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International Monuments and Sites Day 2018: Heritage for Generations

The International Monuments and Sites Day was proposed by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) on 18th April 1982 and approved by the General Assembly of UNESCO in 1983. The principle behind this significant day is to promote awareness about the diversity of cultural heritage of humanity, their vulnerability and the efforts required for their protection.

International Monuments and Sites Day 2018 is the 36th year that this day is celebrated globally. The theme for this year’s celebration is Heritage for Generations. Over the years, Penang Heritage Trust had joined in to observe this significant date, and this year, PHT would like to observe it by sharing its latest agenda for heritage and cultural conservation and preservation, extracted from the recently launch Penang Forum Agenda 2018.

In the Penang Forum Agenda 2018’s list of 40 recommendations, Penang’s heritage is mentioned in the following points:

Item 28: Work towards joint World Heritage inscription of Pulau Jerejak and Sungai Buloh

Item 33: Gazette the Prangin Canal site as a public theme park

Item 34: Extend heritage protection to sites outside the World Heritage zone

Item 35: Develop sustainable and responsible tourism rather than mass tourism.

Report No 19 of the Penang Forum Agenda 2018 is reproduced below to highlight the milestones achieved in heritage conservation, as well as recommendations to further protect and conserve our fragile heritage and cultural fabric of Penang.


Penang is known for its multicultural port city of George Town, and its scenic cultural landscape of hills and coastline. It boasts a large collection of historic mansions and shophouses, found in almost every part of the state. Penang also has a heritage of natural (hill forests, waterfalls, coastlines, mangroves) and cultural landscapes, such as Penang Hill, Penang Botanic Gardens, Pulau Jerejak, Pulau Aman, Pulau Kendi, and the agricultural landscapes of Seberang Perai Utara as well as the orchards of Balik Pulau.

George Town and Melaka were listed on 7 July 2008 as Historic Port Cities in the Straits of Malacca, which “constitute a unique architectural and cultural townscape without parallel anywhere in East and Southeast Asia”. The total area of the George Town cultural property is 259.42 ha (109.37 ha core zone, 150.05 ha buffer zone) with a total of 4665 buildings (2344 in core zone, 2321 in buffer zone).

The following criteria contribute to their Outstanding Universal Value:

  1. exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design
  2. bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared,
  3. be an outstanding example of a type of building or architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history.

It is well known that Penang civil society, in particular the Penang Heritage Trust (founded in 1986), played a major role in advocating heritage protection including initiating and pushing for UNESCO recognition. Immediately after World Heritage listing in 2008, several issues became apparent such as inadequate consultation with local community and the need for traffic restriction. The approval of four high-rises in George Town, which contradicted the Nomination Dossier submitted for listing, resulted in a UNESCO reactive monitoring mission to resolve the issue in April 2009.

The state agency George Town World Heritage Incorporated was officially established in April 2010 to monitor and manage the World Heritage Site (WHS). A Technical Review Panel (TRP) was created under the Penang Island City Council (MBPP) to look into building submission and planning applications for conversions, change of use and infill developments within the WHS. In spite of this, various crises (high-rises, swift-breeding for birds’ nest-harvesting, illegal conversions, evictions) as well as many new infill buildings and haphazard renovations took place in the 8-year gap before the gazetting of the UNESCO-endorsed Special Area Plan.

The Penang State Heritage Enactment gazetted in 2011 nominally extended the scope of protection to the entire state. Meanwhile, the proliferation of swift-breeding prompted a World Heritage Committee request for a Heritage Impact Assessment resulting in this activity being prohibited in the WHS.

Responding to the proliferation of illegal hotels (about 100 identified in the WHS), the state government initiated a process of legalising them (called pemutihan, literally ‘whitening’), and at the same time imposed a moratorium on new hotels. Meanwhile, the residential population of the WHS, which had already been adversely affected by the Repeal of Rent Control in 2000, continued to decline from 10,159 pax and 2,533 households in 2009 to 9,425 pax and 2,302 households in 2013 (a decline of 7.2 percent and 9.1 percent respectively in just four years). It has likely fallen further since then.

