Pic: Man working on restoration works for the Acheen Street Project, refurbishing and modernising the buildings in the Acheen & Armenian street enclave area. Penang, 2003.
Sidetracking a little today, doing an article for Heritage in Malaysia! Long read but enjoy.
Malaysia possesses a rich tapestry of culture inherited from the various communities, races and religions that congregated on our shores till this day. The legacy of the natives, working immigrants and later colonial masters had made us into the unique blend of community we call Malaysians. Aside from the facts of history, the more pressing issue is the status of our cultural heritage today, preservation of architectural remnants, religious and societal practices, lifestyles and values. The modern Malaysia is ever changing and nothing will be able to hold back the tide, it is a natural evolution for a society that is exposed to new technologies, a more global coverage and shifts in styles and trends through the eras. But that doesn’t mean that the past should just give in without a fight. Rather than just turning into a homogenized entity, our distinctiveness should be the driving force in the making of a Malaysian identity, true we don’t always get along but we are the better for it as we enrich each other by our differing views, beliefs and conduct.
For as long as I can remember, our efforts to showcase our culture as part of the World’s collective mosaic have been a sorry effort to say the least. Our two historical townships, that of Malacca and Penang has tried unsuccessfully to be inscribed as a UNESCO’s world heritage sites. Malacca with it’s significance as being the seat of power for the olden Malacca sultanate, one of the very first established power in the Malays Peninsular and later the seat of colonial power from the Bugis, Portuguese and Dutch. Penang an entreport of world class during the colonial era, a stopover first opened by Sir Francis Light and later taken over by the East India Company, was to become the administrative, commercial, metropolitan and cultural center for the region, before being overshadowed by the opening of Singapore. Both places resonate with the huge collective echo of the past, both are rich in architectural significant period buildings, both have played host to important events of significance in our nation’s history, both still boasts a rich community based society whose daily lives, occupation, traditions and beliefs still paint a picture of how these places functioned in the old days. So what are we still lacking?
Well, the first thing is that there is not much of a serious effort in protecting this heritage of our. Rather than seen as contributing to the richness of our society, the past is looked upon more as a hindrance and a roadblock to development, something we should forget and instead rush in to join with the modern. Old buildings with cultural significance have not only been neglected at times but at the most severe instances, torn down in the middle of the night without approval or thought. The very people that makes cities like Georgetown in Penang alive are left out after the repeal of the Rent Control Act (a law that freezes rents for pre-war houses of which Penang has the highest concentration) to make way for more equitable rent prices for the property owners. Traditional crafts and occupations have lost their significance in modern times and many of the younger generations are not interested to continue them. Even rhetoric reasoning has been used to ban performances such as the wayang kulit (shadow puppetry) due to influence of the Mahabrata and Ramayana which is not in accordance to Islam in Kelantan. Folk dances such as the Mak Yong and Kuda Kepang have even been cited as indecent and lacking of morality though it has been a part of the Malay community for ages.
Second there is no central authority to oversee the preservation as well as development of our historical culture. A hodgepodge of societies, action groups and private bodies such as Badan Warisan, the Penang Heritage Trust and the museum and antiquities department are taking up the banner but without a leader, development in this area would remain small time efforts and a cohesive strategy can never be mapped out. Success stories are few and far between while the casualties are high. To date, the good news is that several preservation efforts in Malaysia has won international recognition such as the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion in Penang and the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple in Melaka. These societies also are dependent on donors for funding to carry out their activities whereas a government body would have the necessary mandate, funding and resources to carry out projects more effectively. Without a watchdog to manage affairs, the heritage status is just that, without checks and safeguards to prevent abuses. Recently with the reshuffling of Ministries, two different Ministries were formed from the prior ministry of culture, arts and tourism. One for Tourism and the other is the arts, culture and heritage ministry. With this step it is hoped that matters will be addressed, but to date nothing concrete has been carried out.
Thirdly, us Malaysians ourselves have not taken interest in preserving our heritage. History is not a priority for us because many of us think that it has no relevance in our lives. But famous words were said once “To forget the past is to repeat the mistakes again in future”. Most people would be more eager to read about the latest fashion trends in magazines than to take up a history book. I still wonder if anyone in my generation can truly remember events of the past, even to reflect on the past few decades. Malls are more popular destinations than the numerous temples, association buildings, pre-war buildings and monuments. Events such as the recent concert by Blue have more relevance than say the Baling talks (joint talks between the Government and the Malayan Communist Party). Maybe it’s the way history is being presented to the people, that’s what keeping them away, rather than being user friendly and interesting, history is often presented bland or information hard to come by. I still think they should shoot whoever writes the history books for schools, I can fall asleep after the first page! Our museums are cobwebbed, boring and not well presented. We are no longer intrigued about the battles of the past that portray honour, valor, sacrifice nor question their merits or demerits; we are not inspired by the figures of the pasts, great politicians, social movers, freedom fighters, pioneers and men of arts; we lightly forgot the injustice of oppression, the hardship of poverty, the blood shed in making our nation and the values we can learn from them. If the Americans can make history interesting, a different approach can be used here as well, more well directed documentaries, better education materials, NGOs efforts in getting kids interested, movies and films made as they are more accessible and exhibitions held to showcase.
But I disagree preservation should be for the sake of preservation itself. Preservation without function is a losing proposition. Practices and trade that are no longer relevant will die out, this in inevitable. But to let the skills, experience and wisdom accumulated by generations fade away as such is a sorry state. We don’t want our children to just read about such matters in books, it’s better to allow them direct exposure to a living, breathing culture. We have found various ways to adapt the past into the future, and many are successful in that sense but uncontrolled commercialization of our culture is not the right path. Take for example, Jonker Street in Melaka, beautiful buildings of the past are reconditioned and restored for new uses such as businesses, art galleries and shop lots but at the same time old time businesses are still present such as lotus foot slippers (tiny shoes used by foot bound women in the past), paper effigy making for prayers and traditional crafts being sold as souvenirs while culturally significant buildings are preserved such as Dutch Square (the old administrative center in the Dutch era), St Paul Cathedral (a ruin now but preserved), old religious centers (mosques, temples and kuils) and mausoleums (of Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat, olden Malay warriors and heroes). A heritage trail has also been set up in conjunction with corporate sponsors to highlight these attractions. The same goes for efforts in Penang.
What we do not want to see is a whitewashed culture that we can put on show for tourists. Tourists don’t come all the way to pay and see modern boutiques nor do they want to see elaborate parades that only mimics our culture, those they can find back home. What they want to see is the living, breathing manifestation of life found no where else. Preservation of old townships and culture does not mean an end to development, many places in the world are retaining their cultural charm and yet still manages to progress, at times even reinvigorated. Tourist dollars are a good incentive to preserve what we have left but the more important objective is for the preservation of our culture and it should start from us. But sadly we are losing the past faster than we can say “World heritage listing”.