Life on the List

loading Wah Yit Poh

It is strange how major events coincide in time and space. On July 7, 2008, George Town was finally listed – together with Malacca – as a Unesco World Heritage Site (whs). This came exactly four months after Penang had a change in government for the first time in 40 years. Then, in January 2009, budget airlines began flying to and from Bayan Lepas Airport courtesy of Asean’s open skies initiative, which ended the air travel monopoly held by Malaysia Airlines (mas) and Singapore Airlines (sia) for 40 years.

Puan Maimunah Sharif.

ENOUGH TIME has now passed for PEM to start asking what the most signifi cant and most noticeable changes are. We also wish to find out what people have learned from the fact that George Town is now under global scrutiny, what measures are crying out to be taken, and what the future holds for this newly recognised treasure.

The issues that come to mind are wide-ranging indeed, and will therefore be something that PEM intends to return to regularly.

Heritage status is expected to affect George Town and the state of Penang more and more, and the energy released by it is bound to have not only economic consequences but also cultural ones. In fact, Penang’s self-image – and therefore its direction of growth and development – is already being altered by it.

While some worry that if some monitoring is not done and maintained from an early stage, detrimental effects might turn out to be worse than is necessary, others feel that it is still too early to get a proper reading of how things are changing.

Initial worries about George Town included inexperience in conservation management despite some spectacular successes in individual restoration projects such as the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion and Suff olk House (see PEM, March 2010); weak enforcement of restoration rules; the growth of the swift let breeding industry in the heritage core and surrounding areas (see PEM, October 2010); the skyrocketing of property prices which could drive handicraft and traditional businesses out of the core area (see PEM, September 2010) ; as well as the sorry state of disrepair of some heritage properties.

The George Town World Heritage Incorporated office. (Daniel Lim)

World Heritage Office

Making matters worse, a crisis broke almost immediately aft er George Town was listed as a heritage site, concerning the excessive height of four building projects planned for the core and buff er zones. This was among several reasons for a delay in official attention to the job at hand.

One requirement (according to the Heritage Management Plan) was the sett ing up of a World Heritage Offi ce. As it turned out, such an establishment was registered only on April 21, 2010, almost two years after the listing. Puan Maimunah Sharif, the general manager of that offi ce, was seconded in November 2009 from the Penang Island Municipal Council’s (MPPP) Department of Planning and Development to get things off the ground.

She told PEM: “In 2009, we didn’t really do much in terms of heritage; we only began doing the thinking in 2010. We were too busy managing these four off ending projects, not managing the WHS. Th e state government decided to follow Unesco’s decision, and committ ed itself to retaining the status.

“The three Outstanding Universal Values (OUVs) for which the honour was given to George Town and Malacca were Multi-trading Port, Multicultural Communities, and Shophouses and Townhouses. With that, the two cities now belong in an important sense, to the world, to humanity. This means that from now on, planning, whether at the state level or the federal level when it concerns these two places, must take these OUVs into account.

“At the same time, we need to make the public realise that they are living in a treasured location. Our day-to-day work involves getting people to feel a sense of ownership, so that they will be motivated to keep the place clean, to park lawfully, etc. Once there is a sense of ownership, the community will police itself because they are proud of what they have.

“ Our main aim is to build capacity. We take a small grants approach, mainly awarding money to private property owners and NGOs. ”

“Pressing issues include the length of the approval process. So we try the on-the-spot method for repair permits, bidding plans and planning permission. We have already implemented the heritage clinic: We meet people to give advice every first Saturday of the month, together with Persatuan Arkitek Malaysia; and every third Monday of the month with MPPP.”


Think City, set up with RM20mil granted for heritage management in George Town.

