Is Georgetown losing its UNESCO World Heritage status?

Its a known fact that Georgetown has been gazetted as the UNESCO World Heritage status by the United Nation of Education Scientific Organization (UNESCO) since 7th July 2008. However, not many knows that more and more local Georgetown are now being threatened and forced to leave their home because they can no longer pay the increasing high rent. A backpacker owner in Georgetown I came across with told that they had to pay the rent for RM10,000 a month.

According to the President of Penang Heritage Trust, Khoo Salma Nasution, since Georgetown obtained the World Heritage status, the tourism in Georgetown are increasing. However the number of local Georgetown who lived there since generations before has been declining due to the increasing rent.

The number of local Georgetown are expected to decline to below 10,000 people, whereby the number of local Georgetown has reduce from 10,159 people in 2009 to 9245 people in 2013. However, two out of three criteria by UNESCO for Georgetown to be able to obtain the World Heritage status is because of it Cultural and tradition in Georgetown  which is the ‘Outstanding Universal Value’ (OUV)   (Source: malaymailonline).

In her book title “The Sustainable Penang Initiative: Creating State society Partnership For Sustainable Development”, , the abolishment of Rent Control Act 1966 which previously helped the local Georgetown to rent at a cheap price especially for those who have low income are now forcing the small business owner to move out due to the increasing rent by the owner of the building.

For example,renter at 6 shoplot at Cheapside Lane nearby Chulia Street was forced to move out from their premise in December 2015 located nearby the UNESCO core zone.

A hardware shop owner, Eng Hooi, 50 years old told that his family has been renting in that area since his father start their business 100 years ago. He expressed his dissatisfaction because there  seem to have no effort in protecting the heritage, instead, priority was given to the development and tourism in Penang only.(Source: Malaysia Insider) .

Khoo Salma expressed that there should be an effort towards developing the heritage area in a sustainable way and controlled to protect the intangible heritage that can protect the people in Penang and the city itself. When the local Georgetown are forced to move out from the buildings, it also means that the heritage in Georgetown are also at stake because only the locals who grew up in Georgetown who have the knowledge, culturally and traditionally on the heritage of the place . The heritage in Georgetown is not just mere architecture of the building but also the local Georgetown who is the ‘living heritage’ of the town itself.

If such values loses with the disappearing of local Georgetown that inherits the culture and tradition of Georgetown due to the uncontrolled development, it is possible for Georgetown to lose its World Heritage status since they do not conserve the ‘Outstanding Value’ which is the Cultural and Tradition in Georgetown like what happened to other World Heritage site such as the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman and  Drseden Elbe Valley in Germany.

In Oman, the  Arabian Oryx Sanctuary are a protected conservation area for Arabian Oryx that is now an endangered species. It is also a sanctuary for animals like  ‘Arabian Wolves, Nubian Ibex, Mountain Gazelle,  Honey Badgers and wild cat species, Caracal.

In 2007, the  Arabian Oryx Sanctuary became the first World Heritage site to be withdrawn its status as heritage after oild was found, effecting almost 90% of the conservation area. The number of Arabian Oryx in that area has decreased from 450 species to 65 specoies that year.

In 2009, due to the building of  Waldschlösschen bridge that was considered to divide the Drseden Elbe Valley in Germany that is a conservation area for 650 bat species  Lesser Horseshoe has made UNESCO to withdraw the World Heritage status given and funding to conserve the heritage area in 2004.

This year, another area nearby the World Heritage site whereby the 200 year old Buddhist Temple located in Pulau Tikus are under threat which is the Siamese Village, Kampung Siam. According to the villagers, they have been living in the village for 6 generation and was given a letter to move out within 30 days on 23 April 2014 . However, according to the original document in 1845 when the East India Company on behalf of Queen Elizabeth, has written a will that the area are designated for the Burmese and Siamese community living in that area.

The ownership of the land are supposed to belong to the community and any form of selling and transferring ownership of the land cannot be done and only be used for the benefits of the Burmese and Siamese community forever. Therefore the villagers are surprised on how the land was sold when the ownership of the land are supposed to belong to the Burmese and Siamese community  there (Source: Anil netto).

After exhausting all option to defend their village, the Kampung Siam villagers had to give in after their plea was denied by the High Court last  23 February.

Kampung Siam is where  Noo Wan @ Wan Dee Aaroonratana, 91 years old learn the Siamese traditional dance which is the  Menora. ( Source: malaymail). This dance originated from Thailand, Noo Wan is the son of a famous Menora dancer who came to Penang during the British era. His father,  Pa’wan Dee and his dance troupe was invited to dance and do their rituals at the Buddhist temple. The Menora dance are a dance inherited since thousands of years ago and not just a dance but a religious ritual. Noo Wan learn to dance Menora from his father since he was 14 years old. He will memorize hundreds of stories because the dance are performed through story telling.Each dance has its own meaning and moral value through spiritual stories. In Penang, the dance sometimes performed in Bahasa Malaysia. Unfortunately, the dance has slowly been forgotten unlike in Thailand. Noo Wan made his last performance in 2002 when he was 80 years old at the  Wat Chaiya Mangkalaram beforeretiring ( Source: malaymail).

Other than Noo Wan, Kampung Siam is also a close to Noor Jahan Shamshudeen heart because it is the place where her ancestor started their business making Roti Canai which is one of the favourite food in Pulau Tikus. This is the village wherebye a lot of early settlers from Siam migrated to Penang. Some of them resides here and got married to the locals here. (Source: malaymail )

According to Pulau Tikus assemblymen, Yap Soo Huey, he have tried to talk to the owner of the land, which is Five Star Heritage Sdn Bhd to allow the villagers of Kampung Siams to continue their daily life and business there. However, the company stands firm with their decision to build a five story budget hotel with 97 room and 3 shop lot.  September last year, Yap also state that he wants to ask the Heritage Department to gazette the area as heritage site and writes to the Penang Municipal to review the status of the heritage buildings and shoplots in Kampung Siam along Jalan Burmah and Jalan Cantontment (Source::malaymail ). However, all efforts to conserve the heritage, culture and history of Kampung Siam fail to resist the development in Penang.

History only ‘lives’ for as long as there is people to inherit and sustain their heritage. If the the local people who is also the living heritage in that area moves out or dies away, what is left is just empty monuments. What is worrying is that one day, the heritage and history of Penang will only exist in museums, flyers and empty building without any living heritage that can tell the history of Penang that exist even before the arrival of Francis Light to Penang.  Pulau Pinang , previously knows as ‘Tanjung’ has been lived by multiracial from all over the region such as Acheh, Siam, Chinese Peranakan, Eurasians, and India muslim and the local Penang people even before 17th and 18th century.

Therefore the heritage of Pulau Pinang itself, should not be limited to Georgetown only but also to other area where the early settlers in Pulau Pinang should be protected, conserved and gazetted as heritage site by the authority.

The history and heritage in Penang should not just be an attraction for the tourist but an asset for the local government to conserve the living heritage around the heritage site  so that the tourist can also learn and know more on the history, culture and heritage in Penang even before Georgetown existed.

If such heritage site are being destroyed and developed only to be turned as boutique hostel and luxurious building without even being documented or conserved its culture and tradition, it will be a great loss to the country to lose such rich heritage site when the rest of the world especially developed countries has been protecting and conserving their heritage and history through a sustainable development effort.

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