Intangible heritage surveys on traditional trades and festivals undertaken by the Penang Heritage Trust on behalf of the George Town World Heritage Incorporated in 2012 and 2013 might provide a baseline for measuring the loss of intangible cultural heritage that has occurred with the evictions and loss of community in recent years.

Think City’s George Town Grants Programme and George Town City Council’s programme to encourage rehabilitation of derelict properties, together with investor interest (sometimes speculative) in George Town’s heritage properties, have resulted in many derelict properties being revitalised and reused, but in most cases the quality of repair and adaptation was not assured. While the trend in hipster cafes is welcomed by the tourism industry, a pattern of high rentals and short-lived businesses has been observed.

Issues and Recommendations
  1. Heritage protection awareness:Ten years after World Heritage Listing, heritage awareness is still lacking. In local government, achieving broader conservation objectives would require the integration of heritage objectives, the mainstreaming of the heritage approach, and alignment and coordination between departments such as planning, building, evaluation, engineering, licensing and enforcement.
  2. Monitoring and enforcement: Monitoring and enforcement in the WHS is far from effective as illegal renovations are still taking place on a weekly, if not daily, basis. Among the most common destructive works are the hacking of plastered brick walls, the removal of structural walls, plastering with modern cement instead of lime, replacing wooden floors with concrete floors, the destruction and removal of heritage features such as timber doors, timber frames, shutters or windows, traditional roof structures and tiles, old floor tiles, etc. Illegal works may take place after office hours and during weekends, or behind closed doors, thereby avoiding detection.

The role of civil society and concerned people in monitoring and reporting should be recognized and welcomed by the local government and government agencies. Cooperation needs to be established among those with the common objectives of reducing destruction to heritage buildings and sites. Regular meetings with inclusive representation will help to improve the monitoring and reporting process.

  1. Technical Review Panel: The appointment of the Technical Review Panel members tend to be made according to representation in the industry instead of according to the terms of reference spelt out in the nomination dossier.

An extensive assessment should be done of the infill projects and conversions approved by the Technical Review Panel since it was formed, to see if they have complied with the Special Area Plan since it was endorsed by UNESCO in 2011, and even more so after it was gazetted in 2016.

  1. The Special Area Plan Interpretation: For new infill, the Special Area Plan gazetted in 2016 stipulates a maximum height of 18 metres up to the eaves but also stipulates that new development should follow the height of the lower neighbour. However, this guideline is often overlooked with negative consequences on streetscapes roofscapes, the overall urban fabric of George Town.

Envelop control should be strengthened according to the SAP. A process should be introduced to ensure that the consultant undertaking heritage impact assessment should be independent rather than one engaged by the developer.

  1. Fire Regulations: Although the SAP stipulates that the wooden floors and staircases of heritage buildings should be preserved, the fire department requires concrete floors and staircases in planning applications for conversion to commercial premises where safety risk to general public safety is a factor.

A dialogue with the fire department is necessary to standardize guidelines pertaining to fire safety which are more sympathetic to heritage conservation, such as the option of using of fire-retardant paint.

  1. Intangible Heritage: The living community of the WHS is the custodian of its intangible cultural heritage. Consequently, any further decline in the residential community should be stopped and reversed.

A policy is needed to stop further evictions and to attract more local people and Malaysians to live in the WHS. Schemes should be drawn up to repopulate George Town, for example, by encouraging shophouse owners to rent their houses, or even just the upper floor to residential tenants who will “live above the shop”.

  1. Conversion to Hotels: Both legal and illegal conversions of hotels have changed the character of the WHS, streets and neighbourhoods. Some of the illegal hotels have no back lanes. ‘Party hostels’ induce after-midnight party behavior, disturbing residents on the street.

