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  June 29, 2000 atimes.com  

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Southeast Asia

Wrecker's ball rips heart out of city
By Anil Netto

PENANG - The northwestern state of Penang is a perennial in the government's list of must-sees in Malaysia, but many say it may soon no longer belong there if state officials do not rethink their policies. Indeed, they say Penang's rich cultural heritage is in peril as a result of development planning that seems to overlook the importance of preserving a community's history.

The historical center of George Town, Penang's capital, is already on the global List of 100 Most Endangered Sites, 2000-2001. The list, maintained by the New York-based World Monuments Watch program, identifies cultural landmarks around the world that are in immediate peril due to neglect, uncontrolled urban growth, suburban sprawl and disaster.

''There is growing international consensus that cultural heritage is one of the most important issues of sustainable development,'' said Khoo Salma Nasution of the 24-nation Asia and West Pacific Network for Urban Conservation (AWPNUC). ''Cultural heritage is sometimes seen as a luxury of the rich, but in fact it is absolutely essential to the dignity, livelihood, and quality of life for the poor.''

Conservation activists recently widened the definition of the 1996 Yokohama Statement on Urban Culture and Heritage Conservation to encompass the protection of whole precincts and villages and not just selected historical buildings or monuments. But these words seem to be lost on officials administering a growing number of historical sites such as Penang, where the recent repeal of the Rent Control Act threatens the habitat of traditional communities in George Town, Malaysia's first city.

The act kept rentals low and hence protected the city's pre-World War II buildings for the last 50 years by discouraging landlords from upgrading or redeveloping their properties. Penang itself has more than 12,000 pre-war houses, the largest collection in Southeast Asia. Many of them are terraced double-storey shop-houses, which contain businesses and private residences alike. In the past, Penang and other historical Malaysian cities like Malacca saw communities thrive in traditional settings despite rapid economic growth. Today, however, the repeal of the Rent Control Act has seen thousands of low-income tenants facing eviction as landlords hike rents. The traditional traders in George Town's Chinatown and Little India now have an uncertain future and risk losing their livelihood.

The tearing down of old buildings to make way for concrete-and-tinted glass office blocks is becoming a common sight in George Town, which was founded in 1786 by British explorer Francis Light and named after King George IV of England. ''Landlords are just kicking out the tenants and replacing them with those who will pay higher rents,'' says organic farmer Ong Boon Keong. ''What steps will the government take to keep the community?''

Instead of waiting for an answer to that question, tenants like Ong have formed Save Our Selves, an organization that is lobbying the government for compensation and alternative housing. Many of these tenants-turned-activists say a big part of the problem is that these communities are voiceless and not represented in the decision-making process at the local government level.

In towns and cities across Malaysia, officials in municipal and town councils are appointed by state governments and are not elected by the people. There is thus little accountability to the public and decisions are often made by faceless bureaucrats. ''The authorities are not proposing any action to preserve the communities,'' says Ong, who accuses officials of turning traditional areas into centers filled with cafes, boutiques and yuppie hangouts.

Unsurprisingly, the state government received poor marks in a recent report card prepared by activists, planners, architects, property owners and prominent business personalities regarding its efforts in preserving Penang's cultural heritage. On a scale of 1 (very poor) to 5 (very good), Penang authorities received an average score of only 2 in nine key areas. They were also rated ''poor'' in promoting participation and transparency in conservation decision-making. More embarrassingly, they scored '''very poor'' in effectiveness and efficiency, accountability, and strategic vision in cultural conservation.

The cultural conservation report card was just one of a series of similar assessments from participants in a unique workshop organized earlier this month by the AWPNUC and the Penang Heritage Trust. A delegate at the event when asked if there was any hope for George Town as a heritage city, replied that, ''Things will get worse before they get better.''

(Inter Press Service)



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