Penang’s heritage wealth goes way beyond the Unesco site


123 Jalan Macalister in 2012.

Outside of the George Town Unesco World Heritage Site, historic and often majestic buildings do not enjoy the same protection that buildings within the Unesco site do. And this means that they are vulnerable to development, and demolition.

In May this year, an elegant bungalow on Jalan Macalister was torn down to make way for a new residential tower. e house, a Category 2-listed building designed by prominent Penang architect Chew Eng Eam, had stood there for the be er part of a century1. When the dust se led on the now empty lot, it became clear that there was a gap not only in the leafy historic streetscape of Jalan Macalister, but also in policy relating to heritage buildings outside George Town’s Unesco World Heritage Site (WHS).

In the ensuing row, various parties – from the Penang Heritage Trust to political gures like Penang state executive council member in charge of local authorities Chow Kon Yeow and City Councillor Dr Lim Mah Hui – voiced concerns over the management of heritage outside the WHS. It seems heritage in George Town is a tale of two cities: one within the boundaries of the WHS and one without.

218 Jalan Macalister in 2011.

218 Jalan Macalister now

Following the city’s inscription to the Unesco World Heritage List in 2008, supervision of George Town’s WHS has been entrusted to George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI). Since then, a number of policies relating to the management of the site have been drawn up2. Outside the square mile circumscribed by the WHS Core and Buffer Zones, however, George Town’s rich heritage remains threatened. While projects within the WHS come before a Technical Review Panel that gauges a project’s impact on heritage, development outside this small area follows more conventional planning pathways through MPPP, even on sites of considerable heritage signi cance. With property in Penang commanding historically high prices in recent years, there is increased pressure to develop any land available, and heritage buildings outside the WHS – often solitary, low rise buildings set on generous plots of land close to the city centre – are particularly vulnerable.

If there was once li le incentive to redevelop old properties, this is no longer the case. Penang’s real estate market is now incredibly heated. The proliferation of high rise developments around the island – from Batu Ferringhi to Teluk Kumbar – is a testament to the dizzying heights property prices on the island have reached. is development pressure is now threatening some of George Town’s heritage buildings. Ironically, these development pressures, which now threaten heritage properties outside the WHS, have been exacerbated by recent investor interest in heritage buildings 218 Jalan Macalister now. within the city centre. Riding on the cultural – and commercial – cachet of the Unesco label, and face the very real threat of demolition to make way for high George Town’s World Heritage status, pre-war properties in the city have commanded prices of up to RM2,000 per square foot in recent years, and in certain places even outpace prices in KL3.

With property in Penang commanding historically high prices in recent years, there is increased pressure to develop any land available, and heritage buildings outside the WHS – often solitary, low rise buildings set on generous plots of land close to the city centre – are particularly vulnerable.

This newfound interest in heritage properties is a double-edged sword. Between current property prices and the costly process of renovating heritage properties, it takes a lot to recoup an investment in a heritage building 4. The most obvious solution to making a pro t from an expensive site is through high density developments.

Outside the WHS, heritage properties are free from the height limits and conservation guidelines that come with rises5. Even where developers do allow them to survive, these buildings are likely to be diminished or overshadowed. Instead of fulfilling their potential as real heritage assets that locals can be proud of, these architectural gems often become little more than tacked-on lobbies to expensive luxury high rises. In the most drastic revamps, they are reduced to mere facades, shadows of their former selves 6. Two decades on from the infamous demolition of the Metropole Hotel (originally Asdang House), its reconstructed paper-thin facade – now an incongruous entrance to the mismatched apartment block that towers over it – continues to serve as a reminder of what happens when heritage safeguards fall short 7. In this manner, poor heritage practice in the suburbs can potentially become an embarrassment to the agship WHS urban centre, belittling the island’s heritage as a whole.

Edgecliff, a bungalow on Penang Hill built during colonial times, is in a state of neglect. Penang’s built heritage is a finite resource and one that is at risk of being squandered

Which brings us back to Jalan Macalister. The architects of the project have described the process used on the site as “disassemble and reassemble”, and the project’s website boasts a “refurbished mansion” as part of the development, which will sit in the lobby of the new apartment building. Others have used a di erent word to describe what happened at Jalan Macalister: “demolition”8. Indeed, the approach taken here seems to be er t the term “reconstruction” rather than “restoration”, as de ned by the National Heritage Act (2005). The Act defines “restoration” as

the process of accurately recovering form and details of a structure or part of a structure and its settling , as it appeared at some period of time, by removing the latter work and replacing missing original work.

“Reconstruction”, on the other hand, is defined as

the process of accurately reproducing by new construction, the form and detail of a vanished structure, or part of it, as it appeared at some period of time, and includes full or partial reconstruction9.

Chung Thye Phin Villa in Relau. The once-magnificent mansion built in the 1930s lies in near ruin, and warrants the question: Is a historic building that’s been torn down and then completely rebuilt historic at all?

While restoration is often the goal of heritage conservation, reconstruction is the most contested question in heritage practice, opening up a Pandora’s Box of issues surrounding the authenticity and integrity of historic structures10. Is a historic building that’s been torn down and then completely rebuilt historic at all?

