Heritage proponent Josephine Chua looks away from a famous international theme restaurant whenever she passes by Lorong Hang Jebat in Malacca. The conspicuous peach-tone building – located where the iconic Jonker Street begins, beside the famed Malacca River – always invokes a sense of what is grossly wrong with the preservation of her beloved city’s illustrious history.
“How can a building that has never been there before, make it to the core heritage area? Who gave the approval?” Chua rhetorically asks with a sigh.
“Money talks, you see,” the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple restoration project co-ordinator seems to think.
Authorities she says, should conserve the existing historical structures instead of develop new products such as the I Love Melaka fixture that has no relation to the city’s history.
In 2008, Malacca and George Town in Penang were jointly listed as Unesco World Heritage Sites. Malaysians – from government officials to proud citizens – took to the streets back then in celebration of the achievement.
Almost a decade later, George Town soldiers on under the watchful eyes of vocal heritage groups. Malacca, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to be as proactive.
The aforementioned shouldn’t be taken as a “good versus bad” example, though. History author Dennis De Witt reminds us that the Unesco listing is for both places as historic cities of the Straits of Malacca.
“If one is in danger of losing its status, both towns may be affected by it,” says the man who has penned titles such as Melaka From The Top and History Of The Dutch In Malaysia.
According to De Witt, both cities are moving in its own direction without any signs of co-operation.
“It may be a result of political differences between the two state governments,” he muses. “What I find ironic is that both chief ministers are from Malacca.”
The Melaka World Heritage Office discreetly shut its doors earlier this year. Since then, it has been placed under the conservation unit within the Malacca Historic City Council (MBMB).
On its website, the now-defunct heritage office – previously listed as a subsidiary of the Malacca Chief Minister Incorporated – claims to champion and monitor the state’s conservation.
That watchdog role is lacking at the present time in Malacca, says Malaysian Heritage and History Club founder Bert Tan. Echoing the thoughts of other heritage proponents, he says the major problem is failure in enforcing heritage guidelines.
“Authorities should make the current guidelines as laws and enforce them,” he comments, adding that tourism dictates the fate of old Malacca these days.
Over 16.5 million visitors are expected to visit Malacca this year, based on a tourism report by the state government. While the tourists surge spells economic benefits, heritage enthusiasts say it’s a double-edged sword.
The Unesco listing contributed greatly to the tourism spurt. But as Tan sees it, that accolade is just a hyped-up status.
“It’s just another tourism label, without much consideration to preserve the trades and community living in the old quarters of Malacca,” he says.
Historian and geographer Serge Jardin says commitment and responsibility must accompany the honour of being listed as a World Heritage Site.
“The decision to ask Unesco for the listing is a political decision made from the top. It is necessary for that decision to be understood by the people.
“It is not just a logo to make money, neither extra rules to make the life of people miserable,” says the Frenchman who has called the historical city home for the past 14 years.
He adds that mass tourism is both “a blessing and a curse”, and Malacca could have done without the Unesco accolade.
“Without that international logo, old Malacca could have been able to continue to live in peace and harmony. The mosaic of its small cultural enclaves are fast disappearing today,” he says.
It’s a concern that Chua echoes.
“Malacca is becoming more of a commercial space, when it really should have been a space for the community,” she observes.
In an e-mail response, the National Heritage Department gives the assurance that it is committed to carrying out its role to protect and preserve the heritage sites in the country.
“Control of the integrity, authenticity and harmony aspects of the sites are emphasised to ensure that the heritage sites are preserved,” the department says, highlighting initiatives such as the Conservation Management Plan (CMP) – a set of guidelines to conserve core and buffer zones per Unesco’s requirements – and overseeing development proposals at heritage sites.
One of the measures outlined in the CMP seeks to ensure that external factors – visual distraction, pollution and traffic – do not disrupt the heritage sites.
Malacca has four sites on the National Heritage Register List and 46 on the Heritage List under the National Heritage Act. Those found guilty of the offence under Section 112(1) of the National Heritage Act will be fined up to RM50,000 or face a jail term of up to five years, or both.
But heritage proponents argue that proper enforcement is not being implemented. Already, signs of detriment are showing.
The streets of the old town, for example, are not equipped to cater to heavy traffic and large vehicles. According to Chua, there have been instances of sightseeing buses almost hitting the roof of old shophouses along the historic Heeren Street.
Recently, a reader wrote in to Star2, detailing the poor conservation of monuments in Malacca. An example cited was souvenir vendors placing their goods against the 500-year-old stone walls near Porta de Santiago, formerly known as A Famosa.
MBMB has not responded with comments at press time.
Academic consultant K. Narayanasamy attributes these scenarios to the lackadaisical attitude of the powers that be.
“There’s a lack of commitment among the decision-makers to protect the heritage properties here,” says the prominent Chitty community researcher.
