Sia Boey: That letter to Unesco

This was the letter that was sent to Unesco.

23 June 2016

Dr. Mechtild Rössler 
Director of the World Heritage Centre,
7 place de Fontenoy, 
Paris, France

Dear Dr. Rössler,

Re: Melaka and George Town World Heritage Property: Request for UNESCO Advisory Mission and Impact Assessment of Proposed Transport Master Plan in George Town, Penang

I would like to bring to the attention of the World Heritage Committee information about the plan for a major transportation infrastructure project in Penang that threatens to negatively impact the Outstanding Universal Value of the George Town World Heritage property. The Penang Forum, a coalition of more than a dozen of Penang’s leading civil society groups, including the Penang Heritage Trust, views the potential impacts of the Penang Transport Master Plan with great concern.

2. George Town was listed together with Melaka as Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca in 2008. According to the Operational Guidelines (clause 172): 

172, 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 authorize 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.

3. In taking on this obligation, members of Penang’s civil society have in the past publicly raised concerns that came to the attention of UNESCO, causing UNESCO to respond with a Reactive Monitoring mission in April 2009 and an Impact Assessment mission in January 2011, which resulted in the dangers being mitigated. 

4. A consultation on Melaka and George Town, held after a UNESCO workshop in Penang in December 2015, spoke of the need to initiate a comprehensive review in advance of the compulsory 10-year review in 2018. Those present at this formal consultation, which included representatives of UNESCO’s Culture Section and ICOMOS, learnt of an urban regeneration project launched in September 2015 by the Penang State Government, located in a section of the Prangin Canal at Siaboey (Komtar Phase 3) immediately contiguous to the southern boundary of the World Heritage property, intended to serve as a heritage, arts and culture district, as well as a park and green lung for the residents of the World Heritage property.

5. The target Sia Boey site, with its heritage of a disused 19th century market, 23 historic shophouses and an open section of the historic Prangin Canal, was to be converted into the Penang Heritage Arts District fielding a green lung for the living and working population of the World Heritage property. In the midst of making a diversion for the Prangin Canal, some old structures of canal sluice, lock and other archaeological remains were discovered. The National Heritage Department (Jabatan Warisan Negara Malaysia or JWN) has deemed the older remains of the Prangin Canal worthy of archaeological investigation. 

6. However, in contradiction to this announced plan, in March 2016, the Penang State Government announced a USD 9.95 billion (RM40 billion) Penang Transport Master Plan (See Annex B). This plan involved the construction of one elevated LRT line and two elevated monorail lines all converging in a multi-storey Transport Hub located directly along the southern boundary of the inscribed World Heritage property. The idea of the Penang Heritage Arts District and park was abandoned to make way for the Transport Hub on the very same site. 

7. Upon examination, the Transport Master Plan raises concerns that the project would pose a “serious and specific danger” to the George Town World Heritage property. These plans have been drawn up without consultation with the designated heritage authorities or other qualified heritage experts; neither have they been subjected to formal public scrutiny or consultation. The one and only briefing given by the Transport Hub’s HIA consultants (who were directly appointed by the main consultant/ construction firm) left Penang NGOs and professional associations deeply dissatisfied with the scanty information provided. Without prior consultation with the National Heritage Department, the relevant government authority responsible for safeguarding Malaysian Heritage including those inscribed World Heritage properties located in Malaysia, the Penang State Government had gone ahead to submit the Transport Plan to the Federal Government of Malaysia for approval at the end of March 2016. 