Raising concerns about the process employed at Jalan Macalister, Penang Heritage Trust’s Lim Gaik Siang also noted that shifting the building contravened Article 9.1 of the Burra Charter, an international heritage standard, which states that

The physical location of a place is part of its cultural significance. A building, work or other element of a place should remain in its historical location. Relocation is generally unacceptable unless this is the sole practical means of ensuring its survival11.

If George Town is to live up to its “World Heritage” name, these international benchmarks maker. The value of the city’s properties, in both cultural and nancial terms, relies to some extent on the integrity of its built heritage. It is this heritage, a er all, that makes George Town special. In a speech made to the MPPP on July 23, Lim Mah Hui called for a considered approach to conservation and for exacting standards in heritage practice:

Conservation is not simply about keeping a building intact. It is about preserving the architectural, cultural and historical context intact. It must be done holistically.

Runnymede, a historic site just outside the WHS, in disrepair. As many as 2,508 sites outside the WHS have been identified as being of heritage value.

George Town, being a world heritage city, should be a model for what to do to conserve heritage and beauty. Instead, it has become a model of what NOT to do in conservation12.

The question is where Penang goes from here. Following a number of recent controversies over the redevelopment of heritage sites, GTWHI compiled a draft inventory that identified some 2,508 sites outside the WHS as being of heritage value13. Some have suggested that this is a conservative estimate14. Regardless of the final tally, any inventory needs to be backed up by clear heritage policy and guidelines for the conservation and management of heritage assets outside the WHS. As custodians of the city, MPPP and its Heritage Department should be empowered through policy and specialist expertise to look after the island’s rich heritage. Measures like the Technical Review Panel, which reviews development proposals within the WHS, should be extended across all heritage buildings in the state.

Le Nid, built in 1929, is also situated on Jalan Macalister. It is in danger of falling apart.

Heritage is a matter of public interest, and it is therefore in the public’s interest for heritage policies throughout the state to be clear, consistent, consultative and transparent. Whether there are 2,000 or 10,000 heritage buildings on the island, one thing remains clear: Penang’s built heritage is a finite resource and one that is at risk of being squandered so long as policy remains patchy and inconsistent. Without a strong stance on heritage, George Town risks becoming two cities: a square mile of well-preserved buildings in the inner city and a new town of high rise buildings on old streets that have forgotten their once rich history.

1 The building appears on a heritage inventory drawn up by MPPP in 1993, Bangunan-Bangunan Warisan di Jalan Macalister.

2 Even here, however, gaps exist: the Special Area Plan (SAP) drawn up for the George Town WHS in 2011 remains, at the time of writing, ungazetted. More information about the Plan can be found online at

3 “Skyrocketing shophouses”, The Star, March 21, 2012.

4 Julia Tan and Yap Jo-Yee, “Heritage Kept Right”, Penang Monthly, August 2014. URL: http://

5 It has been noted that without heritage restrictions, there would be little to stop developers from “creating a little Singapore or Hong Kong” on Penang Island. See: Rosalind Chua, “George Town – a work in progress”, Penang Monthly, June 2012. URL: a-work-in-progress/

6 The practice of demolishing a building and retaining only the facade, which emerged in the 1980s, is now generally denounced by the architectural fraternity as being both poor heritage practice and aesthetically unpleasing. Oliver Wainwright, “Some front: the bad developments making a joke of historic buildings”, The Guardian, August 25, 2014. URL:

7 Kim Gooi, “The fall of the Metropole Hotel”, Malaysia Kini, May 11, 2001. URL: www.malaysiakini. com/news/2898

8 “Exco man: Make sure demolition of heritage buildings is done properly”, The Star, August 13, 2014. See also: “Let’s debate on ‘disassemble and reassemble’ formula”, Free Malaysia Today, September 26, 2014. URL: category/nation/2014/09/26/lets-debate-on- disassemble-and-reassemble-formula/

9 The National Heritage Act (2005) can be read online. URL: Act%20645.pdf

10 Andras Roman, “Reconstruction – from the Venice Charter to the Charter of Cracow 2000”, Estrategias relativas al patrimonio cultural mundial. La salvaguarda en un mundo globalizado. Principios, practicas y perspectivas, 13th ICOMOS General Assembly and Scienti c Symposium (Madrid: Comité Nacional Español del ICOMOS, 2002), 117-19.

11 The Burra Charter can be accessed online. URL: content/uploads/The-Burra-Charter-2013- Adopted-31.10.2013.pdf

12 The transcript of Dr Lim’s speech can be found online. URL: http://limmahhui.wordpress. com/2014/07/23/on-the-preservation-of- heritage-buildings/

13 “Penang identifying heritage assets”, New Straits Times, September 9, 2014.

14 “Everything old is gold in George Town”, The Malaysian Insider, September 21, 2014. URL: everything-old-is-gold-in-george-town


Soon-Tzu Speechley studied History and Asian Studies at the University of Melbourne. He is now an editor and research assistant at Areca Books, a member of the Penang Heritage Trust, and a shaper at the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Community George Town Hub.

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