The former Malacca Historical Society secretary adds that economic considerations seem to outweigh heritage conservation efforts. Case in point: The reclamation of land around the Malacca River for real estate development.
“The presence of new buildings and structures will surely erase the significance of the historical buildings,” he laments.
De Witt points out that the city is already congested as it is. He fears more rapid developments will permanently mar Malacca’s old world charm.
“The emission of effluence from motor vehicles and vibrations created by heavy vehicles may have a negative effect on the historical buildings in the town,” he observes.
Be more proactive
De Witt says the authorities should be more receptive towards feedback from the relevant NGOs.
“I sense that there may be objections for NGOs to play a larger role as the state may be afraid to be faced with opposition towards their plans for the development of the town,” he says.
“The state government has to get the stakeholders involved in the management of the heritage zone and buffer zone, as well as other related heritage buildings outside those zones and communities there,” he suggests, adding that further studies should be conducted on the heritage buildings’ history and functions.
The man adds that heritage conservation in European countries should be emulated.
“They seem to be more committed and advanced in their approach towards conservation. They have bodies who champion historic places, helping people understand, value and care for them,” he offers.
Things couldn’t have been any more different here, Tan points out.
“Over here, authorities decide everything without consulting the public,” he says, adding that the common response is often a half-hearted resignation.
However, De Witt says, his experiences with the relevant stakeholders haven’t been all bad. In 2002, he successfully worked with the Netherlands Embassy here and former Malacca Chief Minister Mohd Ali Rustam to restore the Atlas Ice building.
That said, Malaccans are the real ambassadors to the world.
Respect for remnants of Malacca’s past, according to De Witt, will inadvertently create a sense of pride and respect for heritage.
“Maybe this way, the trishaw operators will understand it is not the Pink Panther or Disney’s Frozen decorations and blaring loud music that are crowd-pullers. Instead, it’s the privilege of experiencing Malacca’s old culture that is really appreciated by the visitors,” he says.
Preserving hallowed ground
On a larger scale, Badan Warisan Malaysia president Elizabeth Cardosa says there needs to be better understanding of the heritage sites’ outstanding universal values.
“If the value is in terms of monetary gains and number-crunching, then you are not capturing the integrity and authenticity of the heritage itself,” she says.
According to Cardosa, preserving Malacca’s heritage means protecting the living tradition of the city’s multicultural community as well. She is alluding to cases where traditional trades have moved from heritage areas such as Jonker Street and Heeren Street.
The third criterion of the Unesco document details how Malacca and George Town’s multi-cultural tangible and intangible heritage is expressed in the great variety of religious buildings, the many languages, festivals, dances, costumes, art and music, food, and daily life.
But De Witt says that the preservation of the human factor in our heritage has been overlooked.
To inject life into Malacca’s old world charm, he says, traditional activities – such as the beaded shoe maker, the clog maker, the basket weaver, the wooden blinds maker, the keris maker and the blacksmith – should be encouraged to take up residence in the old part of the town.
It’s a sentiment shared by Friends of Melaka Museums chairman Shaukani Abbas. The man highlights the plight of traditional Malay traders quitting the Kampung Pantai area due to high rentals and poor road system.
“It’s hard to find 100% Malaccan products now,” he says, referring to trinkets such as the kampung house and bullock cart wooden replicas that used to be commonly found at souvenir stalls.
“These days, all you see are generic key chains and fridge magnets being sold at the shops,” Shaukani adds.
On his part, the man works with the Malacca Museum Corporation and MBMB to organise free guided walks on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at the historical Malay village Kampung Morten. The idea, according to Shaukani, is to involve the village community by getting them to showcase their traditional businesses and way of life.
Jardin notes that saving the intangible heritage is the most difficult yet urgent part of the equation.
“To be a living heritage, you need people working, children going to school, people praying and playing. Without residents, old Malacca will be no more,” he says.
That said, he doesn’t think Malacca will lose its Unesco status.
“But even if you may not lose the status so easily, it is very easy to lose the raison d’être of being listed,” he offers.
Strength in unity
In reviving Malacca’s heritage, the authorities should extensively engage with the community.
“Historians, community leaders and professionals should be invited to take part in managing the heritage of Malacca,” De Witt offers. He adds that the management of heritage zones and listed buildings should be done by an independent body who would work jointly with the state government.
Cardosa suggests that the input of all the various communities in Malacca – from the Malays to the Babas and the Chittys to the Portuguese – be taken into account by the relevant authorities.
“Responsibility is a collective thing,” she says, “and in a country like Malaysia, it takes political will to make things work.”
Shaukani says the beautiful diversity of the community here should be reflected through a concerted effort by all the community leaders to conserve Malacca’s heritage.
It boils down, Chua says, to people having a genuine sense of care and passion to preserve history.
“When you don’t have a committed group, nothing is going to change,” she offers.
“We need passionate people from all the communities here to protect its heritage through various layers of history. Think of it like the Malacca kueh lapis.”