Caring for George Town the Correct Way

loading Roofs of George Town.

Ten years ago on July 8, 2008, George Town and Melaka, two historic cities on the Straits of Malacca which developed through trading and cultural exchanges between the East and the West, were listed by Unesco as a World Heritage Site.

While the mood was (and still is) celebratory, it called to attention the monumental job of protecting and managing the two cities and their multifaceted heritage.

The SAP in a Nutshell

In giving the honour to the two cities, Unesco requires an appropriate management plan or documented management system to be provided by the state party.1 In Malaysia, that responsibility went to the Tourism and Culture Ministry through the National Heritage Department.

Thus began the long drafting process of the Special Area Plan (SAP), followed by the incorporation of Unesco management guidelines and recommendations into Malaysian legal provisions; if no procedural safeguards are provided, then George Town could lose its significant values.

Not being solely a procedural document, though, the SAP’s objectives are long term in nature, and its strategies and measures have to be flexible in order to allow for further improvements. It is to be both a dynamic tool that holistically caters for the changing nature of heritage and a reflective product of consensus among heritage stakeholders. Its broad purpose is to facilitate the proper management of the site, including the use and development of all buildings and lands, followed by measures that enhance the integration of its physical environment with the socio-economic and cultural growth of the city as well as the well-being of its residents.

Melaka and George Town have their own separate SAPs gazetted under the Town and Country Planning Act 1976 (Act 172); Section 16B provides that the state director or local planning authority must submit a detailed plan to the State Planning Committee for the development, redevelopment, improvement or conservation of the special area.

The SAP as a local plan must therefore be incorporated with detailed guidelines for its implementation.

A general consensus has to be constructed among the different parties for the protection of the historical cities. This goes for the concepts and illustrations expounded in the SAP as well – mainly under Part A, which details the history and value of the site; and Part B, which elaborates on the vision and management strategies.

Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow, with a copy of the Special Area Plan.

George Town’s SAP outlines a framework for the development and conservation of tangible and intangible heritage, laid down in Part C which stipulates the Development Guide Plan for the site.

Part D states the guidelines for conservation areas and heritage buildings, with guidelines for stakeholders, investors, related professionals, students and members of the public with an interest in repair work, conservation, enhancement and compatible development of George Town’s built and natural heritage.

The concepts and illustrations in the 400-page SAP can be a challenge to digest for ordinary folks and even for stakeholders who are unfamiliar with heritage preservation. It is only available through purchase at the Town and Country Planning Department in Komtar.

The Stakeholders

Cultural heritage is closely related to many aspects of society. Various departments of different levels are involved in the execution of management plans.

Under the National Heritage Act 2005, heritage matters are the responsibility of the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, National Heritage Department of Malaysia, Heritage Commissioner, National Heritage Council, National Physical Planning Council and the head of the Town and Country Planning Department of Peninsular Malaysia, who is also the secretary of the National Physical Planning Council.

The departments involved at the state level are the State Planning Committee and the state director of the Town and the Country Planning Department, which also functions as the secretariat of the committee.

The Clan Jetties are an established residential cluster, but its residents are allowed to own tourism-related businesses under certain conditions.

The enclave of Little India.

To ensure the success of heritage management, parties from different levels have to come together. For example, the Penang state government engages the National Heritage Department for guidance when necessary, such as with the case of Sia Boey during the planning of the Penang Transport Master Plan, when the National Heritage Department sent their high-ranking representatives to give their input.

“We work together closely with the federal government and we hope to benefit from the resources they have, especially from the National Heritage Department,” says Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow. “We believe they have more resources and expertise to guide us in managing the World Heritage Site.” This includes financial resources, institutional support, expertise, legal framework, education, grants for heritage conservation and refurbishment, public realm improvement, and many more.

Local authorities – including the city council and stakeholders such as NGOs, local communities and places of higher education – have a key role to play when it comes to planning for heritage areas.

George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI) was formed in 2010 as a special purpose vehicle to provide professional and technical input for the application and approval of planning permissions and building plans. It also acts as a bridge between the authorities and civilians in providing advice, guidance and recommendations on heritage matters via publicity, research, trust funds and capacity building – all towards ensuring the authenticity of the city’s Outstanding Universal Values (OUVs).

Muhammad Hijas Sahari, manager of GTWHI’s Built Environment and Monitoring Department, says that the “aim of the SAP is to create a dynamic, living historical city by enhancing the quality of life and production efficiency without compromising existing values derived from the character and significance of the historic urban fabric and form.”