A row of 60 trees line Carnarvon Street, the fruits of the Carnarvon Street Pilot Greening project.(Daniel Lim)

Workers renovating the Khoo Kongsi.(Daniel Lee)




Think City

Where the federal government is concerned, much of its initiatives go through Think City, set up with RM20mil granted for heritage management in George Town. Think City programme director Dr Neil Khor tells PEM: “Our main aim is to build capacity. We take a small grants approach, mainly awarding money to private property owners and NGOs. We also build partnerships with international organisations such as AusHeritage, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and the British Council but we don’t use grant money to pay their fees. We pay for accommodation, and the money goes back to George Town.

“One of our big worries is speculation on the part of grantees. To avoid this, we’re doing what are called repayable grants. If they keep their property and don’t sell it in 10 years, then they can keep the money. Otherwise, they have to pay us back but without interest.

“One major problem has been a change in focus with regards to municipal administration. In the 1970s, the MPPP’s area of responsibility was expanded to cover the entire island, and with that, urban administration lost its focus. In such a situation, Think City can complement the MPPP, making it more efficient. The reality is that the MPPP has its rules and procedures. If there is a gap and it is mutually benefi cial, for example, to bring in experts then we can help. In the Carnarvon Street Pilot Greening project, the George Town World Heritage Incorporated became the secretariat and managed the stakeholders. We secured the services of a landscape architect, Sek San Design, and got corporate funding (not the grants) for the trees. And the MPPP does the implementing.

“At present, Think City has financed 57 projects, 32 of which are physical ones. Others involve cultural mapping. Technical grants are also provided, where experts are brought in to come up with sustainable solutions for local stakeholders. Two examples of these are the Kapitan Keling Mosque dome repair works and George Town’s urban markets.”

The Kapitan Keling Mosque.(Yam Phui Yee)

85% As much as 85% of people living in George Town do not own property.

Think City, in collaboration with Jabatan Perancangan Bandar & Desa, the George Town World Heritage Incorporated and the MPPP; with assistance from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) undergraduates at the School of Housing, Building & Planning, carried out a baseline study which showed that as much as 85% of people living in the city did not own property.

“Our objective in the end is to have a sustainable and liveable city within the whs. The beauty of working on world heritage is that we give ownership to ngos. Everyone at every level is working together.

Dr Khor says, “Based on such statistics and also because 17% of the George Town WHS are vacant or dilapidated, we took the initiative to discuss with prominent property owners to consider providing aff ordable housing. Some form of gentrification is to be expected, but it is good if we can maintain a balance. Th ere are 4,000 buildings in the site and about 10% are badly dilapidated. This means that George Town needs to attract at least RM200mil in investments to rehabilitate them.

A craft sman at work.(Kwong Wah Yit Poh)

“Clans, community associations and religious establishments can play a role in making housing affordable. These include the five main clans (Cheah, Yeoh, Khoo, Yeap & Lim) and the Majlis Agama Islam Negeri Pulau Pinang (MAINPP), the administrator of the waqf properties and the biggest property owners in the city. We have had discussions about returning houses to their original use, and yet keep them affordable. We’ve also given a grant to the All Clans Association to help them document all their activities, which is being implemented. We also hope to compile a biographical dictionary about Penang’s mercantile personalities.

“We should concentrate on aff ordable housing for students and the working class. As many as 6,000 students go to schools and institutions of higher education in town, but only 10% actually stay there. We have one property owner considering converting some shophouses into student housing.”

Maimunah agrees: “When I was in Rome and met up with 38 other heritage site managers, a common change noted by most was the opening of educational centres on their sites. Of course, I was also asked – ‘Where is your college on the site?’ Other changes experienced by most sites were real estate prices going up, boutique hotels and restaurants moving in; and the hospitality industry blossoming.

“Our objective in the end is to have a sustainable and liveable city within the WHS. The beauty of working on world heritage is that we give ownership to NGOs. Everyone at every level is working together. Investors wishing to invest in George Town won’t be keen if the place is unkempt and dirty. So you must work towards a good quality of life.

“The trades must be preserved, like the making of the songkok, the kebaya, etc. Many places, such as Hội An, have the problem of having too many tourists. This is why the special area plan is needed. This Unesco requirement must be submitted by February.”

