THERE is no present or future without the past. Likewise, a country is nothing without its heritage, either cultural, historical or traditional.
Even nations without a Unesco World Heritage designation have heritage. Heritage represents a country’s history and identity.
Up to last year, there are 1,121 world heritage sites that have been recognised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation for having cultural, historical, scientific or other form of significance.
They are declared important for the collective and preservative interests of humanity.
Italy and China top the list with 55 sites each. Malaysia has four world heritage sites — Gunung Mulu National Park (Sarawak), Kinabalu Park (Sabah), Melaka and George Town (historic cities of the Straits of Malacca), and the Lenggong Valley Archaeological Heritage (Perak).
Considering that ancient Malaya had existed since 8,000 BCE and was later colonised by the Portuguese and British, the four sites are a paltry figure.
Last Sunday, this newspaper front-paged the 120-year-old Victoria Bridge in Kuala Kangsar, Perak, which was gazetted a national heritage site in 2016.
Trains had once chugged along the double-track rail bridge. Today, it’s a tourist site, but in sad condition. There are numerous others which are languishing, but still an attraction.
For instance, the limestone crags and temples in Perak, Kelantan and Kedah, and the Berembun Forest Reserve in Negri Sembilan, which houses the wreckage of a B-24 Liberator bomber that crashed in 1945 during World War 2.
There are many more gems, heritage assets that must be preserved. A country’s heritage provides clues to its past, plays a role in politics, society, business and world view.
Those who decry that heritage is a waste of money are ignorant of their past. Historians say it “informs, influences and inspires public debate and policies”.
Heritage is an important component of Malaysia’s tourism industry, especially during this Visit Malaysia Year 2020. Given that heritage tourism generates about US$327 billion annually in the Asia-Pacific region, according to the UN World Tourism Organisation, it is pertinent that we ensure our heritage is intact and in pristine condition.
Most countries have laws to protect national heritage sites, with various classifications for owners.
In Europe, many countries uphold the Venice Charter of 1964 to protect historical buildings and structures. Malaysia too, has the National Heritage Act to conserve and preserve national heritage.
Several hundred buildings, monuments and archaeological and natural sites are in the national heritage list. In December 2018, six historical buildings and structures were gazetted as national heritage sites, including Kuala Lumpur’s Masjid Sultan Abdul Samad, and the Information Department and High Court buildings.
This Leader is hopeful that more sites will be gazetted as national heritage. There must be concerted efforts among stakeholders to preserve our heritage as it is a vital link to our cultural, educational, aesthetic, inspirational and economic legacies.
As living signposts to our past, heritage assets should be part of our consciousness in our lives, because they are what makes us who we are — a nation’s heritage resides in the hearts and soul of its people (Gandhi).