Watchdog moots new oversight panel in Penang after heritage building hit by illegal works

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

GEORGE TOWN, March 20 — Heritage watchdog Badan Warisan Malaysia (BWM) has proposed the formation of a steering committee in Penang to monitor works on historically significant buildings in the state, after the latest incident of illegal renovations.

BWM president Lim Wei-Ling said the Penang Island City Council (MBPP) should take the lead to form the committee, as this would also infuse with enforcement powers to regulate activities involving buildings with heritage value.

“This heritage steering committee will comprise both local authority officers and heritage groups,” she said in a statement issued today.

She said the committee should first approve any project involving any heritage building before the development proceeds with other applications.

“Until this is set up, a full moratorium on any demolition must be enforced,” she said.

She said there were numerous illegal works being carried out on heritage-listed buildings, including Category One buildings within the George Town world heritage site.

“According to local heritage activists who are volunteers, there have been about 50 cases of illegal works within the Unesco site, including those recently completed and currently being renovated without permits, as well as using wrong materials,” she said.

She was referring to the recent news of illegal works being conducted in the Customs Building at China Street Ghaut and a Hakka Association building at Toh Aka Lane.

“This follows the destructive work done at the Fooi Chew Association building in early February 2023 that also did not have a permit,” she said.

She said the continuation of the illegal works in the face of stop-work orders from the MBPP was a clear sign that current penalties were insufficient deterrents.

“How much longer should the local authorities reflect on the seriousness of this situation before clear and decisive outcomes become transparent? Will culprits face severe consequences?” she asked.

She said the Heritage Act protected both the interiors and exteriors of the buildings, which meant all structures in the George Town Special Area Plan were subject to specific conservation regulations.

She asked how the authorities were monitoring heritage sites and whether they would be open to allowing volunteers to monitor developments on the ground.

“Six months have also passed since the illegal demolition of Kapitan Chung Keng Kwee’s 1884 built monument to honour his love for his wife Foo Teng Nyong,” she said.

She said the ruins of the smashed tomb ruins remained at the Jelutong landfill, with no charges filed against those responsible.

“We understand that in the meantime, the owner/developer has applied to MBPP for planning permission to build a 30-storey residential tower on the illegally demolished tomb site,” Lim said.

She asked if MBPP would reward the illegal demolition with a full planning permission approval for the project.

“If planning permission is given to culprits who illegally demolish heritage sites, it is tantamount to the authorities conspiring and assisting developers to undermine and contravene laws that were set up to specifically protect,” she said.

She said this is why there is a need for independent experts in the approval process for any plans related to heritage buildings and heritage sites.

“We are deeply worried the number of illegal works carried out on heritage buildings in George Town will continue unabated, eroding its unique architectural heritage as well as the confidence of the public with regards to the ability and willingness of local authorities to carry out their responsibilities and effectively take action beyond the rhetoric,” she said.

She said George Town could face being delisted as a Unesco world heritage site if the illegal and inappropriate renovations continue to increase.

“As the Unesco World Heritage Site status is for both George Town and Melaka, a delist will affect both,” she said, adding that this was why the proposed steering committee was needed.