Protecting George Town’s heritage status

Dr Lim Mah Hui delivered the following address at the full council meeting of the Penang Island City Council on 25 August 2016.

Recently there have been many statements made over Penang Forum’s letter to Unesco in which I have been called a back-stabber, betrayer, and saboteur by my fellow city councillor, Aduns, MPs, and no less than the chief minister of Penang.

These are inflammatory accusations that do not reflect civilised discourse and disagreement. I shall, however, not stoop to such slander. I am obliged to explain to my colleagues and members of the public my actions and the motives behind them.

First, I would like to remind my fellow councillors of the oath that each of us took:

“Saya mengaku bahawa saya senderi menerima jawatan tersebut dan akan melaksanakan kewajipan2 jawatan ini dengan wajar dan jujur..”

In carrying out that oath, we put aside party and organisational loyalties. We pledge our responsibility to serve the people of Penang. We are hence obligated at times to speak out and to make decisions for the good of Penang that may not please some political masters.

I have five major points to make:

1) Penang Forum wrote directly to Unesco to request an advisory mission and a heritage impact assessment over the state’s proposal to build an elevated mega structure (LRT) in a site bordering the buffer zone of George Town’s heritage zone. The purpose is to prevent any action that may threaten its universal outstanding value. The letter is not a complaint or a request to delist George Town’s heritage status as is wrongly alleged. On the contrary, it is a letter to take proactive steps to avoid the possibility of delisting.

2) Penang Forum carried out its actions in accordance with Unesco guidelines.

Under Clause 172 of the World Heritage Operational Guideline:

The World Heritage Committee invites the States Parties to the Convention to inform the Committee, through the Secretariat, of their intention to undertake or to authorise in an area protected under the Convention major restorations or new constructions which may affect the Outstanding Universal Value of the property. Notice should be given as soon as possible (for instance, before drafting basic documents for specific projects) and before making any decisions that would be difficult to reverse, so that the Committee may assist in seeking appropriate solutions to ensure that the Outstanding Universal Value of the property is fully preserved.

In simple English, it means relevant parties should inform Unesco of any INTENTION to undertake projects that may threaten the outstanding universal value of a designated heritage site as soon as possible and BEFORE major decisions are made. As such, agencies like GTWHI, the Penang state government and the MBPP should have carried out this responsibility in accordance with the above guideline. Why did they not do it?

The general manager of GTWHI accused me of speculation, and the Penang state exco town and country planning and housing chairman accused me of premature action because he claimed there was no intention or decision made on the proposed LRT project. Yet it was widely reported in the press that the state exco approved the PTMP project, and together with SRS Consortium, submitted a letter to SPAD seeking approval to build LRT.

Can they explain to the public why the state exco’s approval and application to SPAD do not represent intention and decision?

3) Unesco encourages individuals and NGOs to write in directly (not through state agencies) to inform them of such impending plans and actions. On its website is stated:

The States Parties to the Convention should inform the Committee as soon as possible about threats to their sites. On the other hand, private individuals, non-governmental organisations, or other groups may also draw the Committee’s attention to existing threats. If the alert is justified and the problem serious enough, the Committee may consider including the site on the List of World Heritage in Danger.

It is because these state parties failed to inform Unesco that Penang Forum felt duty-bound to do it. My questions are why did GTWHI not do it? Why did the fellow ahli majlis who attacked me not perform his duty to inform Unesco of possible risks to George Town’s heritage status?

4) What are the consequences of Penang Forum’s letter to Unesco?
If Penang Forum’s letter has no merit, Unesco will dismiss it as stated above; and that should be the end of the story.

If the chief minister and GTWHI are so confident the proposed transport hub lies outside the heritage zone and poses no risks to George Town’s heritage status, why are they talking about the risk of being delisted? Is this not a contradictory statement?

Clause 112 of the Operational Guideline says:

Effective management involves … actions to protect, conserve and present the nominated property. An integrated approach to planning and management is essential …This approach goes beyond the property to include any buffer zone(s), as well as the broader setting. Management of the broader setting is related to its role in supporting the Outstanding Universal Value.

From the above it is clear the proposed LRT project may threaten George Town’s heritage status.

5) What are the options available to Penang if indeed the proposed LRT project could result in George Town losing its heritage status?

The first option is to ignore Unesco, proceed with the project, and accept the delisting. This is what the city of Liverpool did when faced with the choice of preserving its heritage status or building high-rise. This is a conscious and deliberate choice that Penang can take.

The second option is to comply with Unesco’s requirements and build transport systems, such as BRT or trams, that do not threaten its heritage status as in Istanbul or to move the transport hub to another area.

But what if the state had signed a legal agreement with SRS to build the LRT in Sia Boey? If it wants to comply with Unesco’s conditions, it has to amend the agreement and face liability of hefty compensation. This was what happened when Penang City Council compensated Boustead Holding RM20m for reducing its previously approved building height to comply with heritage requirements.

Should George Town be exposed to such risks again?

By informing Unesco early, Penang Forum is helping the council and the state avoid a repetition of such costly mistakes. Penang Forum therefore urges the state not to sign or commit itself before a Unesco mission is completed.

Common sense tells us that it is projects and actions that threaten George Town’s outstanding universal value – not a simple request letter from Penang Forum to Unesco.

Penang Forum’s proactive and preventive action should be welcomed and not vilified.


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