Campbell Street.

Dr Khor adds that in the long term, the George Town WHS would do well to have a special area manager: “The government, both federal and state, need to upgrade and strengthen the civil service. They need to upskill and council should have subject experts providing solutions to many conservation problems. We also need innovative solutions to urban problems. For example, how do we deal with solid waste from markets and restaurants? Th ere’s no way we can get rid of grease by ourselves. One thing we may do is introduce a composting machine in Campbell Street.(Yam Phui Yee)

“Stakeholder management can yield these innovative solutions. We must not underestimate civil society’s ability to reinvent George Town. The Masjid Kapitan Keling, for example, has a kindergarten, and their first ever batch of students actually just graduated from university.

“There is also a pressing need to rejuvenate business in the area. This means that we have to promote cleanliness and connectivity, and fight crime at the same time. But throughout, we have to understand that we must not make people dependent on us.

“We want to make cities more liveable for us; only then will talent come. We have to adopt new perspectives, for example, we have to realise that shopping malls are now the new town halls. We have not given nearly enough attention to intangible heritage”.

Ooi Geok Ling.(Daniel Lee)

Penang Global Tourism

Ooi Geok Ling, managing director of Penang Global Tourism (PGT) set up by the new government to promote tourism and brand Penang, has noticed a positive change in the streets: “Judging from the Chinese newspapers, and observing the businessmen in town and elsewhere, I think a lot of Penang people are enjoying themselves, there is a new sense of optimism. Campbell Street. Ooi Geok Ling

“The most obvious change is the surge in demand for property in George Town. Property prices have increased tremendously. The much talked about ‘moving out’ from the city, which actually began aft er the end of rent control and not because of the heritage listing, has slowed down. Th ere is a more wait-andsee attitude, and investors are coming in. Some sell their property of course, and in that sense they move out. But that is not a problem.

“Some people talk about the ‘gentrifi cation’ of George Town as if locals are being displaced. I think this is not very accurate. Many locals are selling because their businesses may have expanded and it is time to move to larger premises; they got a good price for their property. There are so many reasons. But the main point is that these people are not moving because someone came along and displaced them.

“A lot of the little businesses and craft smen are still in the city. I also see that Campbell Street is a lot more bustling. There are more businesses operating there and more activities; shops now open at night which could be a result of more visitors to the inner city. Th ere is also a surge of new restaurants and guest houses in the inner city which suggests that more and more people are visiting.”

Collection on Stewart Lane.

Tourists chatt ing outside the Yap Kongsi.(Penang Global Tourism)

A group of tourists during the George Town Festival 2010.(Penang Global Tourism)

Research done recently by Lim Yoke Mui and Lee Lik Ming from USM shows that the heritage status has defi nitely aff ected prices positively, and no matt er the conservation category, a shophouse in the conservation zone in all cases fetches a higher price than a similar one in a non-conservation zone. Other fi ndings show that foreign investors are moving in, meaning that the proportion of local ownership is diminishing, with some loss of local traditional trades and business culture being unavoidably incurred.

Swiftlet houses have become a huge controversy. Ooi adds: “We can’t stand by and watch as more and more of these houses spring up. These are a real threat to our heritage listing. Another unhappy trend is the two-tier pricing system. This should be avoided, whether at the hawker level, or official levels”.

“The foreign tourist flow has grown by 35% since the listing”, she adds. “There is a flourishing of nonregistered hotels and hostels to cater to medical tourists. I strongly suspect the budget hotels are doing well. However, they are not always willing to provide us with figures. George Town has always had backpacker tourists, and these are still there, and are growing in numbers. Besides, we have 300 new hotel rooms coming up within the city over the coming months.

“The heritage status is defi nitely a selling point for PGT but I feel that it hasn’t been publicised enough by Tourism Malaysia. For instance, at ITB Berlin 2010, which is one of the world’s leading travel trade shows, Tourism Malaysia did not mention the fact that George Town and Malacca are World Heritage Sites.

