Penang Forum’s letter to Unesco is to PROTECT George Town World Heritage Site NOT to delist it

Newspaper headlines reported that Dr Ang Ming Chee of George Town World Heritage Inc suggested that Penang is at risk of losing its Unesco World Heritage Site status because of a letter submitted by Penang Forum to Unesco over the Penang transport masterplan requesting an advisory mission and impact assessment of the proposed transport plan.

Nothing can be further from the truth. It is the proposed projects of building Light Rail Transit and monorail bordering the George Town heritage zone that may cause George Town (and therefore Malacca) to lose their status, NOT the alert to Unesco.

The purpose of Penang Forum’s letter to Unesco is to seek its help to take proactive steps to protect – not to delist – the site before it is too late.

The Operational Guidelines (clause 172) of the World Heritage Convention clearly states that:

“The World Heritage Committee invites the State Parties to the Convention to inform the Committee, through the Secretariat, of their intention to undertake or to authorize in an area protected under the Convention major restorations or new constructions which may affect the Outstanding Universal Value of the property.” (emphasis added)

GTWHI as the state agency entrusted to protect and preserve the World Heritage Site should have contacted Unesco and brought to their attention the potential impact of the massive transport hub at Sia Boey, including the construction of LRT and monorails along the borders of the buffer zone of the George Town World Heritage site that could compromise or threaten its outstanding universal value.

Despite many months of NGOs highlighting potential risks to GTWHI, the Penang Development Corporation and the Penang state government, no action has been taken to ensure current planning poses no risks to our heritage site. NGO concerns have been dismissed and the potential impact to our historical city has been ignored.

In particular, the Penang Heritage Trust (PHT) organised a public forum on 24 April 2016 on this issue that was widely reported in the press. Dr Ang was present at that meeting but there was no follow up on this matter from her.

Since GTWHI had not contacted the Unesco, Penang Forum felt dutybound to do so. The objective of this action, far from risking Penang’s heritage status being taken away, was in fact to avoid the possibility of such an action.

It is prudent to take pro-active and preventive steps by requesting Unesco to:

  • send an advisory mission to Penang to conduct an inspection of the George Town inscribed property boundary
  • to help organise an independent impact assessment of the proposed Penang transport masterplan and how it might affect Penang’s outstanding universal value.

Surely if the above is carried out, and it is found that the proposed transport masterplan will have no negative impact, nothing is lost.

But on the other hand, if it is found that the construction of LRT and monorail lines and stations along the borders of Penang’s heritage and boundary zones would have a negative impact, then Penang Forum would have done the Penang state government a service by alerting them to the risk of losing its heritage status and to explore better alternatives.

Subsequent to the letter to Unesco, the Jabatan Warisan Negara met with Dr Lim, PHT, GTWHI and Jabatan Perancangan Bandar Negeri on 29 July 2016 to discuss the way forward.

It has been suggested that the NGOs should have waited till the archaeological work have been completed. That is pointedly unwise. Archaeological discoveries are a continuing process. If the Penang state government signs and awards the Penang transport masterplan, while archaeological discoveries are still ongoing, then issues of legality and compensation arise.

NGOs have worked tirelessly for almost 30 years, and will continue to work with all parties, national and international, to save the heritage of George Town.

Penang Forum steering committee
14 August 2016

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