Conservation Management Plan (ICMP). It is also needed to finance other programmes and projects listed in the Heritage Management Plan that was part of the nomination dossier approved by Unesco.

What makes the situation urgent is that these plan preparations are no simple tasks. They are complex and time-consuming. And Unesco is expected to conduct its inspection of the two sites soon after the deadline expires.

The Penang government had on March 24 submitted its implementation proposal for the RM25 million allocation to federal Heritage Commissioner Datuk Prof Zuraina Majid. And late last month it sent yet another appeal to Information, Communications and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Utama Rais Yatim explaining the urgency of the funds.

At the very least, the state requires RM750,000 to prepare its Special Area Plan, and another RM1.5 million for the ICMP.

If indeed the federal government is dragging its feet in the matter, it would make absolutely no sense. Not only that, it would make for an irresponsible laxity that may serve to affect Malaysia’s own dignity and standing in the eyes of the world.

For Malacca’s fate is tied to what happens to George Town. The Unesco review is one that would affect the whole country’s reputation.

The federal government’s apparent partisan approach in disbursing such urgent funding – reportedly releasing it to one state but not to another – begs an explanation. In any mature nation, such seeming inequity would be taken as a highly unusual gesture.

But unusual gestures cause unusual reactions. If you starve a person of a meal you are holding, expect him to claw his way to find the morsels to survive.

And so in an equally extraordinary move, Penang is now being forced to take things into its own hands. The state is in the midst of setting up its own trust fund for conservation, to be amassed through contributions from corporations and interested parties. One cannot expect it to gather much, but it should be enough to at least perform some important work.

And in a latest development, it is also looking into drafting an enactment to confer official heritage status on buildings and sites. The move would give Penang direct powers to protect, rehabilitate and promote any site that it deemed deserved heritage conservation.

Currently, the state’s ambit to accord legal heritage protection on important sites is restricted since such legislative powers lay solely under the federal government. Any heritage site status can only be given by the Heritage Commissioner under section 24 of the Heritage Act 2005.

“In the future if we feel a site deserves protection and the Heritage Commissioner does not think so, we would have the power to grant heritage status on the site,” Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng said.

Another issue that has made the authorities in Penang particularly bitter is to see the federal government reportedly undertaking only nine conservation projects in the state. In contrast, Malacca has had work done on 49 sites.

Just when Penang thought it had had a fresh breath of air after Unesco decided not to downgrade it from its World Heritage List in June over the controversy of four high-rise building approvals, the state has now had to come face-to-face with yet another wall.

“Penang is not getting the treatment it deserves,” Lim has lamented. It is a sentiment both the Minister and the Heritage Commissioner would do well to clarify, not just to Lim or his government, but to every right-minded citizen in the country.

Himanshu is theSun’s Penang bureau chief. Comments:

Category: News @ George Town
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