But the SAP is not a one-size-fits-all solution: “Heritage management plans should be developed on a site-specific basis. It cannot be general to every site in Penang – each site has its own values and issues, and requires its own management, strategy, planning and conservation plan.”

While there are no guidelines for the rest of Penang, according to the Heritage Conservation Department of the Penang Island City Council (MBPP), the SAP will be the leading guideline for the preservation of all heritage buildings in Penang.

What’s at Stake?

George Town is home to the largest collection of nineteenth-century shophouses, built with methods and materials similar to those used in Melaka. There are a total of 5,013 buildings of  such nature within both the core and buffer zones of the heritage site, with six main styles: Early Penang, Southern Chinese Eclectic, Early Straits Eclectic, Late Straits Eclectic, Art Deco and Early Modern.2

Penang’s masonry structure is supported mainly by thick brick-layered walls, lime mortar and plasters, including horizontal floor slabs made of timber – a world apart from modern construction methods that use light but strong materials.

Prominent examples include Fort Cornwallis, the former central police station and courts (currently the State Assembly building), the courts administrative building (currently the Immigration Department), City Hall and the High Court building.

City Hall. Penang’s masonry structure is supported mainly by thick brick-layered walls, lime mortar and plasters, including horizontal floor slabs made of timber.

With most structures and shophouses in George Town being masonry in nature, a complete preservation of their internal and external facades are needed to ensure their good condition. Moreover, as most of the city’s old buildings are structured in single rows, one unstable wall can lead to the destruction of others alongside it.

Components of the state government seek to propound the SAP guidelines and provide public education on heritage through various channels. For instance, GTWHI’s brochure, “Introduction to Heritage Building Materials”, explains the guidelines for preserving heritage buildings with the correct materials.3 GTWHI also organises heritage conservation workshops for beginner, intermediate and advance learners, catering especially to stakeholders from the construction field.

Apart from this, free consultation is provided to owners of heritage buildings by the MBPP’s Heritage Conservation Department as well as GTWHI’s Built Environment and Monitoring Department. Owners who wish to restore and manage their premises within the heritage site can download their application forms through MBPP’s website or obtain a hard copy from the Heritage Conservation Department. Applicants are required to submit a number of documents, such as the land title, photos detailing renovation plans and building plans.

However, most residents in George Town tend to mend their own buildings using any material they can afford, such as cement, used zinc and plywood.

Cement, for instance, is not suitable for a heritage structure as it may hinder the flow of underground moisture, potentially affecting the structure’s walls, leading to damage or collapse. Lime should be used instead.

Owing to a lack of awareness, contractors hired by building owners often renovate without regard for the submitted forms and rules; this may lead to the misuse of building materials in heritage building conservation. For example, if they do not fully understand the lime cycle and characteristics of lime, they may find it difficult to produce good quality and matured lime putty, or distinguish the quality of ready-mix lime putty; scientific tests and a Standard and Industrial Research Institute of Malaysia (SIRIM) certification may help with the latter.

Conserving Correctly

The International Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites (the Venice Charter 1964) recommends that conservation works stop at the point where conjecture begins; any extra work which is indispensable must be distinct from the architectural composition and must bear a contemporary stamp.

The National Heritage Act 2005 provides that “preservation” does not contemplate significant rebuilding. Normal maintenance and minor repairs should not change or adversely affect the fabric or historic appearance of a structure. The conservation and restoration of monuments must have a recourse to all the sciences and techniques that can contribute to the study and safeguarding of architectural heritage.

Cement is not suitable for a heritage structures.

Public funding and contribution in this area is limited. According to Tan Chin Ling, a registered conservator under the National Heritage Department, “Universiti Sains Malaysia has its own lab to examine building materials to determine its composition. This is to ensure that the material is useful in keeping the structure in the long run. However, it is too costly to cater for one building, what more 5,000.”

Previously involved in various projects such as the conservation of St. George’s Church, Penang High Court, the Protestant Cemetery, Penang State Museum and Sarawak’s Fort Margherita, Tan thinks that a list of standard suppliers and brands may help to solve the problem, but the long-term solution is equipping folks with the knowledge of identifying the quality and characteristics of the construction materials involved.

Simple briefings or workshops can be given to owners after the approval of their permits or plans, followed by a series of workshops for the general public. Locals should be encouraged to supply evidence in the form of old post cards, plans, photos, etc., to prove the structure’s original appearance.

Lime mix.

Tan also suggests the listing of data, verified by old maps and archival documents, to be patented and uploaded on a website for public access. The collection and examination of existing data using the Geographical Information System has been one of the SAP’s long-term goals; it would guarantee the systematic monitoring of building usage within the World Heritage Site, followed by the creation and maintenance of a database complete with information on valuation, licensing permits and planning approvals.

