Monday, May 02, 2016

Facing up to challenges in preservation of heritage in Sarawak

THE process of preserving Sarawak’s culture may face certain obstacles, but through social environmental impact assessments, such challenges can be addressed especially before any implementation of large-scale development projects.

Social Development Minister Tan Sri William Mawan, in the State Legislative Assembly (DUN) sitting in Kuching last December, stated that Sarawak Museum would remain focused on its core research and documentation on the state’s ‘endangered’ historical and cultural heritage sites in Sarawak River Delta, Niah Caves and the highlands in north-eastern Sarawak.

“Much documentation works are needed in the preservation and conservation of historical buildings and forts built during the Brooke Era, cultural sites such as megaliths, rock artworks and engravings, as well as social history and archaeology. This is important, as the buildings and forts serve not only as reference to our development history but also as interesting tourism destinations.”

Mawan added that the state would continue to engage local communities, particularly school students, in heritage activities; and continue to identify, document and prepare conservation management plans to protect the state’s old buildings, artefacts and historical sites in recognising their significant heritage value.

However, there seems to be a lack of personal desire to keep and preserve the ownership of old buildings as there is a rise in property value. Many have decided on selling their properties in the hunt for windfalls; instead of passing them on as heirloom treasures to the next generation — a classic battle of commerce versus heritage.

It is the same case with Sarawak’s heritage policy, which is imposed and not out of own desire or will to retain these invaluable treasure.

According to former Sarawak Heritage Society president Karen Shepherd, unlike other countries, Sarawak does not have a dedicated committee or council that cares for heritage buildings — noting that only Sarawak Museum Department is currently in charge of such matter.

“The Sarawak Heritage Society has been calling for a review of heritage management for many years since its inception in 2006, and this review must come from the top. Worldwide, it is difficult to think of one country where heritage conservation has come from the bottom up.”

Several key projects, however, did take off — the Old Courthouse complex, Fort Margherita, Square Tower, Chinese History Museum (all in Kuching) and Fort Alice in Sri Aman.

There has also been a renaissance in conversion of old houses and shophouses being turned into trendy bars and bistros — the colonial Courthouse Complex and Square Tower near Kuching Waterfront have become both becoming eateries.

Still, the identification process is piecemeal — project-by-project basis.

“There is very little management when it comes to heritage properties,” Shepherd said.

Upcoming projects are Sarawak Museum and other old forts, while the key sites to consider are Banglo Segu, Main Bazaar, Carpenter Street, Jalan Padungan, the Malay ‘kampungs’ (villages) and traditional longhouses.

A need for heritage zone

Unfortunately, there were ‘horrifying’ losses that could never be revived — the old government houses at Jalan Bamfylde, Jalan Maxwell, Jalan Batu Lintang and Jalan Ong Tiang Swee; the old Kuching Central Prison; and the Summerhouse on Sarawak Museum’s grounds.

“The state government must set the example for the people to follow. They must establish a heritage zone, like what Penang has done — ideally with a buffer zone around it. Any public or private development within that area must be managed by a heritage body, which will balance heritage concerns with those commercial in nature, in a coordinated multi-stakeholder approach.

Without this, commerce will forever dominate over heritage, leaving the latter to pass into history forever.

“No tourist travels thousands of miles to see a globalised version of what they have at home — faceless, international shopping centres with international brands everywhere.

“The tourists are here to see what makes us special — the orange apes, great caves, home of the White Rajahs in a time past, the vestige of the headhunters’ days, Chinese shophouses, rushing rivers and rapids, or Indian spice shops.

“But before the tourists could appreciate this, we must appreciate it first and present it with pride. We must preserve it with care. After all, our heritage is our story, not theirs (tourists),” Shepherd said.

In response to Shepherd, Liwan Lagang in his capacity as Assistant Minister of Culture and Heritage recently said even though there’s no new policy on heritage buildings, the matter remained enshrined under Sarawak Cultural Heritage Ordinance 1993 — in that Sarawak Museum under Part V 20 (1) is empowered to compile a register of buildings which are built before 1940 and are of such historical significance to warrant their preservation; or are of special architectural, artistic or cultural interest or beauty; or are closely associated or connected to the history of the state; and those opined by the (museum) director ought to be retained as a cultural heritage for the benefit of the people.