“One further development for all to invest in is the arts platform. The arts scene in Penang is actually highly productive and innovative, and should be organised more effectively.”

The private sector

Narelle McMurtrie, the manager of Straits Collection Penang and long-time resident on the island, vehemently agrees that the only way for George Town to develop, given its heritage status and its cultural uniqueness, is to become an arts centre for the region.

“So much of Penang life is already arts-based. George Town is the right size, unlike a place like Kuala Lumpur. It can become an arts capital. It’s easy to get around here, the retail culture is strong, and we have such powerful cultural activism here. We have it all, and we can make something big out of it, and we have to do it quickly. There is a lot of energy in the arts world here.

“I believe there is a great demand among people in places like Kuala Lumpur and Singapore to come to Penang. They are drawn by the arts scene, the creative Straits Collection on arts, and of course the food. They are interested in the food.

“Doing business in a heritage area means you have to be greatly concerned about maintenance. This is constant. Every single day, there issomething else cropping up that you have to take care of.





“Now, when more and more rooms are becoming available, and these are certainly more upmarket than before, then we have to ask the question, what are these upmarket tourists going to do while they are in Penang? That’s why I think you have to think of art spaces. One could turn old godowns into studios and galleries, and things like that. Information about art events throughout the year should be put into one arts calendar. We have to show visitors that there is always something happening in the heritage enclave, something to interest them and it does not matt er when they are here.

“Tourists don’t mind walking in the heat, but they must know where to go. Proper and good maps along the streets would help tourists and visitors fi nd their way. Tourists like galleries, they like antique shops, and we can offer them a lot of that if we put our mind to it.”

Looking at her businesses in a longer perspective, McMurtrie does not feel that the heritage listing has affected her much: “Doing business in a heritage area means you have to be greatly concerned about maintenance. This is constant. Every single day, there is something else cropping up that you have to take care of. My business in Langkawi is the same (Bon Ton Resort and Temple Tree). When you do business in an old building, you have a lot of maintenance to worry about, and the expenses are far from negligible.”

Narelle McMurtrie.

Her clients in Penang are overwhelmingly made up of families from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, some taking over one of her houses for a weekend or so. Others include Europeans of all denominations, many coming on extended trips from Langkawi through the Bon Ton Resort connection. Interestingly, women tend to travel more by themselves than men do. These include Japanese and Malaysian women travelling in groups from Kuala Lumpur.

What is interesting about the crowd at her cafe – Kopi Cine in Stewart Lane – is that it is largely local. The shop connected to her hotel is not frequented by tourists other than those from Kuala Lumpur or Singapore. In her experience, Penang’s main draw is – the food.

“I think people come here, from Kuala Lumpur or Singapore, mainly for the food. Not only is there so much of it, you can move around from one eating place to another easily. You have Chinese, Muslim, Indian, Nyonya, all within walking distance. Not much Malay food as such, which brings me to an often overlooked point: George Town does not really have a sizeable Malay community; Muslim community, yes.

Ooi agrees: “One would sometimes say that the rest acts as a backdrop to the eating. Going to a concert culminates in eating, shopping culminates in eating, a night out culminates in eating.”

The old complaint that Penang is dirty, especially in places surrounding eating places, is now heard less and less. The situation seems to have changed dramatically in recent months, in the view of many.

“Even the back streets are clean nowadays”, says McMurtrie, surprised.

“Penang is in a time warp, and the people are as well. There is very little go-getter spirit, unlike in Langkawi or Kuala Lumpur. Finding management staff is hard here, mainly because a lot of talent has moved away. Interestingly, kitchen staff here tends to be good.

“One thing I would like to say though. Being white, I can more easily see what it is white people want when they come to Malaysia. I think that is one reason why I have been able to succeed in the tourism business here. That’s the reason hotel managers here tend to be white as well. Now, if Penang wants to attract the international tourists, then you have to ask yourself what the target group wants.”

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