Projects of conscience

-A +A

IN my previous article of June 11 Shared values, history and conservation, I mentioned a forum organised by George Town World Heritage Inc and Think City Sdn Bhd on the subject "George Town World Heritage Site — Are we on the right track?" The event attracted a wide range of people, particularly residents and users with a stake in the site. George Town World Heritage Inc, created by the Penang government, is responsible for the management, monitoring and promotion of the George Town World Heritage Site.

A special project vehicle established and wholly owned by Khazanah Nasional Bhd, Think City is tasked with implementing and managing the George Town Grants Programme. The programme's objective is to transform George Town into a culturally vibrant and sustainable city through projects that are catalytic, encourage partnership, developmental, inclusive and sustainable.

It also encourages projects that are creative and innovative, particularly with regards to solving urban problems. The programme is now into its second year and has supported over 100 projects. A forum participant started the ball rolling by highlighting how there are now countless boutique and budget hotels springing up everywhere in the site and that the commercial imperative is all-consuming.

This is driving out long-standing tenants and traditional businesses, thus endangering George Town's outstanding universal values exemplified by the site's living, intangible culture. One inner city gentleman, whom I know only as Chandra, interjected to say there is one shining exception.

He gave an account of how my father, Datuk Loh Hoot Yeang, had sold in a collective arrangement a property he owned on Market Street in Little India to the 10 existing tenants at substantially below the market price. He added that Loh would not sell the property to any one single person. To keep the peace, it was either to all or no-one. Chandra remembers Loh as a humble man who treated rich and poor alike and who would always have time for him as a young man.

He was grateful that the price for his family's shop was affordable at a time when properties in Little India were fetching the highest rentals and sale prices in Penang. I well remember my father's contention that the Indian tenants had been there since after World War Two and had been paying him rent consistently all those years. He recognised that they had spent their own money to maintain and upgrade what had originally been temporary, single-storey, timber and zinc sheds at the time he had built them.

The story behind the 10 terrace stalls is that very soon after the war, my father had set up a contracting company called LO Lee & Co with two friends called Ong and Lee. Their first job was to clear and salvage what they could of the highly decorative, Euro-Classical-Moorish Eclectic St Xavier's Institution building on Farquhar Street that had been bombed by the Allies.

The Market Street site was also a bombed-out site. The company had obtained permission from the city council to erect temporary stalls on it and up till today the company pays an annual fee to the Majlis Perbandaran Pulau Pinang for a "Perjanjian Bangunan Sementara" or a temporary building agreement.

"The timber used in the construction of Market Street was salvaged from St Xavier's. It was all solid wood and seasoned to last a lifetime," my father would acclaim, as the raconteur in him recounted his days as a budding contractor inspired by the school's motto "Labor Omni Vincit" or "Labour Conquers All", interspersed with tales of authoritarian Irish Christian Brothers and his sneaking off to play football on Renong Ground (now part of Dewan Sri Pinang) after my grandfather had locked the doors of their house in Green Hall.

Back to the forum subject mentioned in the opening paragraph. Has listing opened the door to solving urban problems and embedding better site management through the implementation of the Heritage Management Plan (which was a prerequisite of inscription), or has it merely created more opportunities for those with money?

I am of the view that more emphasis should be placed on the idea of collective management, for ultimately the protection of George Town's shared values is one huge project of conscience. Everyone involved in the process, especially those in positions of leadership, should start out with this belief.

Above everything else, there must be a single management entity with the mandate and power to manage the site from all aspects. Presently, this situation does not exist. It is still status quo. Each government agency performs its traditional duties and as a composite of functions, the city continues to operate in a municipal sense. There are many soldiers but they are not marching to a single drumbeat.

These are the sub-managers, but where is the CEO who instills the idea that if George Town is to survive in a sustainable fashion, every single player must have a conscience about delivering the promise of good management practice and care? Today, when it comes to management, it is a waiting game. The draft Special Area Plan for the site is supposed to be the ghost behind the George Town Heritage Management Plan.

Unfortunately, the wrong vehicle has been chosen. The Penang Structure Plan and the MPPP Zoning Plan, two key planning documents that govern spatial development and manage space, embody a promise to deliver a clean environment, integrated planning, good public transport, healthy living spaces, no traffic jams, affordable housing, social equity and other feel good conditions.

Ironically, the opposite effect has been created. Instead in its place we have development and contextual disparities and there are now many fires of discontent burning. Meanwhile, in the inner city, illegal and unsanitary hawker centres operate with impunity and keep a whole city block awake with loud music from "flower-garlanded" singers. Noisy restaurant exhausts blow their pungent smells into neighbouring residences.

Illegal swiftlet houses grow in numbers. Rowdy pubs open in once quiet housing zones showcasing the occasional drunken fight in true Bollywood style. Paper ideas do not translate into good management and delivery. They do not have a soul or a conscience. The state must recognise that we have a dire problem on our hands and a wholesale review of planning policies is urgently needed to put out the fires.Assoc Prof Laurence Loh, an architect by profession, has spent the past 26 years protecting, conserving, managing and sustaining the cultural heritage of Malaysia. He has garnered various Unesco awards for his work, the best-known of which is the restoration of the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion in Penang. Loh is also deputy president of Badan Warisan Malaysia. This story appeared in The Edge Financial Daily on July 9, 2012.