- 2003/04/17 Appreciating the value of heritage sites

Statistics reveal that within two years after a site is on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation World Heritage List, the number of visitor arrivals would increase by 40 per cent along with double-rate growth, faster than sites not on the list. So says Unesco Asia/Pacific regional adviser for culture Richard Engelhardt.

Indeed, heritage is a resource of both economic and cultural capital.

Let's take Malacca for example. Together with Penang, they are bidding to be listed in the heritage list. In order to be listed, both need to satisfy an important criteria set by the World Heritage Committee.

This covers a reflection of a heritage that is "ultimately for the people" and the opinion of the stakeholders of a particular heritage site (in this case, the people living in the area), preservation of historical structures and a management plan of the area.

Therefore, the need to preserve the two locations' heritage value is probably more crucial than ever.

In Malacca, there are opposing views on what the state has and is doing in conservation efforts.

On one hand, conservationists say Malacca suffers from a thoroughly inadequate conservation unit while, on the other hand, authorities say the lack of co-operation among parties involved is the main setback for any conservation effort.

The Southern Region Museum and Antiquity Department (SRMAD), under the Culture, Arts and Tourism Ministry as well as the Malacca Museums Corporation (Perzim) and Majlis Perbandaran Melaka Bandaraya Bersejarah (MPMBB) are the three key bodies involved in Malacca's conservation efforts.

Talking about Malacca and conservation, one surely has not forgotten the three demolished old shophouses incident in the heritage buffer zone in Jonker Walk, Jalan Hang Jebat late last year.

Bad publicity Ė the three bodies have had to swallow it all.

Museum and Antiquities Department director of conservation Paiman Keromo says a lot of money has been spent on conservation work on colonial buildings, traditional Malay houses and other buildings of historical significance.

"The national conservation policy states that all buildings, from temples to coffee shops which need conservation work should be given due attention," he says.

In conjunction with Malacca's 14th anniversary as a historical city on Tuesday, a visit was made to some of the places in the State where conservation work had been done. With SRMAD providing guidance, the first stop was Masjid Jamek Kampung Duyung in the Perkampungan Hang Tuah area. The original mosque built in 1850 had survived two fires and ultimately reconstruction work by locals.

The mosque in recent years was identified as a historical building and Perzim later started work on its conservation and restoration last year.

SRMAD assistant senior curator Iesnordin Malan says conservation includes demolishing irrelevant additional structures added to the original building.

The next stop was Masjid Air Barok in Jasin, built in 1917 and once the main mosque in town. The site was once owned by Datuk Senara from Acheh, believed to be the person who founded Jasin.

From 1969 up until last year, the mosque was no longer used as a result of a bigger and newer mosque built in the area. Hence, Masjid Air Barok deteriorated into a dilapidated state due to poor maintenance.

According to Iesnordin, conservation work was done last year and the mosque was handed back to the district.

What is interesting about the mosque is the fact that it is the only one in Malacca with tiled pillars. Some of the original tiles were either destroyed or stolen, thus similar ones have replaced the old.

Malacca is also known for its traditional Malay houses, with unique and eye-catching tiled stairs. One historical structure is a Malay house owned by Malia Edin in Pondok Kempas in Jasin.

Built in the 1920s, the present owner inherited it from her father-in-law. Today, the house is exceptional, its welcoming structure exudes a warm hospitality.

Unique to Malaccan Malay houses, the one-bedroom abode has an attic for storage, or, said Malia, for girls peeping through its wooden floors to steal glimpses of their suitors.

In Bandar Hilir, a visit was made to A'Famosa, a remnant of a Portuguese fortress built in 1511. The structure we see today is the result of severe damage during the Dutch invasion.

When the British took over Malacca, they set out to destroy it but timely intervention by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1808 saved what remains of it today.

Another handsome building is the Christ Church. Standing since 1753, this church is a fine testimony to Dutch architectural ingenuity.

Its noteworthy relics include handmade pews, jointless ceiling beams, the tombstone written in Armenian and the "Last Supper" mural in glazed tiles.

The Museum and Antiquity Department itself is housed in one of the brick-red old buildings from the Dutch era.

Indeed, our history is embedded in our architectural, social and cultural fabrics and of these, the architectural fabric is probably the most enduring.

Thus, it is hoped that people understand the benefits of conservation work, especially in places like Malacca. Tourists throng Malacca year after year for its historical value.

If we start tearing down or do not appreciate the significance of old structures, ancient objects and old places of worship, we would certainly lose our identity.

World heritage properties are sites with exceptional natural and/or cultural values. The international importance of these sites, totalling around 700, is recognised through their inclusion in the World Heritage List, established by the World Heritage Convention.

Among sites listed are the Pyramids of Egypt, the Grand Canyon in the United States, the Taj Mahal of India, the Westminster Abbey in England and the Great Wall of China.

The Kinabalu National Park and Mulu National Park were put on the World Heritage List in 2000 as natural heritage sites.

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