The Penang Judge’s Residence on World Heritage Day – Khoo Salma Nasution

The Penang Judge’s Residence on World Heritage Day

Images courtesy of Khoo Salma
Images courtesy of Khoo Salma

As we approach World Heritage Day, we should reflect on the state of heritage in Malaysia today. UNESCO recommends that April 18 be observed as the “International Day for Monuments and Sites”by all its member states, including Malaysia.

 According to the National Heritage Department’s statistics, 50 buildings and monuments in the country have been gazetted as national heritage, along with 12 archaeological sites and 7 natural sites. In addition, a list from the year ­­2013 identifies a further 176 buildings and monuments which have yet to be gazetted under the National Heritage Act of 2005.  Malaysia is proud to have several UNESCO World Heritage Sites – two natural, one cultural and one archaeological – namely Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak and Kinabalu Park in Sabah, the Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca, and the Lenggong Valley Archaeological Site.

 The Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca, listed as a World Heritage Site in 2008, comprises Melaka and George Town. Although there is always room for improvement in the management of these heritage areas, what is currently alarming is the utter lack of protection for heritage buildings and monuments outside the World Heritage Site.

 In Penang, the oldest buildings of the Runnymede Hotel, identified by the Penang Heritage Trust as one of Penang’s Seven Most Important Endangered Sites since 2012, were demolished over the Chinese New Year holidays earlier this year. Although planning permission had been given for this site in 1999, the Runnymede’s association with the historic personality Sir Stamford Raffles, Eu Tong Sen, and the famous hotel and military establishment surely warranted further investigation over its cultural significance, as a matter of public interest.


 In the aftermath of the Soonstead petition in 2015 and the loss of Runnymede in 2016, a number of other issues were revealed. Firstly that the inventory of Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah which was put together as a pilot exercise around 1989, has not been checked or updated. Secondly, the Conservation Guidelines for the same area which were painstakingly negotiated by Penang Heritage Trust and SPEAD representatives (surveyors, planners, engineers, architects and developers), already accepted by Council, have been quietly relaxed or set aside some years ago. Thirdly, critical heritage buildings such as the outstanding Soonstead mansion were missing from the working inventory of Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah. The same can be assumed for several other ad hoc inventories from the 1990s for priority areas such as Macalister Road.

 As for the rest of Penang state, a comprehensive inventory may never have been undertaken or, if it has, such an inventory has never been exhibited and the extent of its coverage is not publicly known. Again, major heritage sites – even entire streets – may be missing. In short, there is little or no protection for buildings outside the World Heritage Site, except for the clause in the Town and Country Planning Act which requires property owners and developers to apply to Council for permission to demolish. The MBPP can thus protect a building by withholding permission for demolition but if there is no adequate inventory, the decision-makers might not realize that an important heritage building or ensemble is at stake.

 The Penang State Heritage Enactment passed in 2011 has yet to be implemented, with a gazetted register of the heritage items of state significance which warrant a higher level of protection and proactive measures. It might be possible to protect traditional heritage settlements such as Kampong Siam, Tanjong Tokong, Batu Uban and Balik Pulau through zoning, but a gazetted Local Plan for Penang Island is still wanting. Meanwhile we can anticipate that many more heritage areas will be destroyed or compromised through the pressures of rapid development and the hurried implementation of the State Transport Plan.

 The inventorization of our buildings and monuments is only the first step towards protection. A heritage policy needs to be adopted by all relevant authorities, at federal, state and local levels. I wonder if other cities and states in Malaysia have comprehensive inventories? Somehow I doubt it. So many heritage sites and places are being lost without the relevant authorities being even aware that they exist in the first place.


Images courtesy of Khoo Salma
Images courtesy of Khoo Salma

As we ponder on the state of heritage protection in Malaysia, let us take one important building as an example. It stands outside the George Town World Heritage Site. This is the former Judge’s Residence along Sepoy Lines in Penang, yet another of Penang Heritage Trust’s Seven Most Important Endangered Sites, now in a severe state of neglect and dilapidation.

 Designed by a military engineer, this bungalow first served as the quarters and mess house of the Commanding Officer of the European troops in Penang dating from around the time when the Royal Artillery and European troops moved from Fort Cornwallis to Sepoy Lines in 1881. The tropical bungalow has a semi-rounded porte cochere and deep verandahs. A castellated tower on each of the four corners of the bungalow bolsters its military appearance and makes it architecturally distinctive. The architectural historian Dr Jon Lim has described it as a “castellated mansion” which served as a prototype and inspiration for Penang’s famous and fanciful eclectic mansions such as “Woodville” and “Soonstead”.

 The significance of this castellated mansion is not only architectural. After the withdrawal of European troops from Penang around 1897, the bungalow was converted into a town residence for the Straits Settlements Governor. This conversion would have entailed physical improvements such as the addition of fine fittings, lavish furnishings and a splendid garden. The Governor of the Straits Settlements was then based in Singapore, and his position encompassed that of the High Commissioner for the Federated Malay States.

Images courtesy of Khoo Salma
Images courtesy of Khoo Salma

In the early 20th century, this ‘Governor’s Bungalow’ was the official abode of various Straits Settlements Governors such as Sir John Anderson (served as Governor, 1904–1911), Sir Arthur Young (1911–1920), and Sir Laurence Guillemard (1920–27). Each incoming Governor, usually accompanied by his wife, would normally spend a few days at this residence during his compulsory tour of duty of Penang. (This ‘Governor’s Bungalow’ is not to be confused with the ‘Residency’ of the colonial Resident Councillor on the opposite side of the Polo Ground, subsequently occupied by the post-Merdeka Governor of Penang.) Just before or after the Japanese Occupation, the bungalow became the Judge’s Residence and some of Penang’s most notable judges stayed here until the late twentieth century. Therefore, the building has historical, architectural, engineering and social significance and should be listed on the National Heritage Register.

 This former Governor’s Bungalow and Judge’s Residence and its ancillary buildings are currently in a severely dilapidated state. It is absolutely disgraceful that one side of the bungalow has been allowed to collapse. Year after year, the building has continued to deteriorate especially during the rainy season. It is urgent to safeguard the building and undertake emergency stabilization works while commissioning a heritage management plan, with a view to its restoration, preservation, maintenance and use.

 Who is responsible? The property is owned by the government and apparently administered by the Penang State Secretary. We have been told that the property has fallen into a limbo in the process of an incomplete land swap between state and federal government, but this could not be confirmed. Should bureaucratic impasse and sheer apathy cause such an important public building to fall to ruin? The federal-state blame game has to stop when it comes to protecting our environment and cultural heritage.

 On World Heritage Day, it would be timely for the Minister of Tourism and Culture as well as the Penang Chief Minister to jointly look into the case of the Penang Judge’s Residence and cooperate on its protection. My point is this: if such an important heritage building which belongs to the government cannot be saved, what hope is there for the hundreds of nationally significant buildings and the thousands of state and locally significant buildings in Malaysia?

Khoo Salma Nasution, Vice- President

Penang Heritage Trust

Penang Judge’s Residence was listed as Penang Heritage Trust’s Seven Most Important Endangered Sites. To read more and to support the advocacy for preservation of the Judge’s Residence, please click here