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(ARCHIVE) VOL. XXII NO. 23, March 16-31, 2013
(In Erstwhile 'Straits Settlements)
Govt. funding helps heritage thrive
By S. Muthiah

Kapitan Keling Masjid, the mosque of the Indian Muslims, restored with the help of Think City Berhad.

The recent news that the Courts have urged the Life Insurance Corporation to pay heed to the advice of the CMDA's Heritage Conservation Committee in the matter of the Corporation's Bharat Insurance Building and that the Committee has insisted that this heritage building must be restored, made me recall now different officialdom's attitude to heritage is in the three territories of what was once the Straits Settlements. I was recently in Singapore and Penang, but couldn't get to Melaka which, like Penang's George Town, was declared a World Heritage Site in 2008. In Singapore and George Town, heritage is thriving thanks to a leg up given by government and it is no different in Melaka, where the emphasis is on its Portuguese past, I was told by those involved with the Penang Heritage Trust, an NGO led by the dedicated Khoo Salma Nasution.

There is in this governmental and quasi-governmental participation in heritage conservation and renovation in partnership with NGOs many a lesson for us to learn in Tamil Nadu where we have only recently been promised a Heritage Act but which still has to put down even its first roots. The most significant lessons from Penang are, one, the spirit of partnership between the quasi-government implementer of programmes, George Town World Heritage Incorporated, and the NGOs and,two, Government funding which is available even to individuals for restoration projects after due evaluation both by the funding agency and the GTWHI.

The funding agency, called Think City Berhad, is a part of Khazanah Nasional, Berhad, which is rather like our Tamil Nadu Industrial Investment Corporation (TIIC), but with a wider mandate. Think City was established in 2009 "to spearhead urban regeneration" and it does this by actively participating in four activities:

  • A physical conservation programme that includes both community and private properties;
  • A cultural mapping programme that helps document community histories and culture and preserve intangible heritage like endangered trades, traditional performing arts, and ancient culinary practices;
  • A shared spaces programme that looks at walkways, greening, and improving public spaces such as parks and urban markets; and
  • A capacity-building programme that focusses on training workshops.

Kick-starting this has been the founding of a George Town Grants Programme (GTGP) to which the Federal Government has made an initial grant of RM 20 million. Apart from Khazanah's own funding, there have been private-public partnerships, also established with both local and international partners. But Think City's strength is its 20-member Board of Advisors, none of whom is from the Government. The local members are mainly academics. There are almost as many associated with urban regeneration from abroad. And both groups include high level non-governmental financial advisors.

The Grants Programme aims to get the regeneration of George Town started, support initiatives launched through the partnering of civil society, the private sector and the public sector, help with training in protecting and developing living heritage, culture, and built heritage, and make possible a sustainable and liveable environment.

The GTGP had, till the end of 2011, restored or was restoring 97 houses, helping increase the property values of those houses by 70 per cent on an average, received as co-investment in its projects RM 6 for every RM 1 it had allocated as a grant, and had nearly 1500 persons attend capacity-building programmes it had funded. It had disbursed nearly RM 13 million, 60 per cent on conservation of buildings and 13 per cent on improving public spaces. Properties for which grants were given were for privately-owned shophouses and homes, many of which have been converted into restaurants, trendy boutique shops and budget hotels, and exhibition centres, as well as for community buildings, like temples, mosques, churches and the headquarters of associations and clans. Several guides, manuals, histories, and niche heritage books focussed on traditional cuisine, festivals and music, have been published. And several parks and other public spaces improved.

According to the GTWHI, the definition of "heritage value" covers five aspects: Historical Value, Architectural Value, Townscape Value, Social Value and Scientific Value (construction technology).

As a private company set up by the Penang State Government, GTWHI has no actual powers to enforce against any perceived flouting of rules and regulations. However, the company's representatives sit on the approval boards of the local councils which scrutinise permit applications for restoration or renovation projects, especially those located within the Heritage Zones, and can say 'not approved' should they have any objection.

According to GTWHI there are 5439 buildings and sites identified as of heritage value. They are classified into four categories. In Category 1 are 93 properties, including heritage buildings, gateways, cemeteries and historical sites. Category 2 has 4048 properties comprising mainly shophouses. They are evenly distributed within the Core and Buffer Zones into which the George Town World Heritage Site has been divided. In Category 3, 585 sites have been identified as vacant land or temporary structures where "compatible" re-development is permitted. And under Category 4 are 713 buildings considered as being without any significant value and where sensitive re-development is permitted.

Rental values of restored buildings in the Core Zone and the Buffer Zone are now up by 50-100 per cent and there are more takers willing to cater to the increasing number of visitors who see Penang as a holiday destination where much of a preserved past is not far from its beaches. That past is two hundred years old and heritage buildings are those built before World War II ended (1945). The heritage listing ensures that a building in it cannot be pulled down and that the owner must find ways of restoring it for reuse with or without the State-supported support groups. The result is that, despite support measures, large numbers of shophouses are languishing and several garden houses are derelict. Those concerned with Penang's heritage and its UNESCO status as a World Heritage Site will have to find answers to bringing these buildings, especially the garden houses with their huge garden spaces, to life again.

In Singapore, heritage laws were put in place several years before Penang and built heritage conservation is visible wherever you go in the older parts of the city. Overseeing the protection of the city's heritage is the National Heritage Board, with representation from Government departments, NGOs and the private sector; in fact, at the time I was in Singapore, it was being chaired by the head of Ernest & Young (Singapore).

With heritage activities well underway in the city since 1989, it is now looking to the future and a Heritage Vision 2025 was being drawn up by the National Heritage Board when I was there. According to their vision, "The Heritage 2025 Masterplan envisions a nation that effectively protects and promotes its heritage and a citizenry engaged in the active conservation and promotion of our nation's heritage for the purposes of fostering national identity and rootedness, and revitalising our culture and cityscape."

The Vision proposes focussing on five areas with the help of Government funding and support, national collection drives, private and public donations, and loans. These areas are:

  • National stewardship through research, capacity-building and the drawing up of strategies and policies;
  • Heritage museums, institutions and galleries at the national, community and niche levels (the last-named being of either individuals or special institutions like, in a Chennai context, a Ramanujan or a M&Sm railways museum);
  • Heritage sites which will include National Monuments (so declared by the Government), UNESCO World Heritage Sites, listed buildings and markets, heritage private homes and tombs;
  • Heritage precincts like Chinatown, Little India, and various heritage kampongs (villages); and
  • Heritage practices that will include intangible heritage such as customs, rituals, traditional practices, food, arts and crafts.

Much of what has happened in the area of heritage conservation in these former Straits Settlements territories – which have a history not unlike Madras's, though about 150 years younger – could be replicated here without our having to reinvent the wheel. Now that the Heritage Act is to be legislated, perhaps a core Heritage Commission team could be formed and sent to Singapore, Penang and Melaka to study what's been done there and draw up similar plans for Madras that is Chennai.

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In this Issue

Dear Mr. Finance Minister
Desalination plants
Govt. funding helps heritage thrive
The Memorials of Schwartz
KVK and his public causes
The Stanley Hospital Story by Shobha Menon
From Gandhi & Rajaji to Em & Big Hoom
Past Times
A management guru remembered

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Our Readers Write
Quizzin' with Ram'nan
Dates for Your Diary
Madras Eye


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