HERITAGE CONSERVATION: Not just by laws, but by us all
ON June 30, Malaysia celebrated the inscription of the Archaeological Heritage of the Lenggong Valley in Perak as a Unesco World Heritage Site at the World Heritage committee meeting in St Petersburg, Russia. It is now the country's fourth world heritage site.
But even as we celebrate, we see signs of the decay and neglect of our heritage towns and villages. In major towns, modest two- and three- storey shophouses are rapidly being eroded.
The National Heritage Act 2005 vests powers in the authorities to conserve our natural heritage, tangible and intangible heritage, and traditional arts and culture and other manifestations, such as heritage food and persons.
We can boast that our standards of conservation practice are now on a par with international expectations attested by the many projects winning international recognition not least in the inscription of Unesco World Heritage status. This is coupled with an increased public and professional awareness -- heritage is "in vogue" and firmly embedded in our tourism promotions.
The flip side of the coin is the diminishing heritage resources available. There is a downward spiralling and erosion of traditional materials as well as skills among artisans, contractors and the professional cadre. Even with the increase in the number of heritage courses offered in our educational institutions, there remains a gap between this and professional practice and knowledge.
Despite the powers of the Act, we struggle daily with issues related to a lack of enforcement even in the face of blatant non-compliance, escalating numbers of heritage shophouses being turned into "swiftlet houses" or others with just their front facades retained and the remaining 95 per cent demolished, with no consideration for authenticity, or historical continuity.
These problems are compounded by a lack of consultation with the communities who live in these places, especially with new development projects parachuted in from "outside" parties, raising conflicts and contestations in these places.
Increasing pressures of urbanisation and unprecedented urban growth have brought about the rising number of mega cities as people move from rural to urban areas in search of better economic opportunities. This is intensified by major infrastructure projects made possible because of the leaps and bounds in technological developments. Add the crush of cultural heritage tourism fuelled by a world population with access to disposable income and many wide-ranging options for travel and leisure to suit different budgets, we need to become ever more vigilant in the protection of our heritage resources and assets.
Not all is gloom and doom though; we have recently climbed the "Everest" of heritage conservation. A few months ago, one of Malaysia's heritage icons, the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion in George Town, Penang, was named as one of the the world's ten best mansions.
This is a credit to its conservation architect, Laurence Loh, for his passion and punctilious attention to detail, and the dedication with which he undertakes to drive the heritage conservation agenda in Malaysia.
On a personal note, I cannot express the pride I feel when I stand in the field of Stadium Merdeka and look around at its restoration back to its 1957 form. The journey to save Stadium Merdeka and Stadium Negara began in 2000 when Permodalan Nasional Bhd acquired both stadiums together with some of the surrounding land. This positive action has definitively ensured that the two stadiums are protected. The restoration of Stadium Merdeka has been driven by the Merdeka Heritage Trust working with Badan Warisan Malaysia. Its iconic status as the place for the declaration of our nation's independence on Aug 31, 1957, and the declaration of Malaysia on Sept 16, 1963, can now forever be enshrined by its physical presence on Kuala Lumpur's landscape.
We need to find a way of balancing conservation with the transformation required by development and changing uses. This cannot be the responsibility of any one agency, organisation or individual.
We have to move from depending solely on the protection of the legislative provisions for heritage under such laws as the National Heritage Act 2005 to a position where as a community we accord full protection because of our own moral and private codes and above all, national pride.
While we often focus on the magnificent or the beautiful, it is the humble houses, the characteristic of a street or a village that most appeals to our emotions and memory. If our heritage is destroyed, "... the power neither of emperors, nor queens, nor kingdoms, can ever print again upon the sands of time the effaced footsteps of departed generations, or gather together from the dust the stones which had been stamped with the spirit of our ancestors". (John Ruskin, 1854).