8. In response to this “serious and specific danger” and in accordance with Paragraph 28 (f) footnote 2 of the Operational Guidelines, and with reference to Paragraph 173 (c) of the Operational Guidelines, we hereby request that the Secretariat of the World Heritage Committee, in cooperation with the Advisory Body ICOMOS, and the Malaysian Department of National Heritage, initiate the following actions:

a) Advisory Mission on the Revision of the Boundary of the George Town World Heritage Site. The purpose of this Advisory Mission would be to conduct an inspection of the George Town inscribed property boundary to advise on and possibly recommend a minor boundary modification to incorporate the 1804 defensive ditch and original town boundary only a few metres beyond the present boundary, with a view toward the incremental recovery of the original waterway. The historical significance of the Prangin Canal, recently brought to light through maps, documents and archaeological investigations, provide strong justification for the inclusion of the Prangin Canal within the boundaries of the inscribed property. (See Annex C and D).

b) Impact Assessment of the proposed Penang Transport Master Plan and how it might affect the Outstanding Universal Value of the World Heritage property. The purpose of this impact assessment study would be to provide an independent, expert assessment of the ascertained and potential impacts of the proposed Penang Transportation Master Plan and specifically the construction of the Transport Hub, on the integrity of the tangible and intangible attributes of outstanding universal values of the George Town World Heritage Property and its setting. According to the Operational Guidelines (clause 88) and (clause 104): 

88, Integrity is a measure of the wholeness and intactness of the natural and/or cultural heritage and its attributes. Examining the conditions of integrity, therefore requires assessing the extent to which the property: a) includes all elements necessary to express its Outstanding Universal Value; b) is of adequate size to ensure the complete representation of the features and processes which convey the property’s significance; c) suffers from adverse effects of development and/or neglect. This should be presented in a statement of integrity.

104, For the purposes of effective protection of the nominated property, a buffer zone is an area surrounding the nominated property which has complementary legal and/or customary restrictions placed on its use and development to give an added layer of protection to the property. This should include the immediate setting of the nominated property, important views and other areas or attributes that are functionally important as a support to the property and its protection. The area constituting the buffer zone should be determined in each case through appropriate mechanisms. Details on the size, characteristics and authorized uses of a buffer zone, as well as a map indicating the precise boundaries of the property and its buffer zone, should be provided in the nomination.

9. The construction of the Transport Hub with its 3 or more elevated railways is bound to compromise the integrity of the inscribed World Heritage property, by affecting the property’s attributes, namely criterion (ii): values, “exceptional examples of multi-cultural trading towns”; criteron (iii) testimony, “multi-cultural tangible and intangible heritage”; criterion (iv) typology, “unique architecture, culture and townscape… an exceptional range of shophouses and townhouses”. Several blocks of shophouses within the southeast quadrant of the World Heritage property, including the buffer zone, may be directly endangered by the construction of the Transport Hub if precautions are not taken. In 1997, a basement excavation on a contiguous site caused the destabilisation of 300 shophouses in the vicinity, resulting from the loss of underground hydrostatic pressure due to the specific groundwater conditions in the environs of the Prangin Canal which was originally a small river and then, in 1804, a canal forming the historic border of what is today the inscribed heritage property (See Annex E) The construction of elevated LRT and monorail lines along the boundary of the inscribed cultural property will also impact on the physical setting and the sight lines, ruining the townscape and the broader setting, as well as rapidly changing the character of traditional neighbourhoods. 

10. In view of the above, the Penang Transport Master Plan will arguably put the inscribed cultural property at risk in all 6 categories of Ascertained Dangers and 5 out of 6 categories of Potential Dangers (See Annex F)

11. It is therefore imperative that an independent Impact Assessment should take place as early as possible in order to provide timely and effective input to local government decision-makers. The consultation should include non-governmental organisations such as the Penang Heritage Trust and other members of civil society. It is suggested that the feedback from the consultation with heritage experts and other members of civil society should be fully reflected and documented in the report of the assessment.

The Penang Forum and I are happy to extend our full cooperation to the Advisory Mission and Impact Assessment team.


Dr Lim Mah Hui

2 replies on “Sia Boey: That letter to Unesco”

Since there is nothing to hide, why was the letter sent without informing the state government of the intention to do so? All that is needed is a registered letter. It is not that Penang Forum committee members were threatened by the state government in any way. Lim Mah Hui sits on the board of the Penang Institute. He is expected to “engage” the state government, local councils etc “by way of research and dialogue”. By chosing to send this letter without informing them, he has failed to carry out his responsibilities as a respected professional towards the public. Has he decided to resign & devote himself to Penang Forum, where, clearly, his chief interest is?

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