Save Malaysia's Heritage!

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This post was written by Kat Fatland

Heritage is a hot topic in the region as asia develops at a rapid pace, and Kat Fatland joined a conference to hear about what is being done to save the historical gems of Malaysia and beyond.

On 13 January, in a conference room of the famed Eastern and Oriental hotel in the heart of Penang’s George Town, nearly 100 participants gathered to hear a few of Asia’s foremost intellectuals speak about a topic known by many but understood by few. This was the second day of a three-day symposium on heritage. The participants ranged widely from seasoned professionals who’ve devoted their lives to the topic, to youths, eager to support a cause that’s undoubtedly crucial for their generation’s future. No matter what their age, every participant spoke passionately and listened intently: the energy in the room was further proof that heritage is a hot topic, and for good reason.

Finding Your Heritage

Before I came to Asia, I had almost zero connection to what heritage was, or really what it meant. The very tenets that define my home country of the United States – namely that the country is a “melting pot,” a place for constant renewal and progression towards something better – in some ways necessitate the disappearance, or at least the stifling, of heritage altogether. When I say I am an American, I don’t quite have a specific food, dress, dance, or even a clear-cut set of values I can point to in order to qualify for others what I am.

Perhaps it’s my lack of identifiable heritage that makes Asia such an incredible place to me. The Malaysian celebration of the foods that they ubiquitously love (Penang’s laksa or Ipoh’s salted chicken); seeing community members attend local festivals in their traditional garb, from the nyonya kebaya to the Malay Baju Melayu to the energetic lion dances; all speak of a pride in heritage that I’ve never quite experienced anywhere else. These vibrant traditions are what make the nation come alive.

Penang proves to be an apt example of what heritage really represents. While travellers might take a walking tour from building to building, the real pleasure comes from seeing the George Town community at work. From the rickshaw driver to the rattan weaver, from the Little India samosa maker to the char koey teow stall a block away, the city comes alive through its citizens.

Maintaining The Continuum

Heritage is not only what distinguishes Paris from Rome: it is also what distinguishes a Parisian from a Roman. It’s a community-driven sense of place, based on everything from local dialects to local delicacies, from specific buildings to entire enclaves. In the last two decades especially, heritage has come to define not just the tangible buildings or landscapes that shape a given culture, but also that which is intangible, from specific forms of employment to a certain skillset held by generations of families. The two inform one another in a sort of continuum.

But what happens when the continuity between people and place gets interrupted? How is a community affected when a site of worship gets overshadowed by a shopping mall, or when a certain artisan’s trade gets replaced by a more efficient, cheaper model?

Unfortunately, these questions are not hypothetical. They’re being realised all over the map in Asia, as globalisation continues to drive up the frantic pace of development. With every new high-rise, an old building disappears. With every neighbourhood enclave bought out by the highest bidder, entire communities are displaced. Rising rents in burgeoning big cities have forced their original inhabitants to move elsewhere, effectively removing that which made the cities so special to begin with.

Seeking A Solution

Enter Asia’s Urban Conservation Network. Concerned with the pace of development in their cities, a small but important contingent of individuals, representing heritage organisations from almost every country in the region, decided it was time to band together and use their collective strengths to face the contemporary urban challenges each are faced with every day. Originally formed in 1991, the network has met on six different occasions to discuss their unique problems, and share information on everything from building technology to technical expertise.


The nations represented by individuals in the Network each have unique problems to address. In China, heritage conservation is an issue of fighting the bureaucratic politics of the government. In Thailand, heritage problems revolve around the divide between high and low culture. In Indonesia, heritage has to answer to the forces of nature: important buildings and neighbourhoods are destroyed almost yearly by natural disasters: how can the government justify spending so much money on something so easily destroyed, instead of spending it on saving lives?

Here in Malaysia, the government isn’t so much the issue as the culture. With such a multivalent identity, what’s important to whom and which culture is granted historical precedence makes heritage a difficult issue to pursue. And in Cambodia and Yangon, it’s hard to even know where to begin. As property values continue to skyrocket in these nations, is it even possible to begin to address the importance of keeping certain locales intact and untouched?

Prioritising Heritage

The participants of the conference conceded that they can only do so much when it comes to large scale development, but making changes on a smaller scale, working from the bottom up, is very much in their grasp. Frankly, it is the heritage advocates that are on the right side of progression. As one presenter informed the participants, conservation efforts are directly related to the well-being of citizens: successful conservation is not only a driver of the local economies, it also provides better protection of citizens’ rights and, being largely democratic in nature, allows for more voices to be heard within the community.

When I was backpacking this region, a woman once told me, “Europe is going to be Europe forever, but ten years from now, the Asia you’re experiencing won’t exist anymore.” It’s a scary thought, but she’s right: Asia will never be what it is right now, this year, this week. Over the last year, I’ve run my fingers across the stone carvings in Angkor Wat, I’ve slept in a shophouse that doubled as a hotel and a bicycle repair shop. But I’ve also seen shop houses being demolished, and talked to local artisans looking for more mainstream work. Those of us who live in Asia have these experiences daily, and they are in no way uncommon: but they might be soon.

So how can the average expat help safeguard the heritage of those cities he loves, or even calls home? First and foremost, each one of us can simply participate in the local economy. Instead of sitting in the comfort of your favorite international food chain, get out there on the streets of Malaysia, or any other city in the area you find yourself in, and enjoy a meal with the locals. Scope out the local crafts person and commission a piece of art. Choose the locally owned boutique hostels or hotels instead of the name you recognise. And, perhaps most importantly, keep in mind that by helping preserve the heritage around us, we are doing our part in allowing the next generation of expats and travellers to find as much pleasure in it as we most certainly do.


Source: The Expat March 2013

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