GEORGE TOWN: Leading national heritage non-governmental organisation Badan Warisan Malaysia (BWM) has expressed concern over the numerous illegal works being carried out on heritage-listed buildings.
These include buildings listed as Category One, within George Town's core heritage zone and the surrounding buffer zone.
Local heritage activists had claimed that there were about 50 cases of illegal works within the Unesco site, including those recently completed and currently being renovated without permits, as well as using wrong materials.
Most recently, news reports highlighted that there were no approvals given by the Penang Island City Council (MBPP) for works done in the Customs Building (Malayan Railway Building) at China Street Ghaut and the Hakka Association building at 7, Toh Aka Lane.
This follows the destructive work done at the Fooi Chew Association building in early February 2023, which also did not have a permit.
Lim Wei-Ling, president of BWM, said while the MBPP had recently reacted quickly to issue stop work orders, the continuation of illegal works indicated that there were insufficient deterrents.
"How much longer should the local authorities reflect on the seriousness of this situation before clear and decisive outcomes become transparent? Will the culprits face severe consequences?
"The Heritage Act protects the entire building, both interior and exterior. All buildings listed in the George Town Special Area Plan are subject to specific conservation regulations.
"How are the local authorities specifically doing the monitoring and who oversees them? Is there a task force? Would they collaborate with volunteers who actively help monitor on the ground?" she asked.
According to Lim, six months have passed since the illegal demolition of Kapitan Chung Keng Kwee's 1884 built monument to honour his love for his wife Foo Teng Nyong. As of today, the smashed tomb ruins still lie dumped at Penang's Jelutong landfill without any charges being laid against the culprits.
"We understand that in the meantime, the owner or developer has applied to the MBPP for planning permission to build a 30-storey residential tower on the illegally demolished tomb site. How likely is it that MBPP will reward this illegal demolition with full planning permission approval?
"If planning permission is given to culprits who illegally demolish heritage sites, it is tantamount to the authorities conspiring and assisting developers to undermine and contravene laws that were set up to specifically protect such heritage sites.
"This is surely not the intended outcome." she added.
Lim said there was a clear need for expert and independent participation in the approval process for any plans related to heritage buildings and heritage sites.
"BWM is deeply worried that the number of illegal works carried out on heritage buildings in George Town will continue unabated, eroding its unique architectural heritage as well as the confidence of the public with regard to the ability and willingness of local authorities to carry out their responsibilities and effectively take action beyond the rhetoric.
"With the increasing number of illegal and inappropriate renovations and redevelopments, there is a possibility of George Town being delisted as a World Heritage Site by Unesco because of the irreplaceable loss sustained to date and in future, due to inadequate policing and implementation of rules set earlier.
"As the Unesco World Heritage Site status is for both George Town and Melaka, a delist will affect both. Immediate and effective measures and action is therefore vital to arrest and control this unacceptable situation now," she said.
Lim said BWM suggests that the MBPP take the lead and called for the formation of a Heritage Steering Committee for all of Penang and for it to have executive powers pertaining to any building with heritage value. The proposed Heritage Steering Committee would comprise both local authority officers and heritage groups.
"Any development involving any heritage building should require its stamp of approval. Until this is set up, a full moratorium on any demolition must be enforced."