30 Nov Decaying state of George Town’s Unesco World Heritage Site
Published by New Straits Times• 30/11/2021• 06:52 pm
Penang’s George Town is supposed to have that character, given the fact that it is one of the historic cities in Malaysia accorded Unesco’s World Heritage Site status in 2008. -NSTP file pic
AMONG Malaysia’s stunning heritage sites are Langkawi Unesco Geopark, Gunung Mulu National Park, Tanjung Piai RAMSAR Site as well the Melaka and Penang Unesco World Heritage Sites.
It is somewhat expected that when one walks into a heritage site, one can easily immerse himself into the magnificence of such a majestic place.
Penang’s George Town is supposed to have that character, given the fact that it is one of the historic cities in Malaysia accorded Unesco’s World Heritage Site status in 2008.
Based on the website of Unesco, George Town was listed alongside Melaka as these former British Straits Settlement colonies “constitute a unique architectural and cultural townscape without parallel anywhere in East and Southeast Asia” – a magnificent combination of the cultural heritage of the Malays, Chinese, Indians and that of the British.
George Town and Melaka are indeed two of Malaysia’s cultural cities of historical significance.
Melaka has changed tremendously over the years, enjoying its reputation as Malaysia’s crown jewel of tourism.
The once murky and unpleasant river running through the historic city has been revived and rejuvenated to become one of the main attractions within the Melaka Unesco World Heritage site.
The river turns into a waterway of vibrant colours every night. The Melaka state government has also taken the initiative to beautify the walkway along the river from the mouth of Sungai Melaka all the way to Kampung Morten – showcasing the amazing architectural heritage of the Malays. Kampung Morten is a living museum in itself.
Other than that, the important heritage sites in Melaka such as Jonker Street, the ruins of A’ Famosa and St. Paul’s Hill as well as the red building of Stadhuys are gorgeously preserved to manifest architectural integration among its populace.
The areas where these historical monuments are located (particularly between the Stadhuys and all the way to A’Famosa) are off-limits to vehicles and only permit pedestrians and non-motorised vehicles – making it tourist friendly.
In contrast, these are qualities that may be absent when one talks about George Town. It is an indisputable fact that George Town is a historic city and a world heritage site.
Being a world heritage site, George Town is supposed to possess well-maintained historic buildings, well-lit tourist districts as well as convenient walkways for pedestrians.
More often than not though pedestrians have to walk on roadsides which may be dangerous especially on roads with high traffic volume.
As a tourist city, George Town should be equipped with an efficient public transportation system like that of Kuala Lumpur or Singapore.
After years of boasting itself as a modern city in northern Peninsular Malaysia, George Town is still devoid of a mass-transit system, leaving citizens and tourists alike with no other choice but to drive into the city.
This creates multiple problems, including traffic congestion and pollution, which may undermine George Town’s status as a Unesco World Heritage Site.
As a city on an island, one may also expect George Town to have its own public waterfront. However, most coastal areas within George Town’s Unesco world heritage site zone belong to private entities and the only waterfront available for the public is at Padang Kota Lama or the Esplanade.
With reclamation works actively taking place in the adjacent Gurney Drive, this once beautiful coastal area with a stunning waterfront is now nothing more than just a district with tall buildings.
It is true that a number of old buildings, churches, mosques and temples are beautifully preserved. But, it is not too difficult for one to spot numerous dilapidated buildings within the main core of George Town – a quality which is not supposed to be possessed by a city of such “world heritage site” stature.
In fact, historic buildings in other cities not having such a status like Ipoh and Kuala Lumpur are equally well preserved, if not, better.
Rather than putting more work in improving tourist facilities within the Unesco World Heritage Site of George Town, focus is somewhat directed towards constructing multi-million ringgit high rise accommodation units which may look incredible from a distance, but are way too expensive for locals to own.
Besides reclamation works along Gurney Drive, there are also plans to reclaim lands near Teluk Kumbar, south of Penang Island. Nevertheless, Teluk Kumbar is not within or adjacent to George Town’s Unesco World Heritage Site zone.
In the history of designation of Unesco World Heritage Sites, there have been several sites de-listed (one partially de-listed), namely Liverpool in Britain, Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman, Dresden Elbe Valley in Germany and Bagrati Cathedral in Georgia.
Among the main reasons for de-listing was uncontrolled development within the vicinity of such heritage sites as well as major renovation works that may compromise authenticity and historical worth.
For instance, Liverpool’s waterfront lost its Unesco World Heritage Listing due to new development that has posed threats to the historic waterfront.
As far as Penang is concerned, the government has to reevaluate and monitor development projects particularly those near the heritage site of George Town.
Emulating the efforts undertaken by the Melaka state government to beautify historical sites in Malaysia’s premier historic city, the Penang state government should also consider doing the same in carefully preserving and maintaining historical buildings and monuments particularly within George Town’s World Heritage Site zone.
Obviously, Malaysians do not wish to see their historic city de-listed for any reason whatsoever.
It is time for George Town to be given a facelift so that this beautiful city would not be in a state of decay.
The writer is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Syariah and Law, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia. He is also a senior research fellow at the Asian Institute of International Affairs and Diplomacy (AIIAD), Universiti Utara Malaysia