Preservation and destruction in Penang’s development


Development must be located within a vision. What is the vision for Penang’s development, asks Dr Lim Mah Hui.

In the past 12 months, we have painfully witnessed the demolition of several historical buildings, some illegally. The latest victim is a mansion at 177 Jalan Macalister, opposite Loh Guan Lye Specialist Centre.

First, I would like to request the Council to provide data on all the historically, architecturally and/or culturally significant buildings that have been demolished last year and this year, or for which demolition was approved since 2008.

Let me mention a few of these buildings that were torn down. The beautiful mansion of Khaw Bian Cheng (son of Khaw Sim Bee) at Pykett Avenue, two historical bungalows on Burma Lane, one of them once occupied by a former prime minister of Thailand, Phraya Manopakorn Nititada (1884-1948), and two bungalows along Brooks Road.

Khaw Bian Cheng’s mansion was torn down without permit.

In the case of the Burma Lane and Brooks Road residences, two of three buildings in each location were torn down and only one building in each location was left standing. This is not preservation. This is architectural and historical mutilation. It is like cutting of one limb and preserving the other limb.

Prime Minister Phraya Mano sought refuge in Penang island when the military launched a coup in Thailand in 1932. He lived in Penang for several years and passed away here 1948. Mano Road in Pulau Tikus is named after him. In many ways, his history is similar to that of Dr Sun Yet Sun, who also took refuge in Penang during his struggle for Chinese independence. We are fortunate to maintain the heritage and history of Dr Sun in terms of a museum and the house where he spoke and launched his fund raising campaign. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for celebrating the history of Prime Minister Phraya Mano in Penang. The houses in which he once stayed have been demolished and an important part of the history of the Thai Malaysians in Penang has been destroyed in the pursuit of profit but under the rationale of “development”.

The present attitude is that only houses in the heritage zone or those that are designated heritage are protected. We need to take a more holistic view of heritage. One reason Penang was awarded the world heritage status is because of the large stock of pre-war houses in the island. It is myopic to only preserve the buildings in the core heritage zone and wantonly destroy important buildings in the buffer zones and other parts of the city. Tourists come to Penang to experience the whole city, not just the heritage zone.

Many Japanese and European visitors have commented to me their disappointment at the demolition of beautiful buildings. The building of 30-storey apartments surrounding a heritage building is not preservation; it is suffocation of heritage sites.

It is convenient to justify what is happening in the name of development. As I said last year, we must be more thoughtful. We must ask the following questions:

What kind of development do we want?
• Is it development that destroys our heritage and culture?
• Is it sustainable development?
• Is it green development or development that aggravates climate change?
• Who benefits most from this development?
• Who loses out in this process?
• Is it development for the top 1 per cent or development for the 99 per cent?

Development must be located within a vision. What is the vision for Penang’s development? Perhaps the best way to concretise this vision is to ask ourselves, what is the “model” city that best approximates our vision? I am not suggesting we copy blindly another city. But what I am suggesting is we learn from and choose what are the best characteristics to suit our own situation.

I have heard from some people and policy makers they would like Penang to model itself after Singapore and Hong Kong; both are densely populated international financial centres in the world. Are they appropriate for Penang? Might it not be more appropriate to look at a combination of Kyoto, a heritage city, and Xiamen, a city with similar characteristics in size, geography (hills and sea), and services (education, high tech and former trading ports) as models.

Let me say something about Singapore. There is much that can be said for Singapore – it is a clean, safe and a well-planned city with a good public transportation system. These are some of the positive lessons we can draw from it.

But we can also learn some negative lessons from it, of which I mention two. First, is Singapore, in the early days of development, demolished many of its traditional houses and buildings (not necessarily heritage). They have since learned it was a mistake and are now taking pains to preserve them. We should not repeat the same mistake.

Second, in their quest to make Singapore an international city, the government has swung to the extreme so that many of its local citizens are left behind in this “development” process. Despite Singapore having the best public housing schemes in the world, many of its young population feel they cannot afford housing or find good jobs. The dissatisfaction is so great that it cost the PAP government many seats in Parliament. This could also happen to Penang if more and more middle and lower class citizens feel they are left behind in this frenzy of property development.

Finally, allow me to suggest that for the moment, we should impose a moratorium on granting approval for demolition of all buildings in the island that were built before 1962 (more than 50 years old) and have architectural value. The present list of protected buildings should be immediately made available, and a technical committee made up of qualified professionals, civil society and input from other relevant bodies be established to study this matter immediately.

Dr Lim Mah Hui is an MPPP Councillor. He made the above speech at a full council meeting of the MPPP on 24 February 2012.