A moratorium should be imposed for new conversions to hotel use, while an assessment is taken on existing legal and illegal hotels, their impact on building fabric and neighbourhoods. The local government should also examine the rise of Airbnb with the intention of regulating the business and tapping on revenues.

  1. Change to Commercial Use: Currently, it is attractive for landowners to let their premises for commercial rentals, whether legally or involving illegal conversions for food and beverage outlets and hotels.

The impacts of new commercial use should be mitigated, for example, the imposition of noise levels on entertainment outlets, pubs and “party hostels”, and the enforcement on the use of grease traps by food and beverage outlets.

  1. WHS Infrastructure and Public Realm: Much of the interconnected historic road and drainage system, designed with historic building methods and building forms in a holistic manner, are regularly damaged in the course of utility infrastructure repairs, flood mitigation, and other types of ad hoc repair and upgrading projects on a regular basis. The changing of road and drainage levels is making the WHS more prone to rising damp and flood. There is lack of green open space and urban greenery in the WHS.

A Heritage Infrastructure Management (HIM) Plan is required to understand and protect this heritage infrastructure. At the same time, a public realm master plan needs to be drawn up to make sure that road-widening, new urban design projects and so forth respect the language of the historic streetscape and five-foot ways and their interconnectedness and legibility. The plan to turn the area around the Prangin Canal into a public park should be implemented with the restored canal as a water feature and archaeological showcase, with good pedestrian connectivity to the World Heritage Site.

  1. Tour buses, traffic and parking: Although UNESCO strongly recommended that restrictions be imposed on traffic, little has been done since 2008 apart for the introduction of car-free Sundays on Beach Street, more pedestrian crossings and patchy cycle lanes. Among the problems are heavy traffic of single-occupancy cars and bottleneck junctions, the influx of large tour buses which park illegally leaving their engines on, and get stuck in narrow streets that they are prohibited to enter. Attempts to impose delivery times have not been successful.

A short, medium and long-term plan for traffic restriction should be instated to reduce polluting motorised traffic and encourage other forms of mobility.

  1. Vistas and Buffers: The approval of several new developments particularly in the Seven Streets Precinct will mar the vistas from the WHS. The purchase of a large collection of historic shophouses by one or a few owners in the WHS buffer and Seven Streets Precinct and their conversion into commercial use entailed the large-scale eviction of tenants and gentrification.

Height limits should be imposed on the ‘tertiary zone’ area which constitutes the ‘broader setting’ of the WHS. Elevated public transport and elevated ramps or expressways should also not be permitted for the same reason. The government should consider expanding the core zone to the present buffer zone (slightly modified to include the early 19th century boundaries) and create a new ‘tertiary zone’ which can be converted into a buffer for the enlarged core zone.

  1. Political Will: There is a lack of political will to extend heritage protection beyond the boundaries of the World Heritage Site, despite the existence of a rich tangible and intangible heritage outside the World Heritage Site. Many heritage buildings have been approved for demolition or illegally demolished, although it is within the local government’s powers to identify and to provide some preliminary protection for these properties and, in some cases, to make their preservation a condition of development approval. Although gazetted in 2011, the State Heritage Enactment has not been implemented in any significant way. The Governor’s Bungalow on Sepoy Lines, for example, is in a state of dereliction despite its outstanding significance.

The state government can start by inventorizing its own properties as well as lands under state and local government stewardship, and making the list public. It should also draw up a maintenance and repair schedule, pledging to keep these properties in good condition. An inventory of significant historic buildings, ensembles and sites, should be drawn up no matter where they might be located in the state, for preliminary protection and for consideration of restoration. The same applies for government lands, such as Penang Hill, Penang Botanic Gardens and Pulau Jerejak, as well as scenic coastlines, which should also be protected as cultural landscapes.’

For the full report of the Penang Forum Agenda 2018, you can obtain it online here.

Please do read the report, and take up some issues with the potential constituency candidates for the coming elections. This is by no means a comprehensive agenda of the needs and wants of Penang people, so do feel free to drop us a note on how to improve the agenda.