This transparency would, in turn, encourage locals to understand the general conditions of our buildings and encourage active public participation in discussions, planning and preservation – and even with the monitoring of building prices.

Enforcing the SAP

With five to six applications per month, day-to-day surveillance is needed to ensure that the SAP concepts are successfully adopted and implemented. A taskforce of four staff members from the MBPP and seven from GTWHI consisting of a planner, architect, landscape architect, conservator and archaeologist, has been established to monitor and ensure the maintenance of heritage buildings in the site.

However, the taskforce’s main limitation lies in its inability to monitor private spaces and residences. It is impossible to ensure that every wall surrounding each household in George Town is safeguarded against a potential collapse. “If (the owners) have already applied the wrong materials, it is difficult to ask them to re-renovate on a limited budget,” says Hijas.

Think City provides grants for residents under their Grants Programme.

Funding is also limited, with Think City being the sole agency in Penang which provides grants for residents under their Grants Programme. It is confined to heritage buildings that are over a hundred years old or buildings over 30 years old which have heritage or social values.4 More recently, former chief minister Lim Guan Eng launched the Heritage Seed Fund amounting up to RM3mil to support building owners.

Simultaneously, GTWHI has been tasked to develop incentive programmes to support owners who rent out their properties at affordable rates to long-term tenants.5 While the endeavour is still in the planning stages, it should not take too long to come to fruition, says Chow, who also clarifies that the seed fund will not only focus on building conservation but also on the city’s living heritage, i.e. its residents, long-time business owners and traders, through enabling them to stay on at an affordable rent.

Protecting the Intangible

While George Town’s SAP strives to be a holistic one, there is little mention of the safeguarding of George Town’s intangible cultural heritage owing to its management planning under the Town and Country Planning Act 1976 (Act 172), where heritage matters are more focused on physical development and preservation.

In other words, the SAP relies on building conservation and land use control to safeguard diminishing local trades. It has been further suggested for Part C, which provides guidelines for development plans, to include requirements for planning permission should there be any changes to building and land use, indirectly regulating certain other activities.

There are 10 kinds of controlled and/or restricted activities in George Town; the list includes foreign fast food outlets, entertainment outlets, wholesale businesses and star-rated hotels. The purpose is to safeguard the intangible cultural heritage of the site in a comprehensive way.

Chow fears that the restriction on land use may stifle the growth of the heritage site: “It should be reviewed in the future – our city’s growth is organic.”

However, he agrees that activities that can impact the heritage site – such as swiftlet farming and budget hotels – should be strictly prohibited, and that enforcement has to improve: “If the authorities don’t take action, people will take advantage of the light enforcement. It would then be too late to control without creating a big impact.”

For instance, the Clan Jetties are an established residential cluster, but its residents are allowed to own tourism-related businesses under certain conditions since there is a demand, though residents have to fulfil the Temporary Occupation License (TOL) requirement. “There should be more rules and guidelines to control and retain a tolerant environment,” says Chow.

He also believes that the next step on which to embark is negotiation. “Any issue should be discussed and brainstormed with the communities. GTWHI should work together with related parties to manage the problems before they grow bigger.”

Given its growing importance, intangible heritage conservation warrants a section of its own in the management plan – or at least a comprehensive guideline for its protection and classification. The intangible cultural safeguarding plan may soon come under the National Heritage Act; according to Hijas, GTWHI is currently looking into it.

"We need to work together to make sure George Town can be managed and preserved according to the guiding principles. The George Town World Heritage Site is not a museum of historical and cultural artefacts and relics; it is a living heritage."

Planning for the Future

As the SAP has a lifespan of six years, in accordance to Unesco’s World Heritage Committee’s requirement for the submitting of periodic reports, the management and preservation of George Town’s historic site has plenty of room for improvement.

From its gazetted date in 2016, updating works on the SAP will be completed in Management strategies and actions have been planned and discussed, with some pending execution in the short to medium term (2013 to 2020), and in the long term as well (2020 to 2030).

A proper execution in compliance with the spirit of the SAP will certainly ensure more effective management and better preservation of the site, but more effort is required on public education and interaction to secure the preservation and development goals.

“We need to work together to make sure George Town can be managed and preserved according to the guiding principles,” says Chow. “The George Town World Heritage Site is not a museum of historical and cultural artefacts and relics; it is a living heritage.”


1Under the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention.
2Tan Yeow Wooi 2015, Penang Shophouses: A handbook of Features and Materials. Penang: Tan Yeow Wooi Culture and Heritage Research Studio.
3The brochures can be downloaded from

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