GEORGE TOWN, one of the most prominent trading ports linking the East and West for the last 200 years, is at risk of losing the UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
The drastic change of the social fabric in the Penang capital might lead to the revocation of the highly prized status, with many of city’s original communities being forced to move out due to their inability to cope with the increasing rent.
The historic city of George Town World Heritage Site covers an area of 109.38 hectares with a total of 1,715 heritage buildings within the core zone and 1,928 heritage buildings in the buffer zone.
These buildings form part of the largest collection of pre-World War II buildings in an urban centre within Southeast Asia which pose significant cultural and historical value. THE ‘BAD’ SIDE OF TOURISM
The latest report by Khazanah Research Institute (KRI) titled “Building Social Capital: The George Town Experiment” stated that some 8,500 residents from 591 households have left the site two years after its nomination as a World Heritage site in 2007. That year, the site community had 18,660 residents.
Between 2009 and 2013, some 231 residential properties have been repurposed to accommodate other commercial activities.
Within that time, hotels and tourist accommodations in the area had grown from 61 premises to 97. The number of restaurants and bars had also increased by 46 premises more.
However, by 2015, there were 211 properties vacant. The increase in rental by property owners had driven out many of the site’s original tenants, taking along their social and cultural history with them.
This situation has led to the change in the social fabric of the site, which was the main criterion for the bestowal of the UNESCO World Heritage Site status.
The site received World Heritage status in 2008, alongside Melaka after fulfilling four criterions, among them being to represent an exceptional example of a multi-cultural trading town in East and Southeast Asia, forged from the mercantile and exchanges of Malay, Chinese, and Indian cultures.
“While its inscription as a World Heritage site has successfully boosted the image of Penang and paved the way for the state to rejuvenate its tourism industry, it also exerted additional pressure on housing affordability,” the report said.
The site had already experienced a staggering property price increase following the abolishment of the Control of Rent Act (CRA) in 2000, which resulted in an overnight rent hike by 50 to 300 per cent.
The CRA is a measure introduced in 1966 to help original tenants in the inner-city area the rights to enjoy low rental rates for housing, allowing them to continuously reside and practice their trades in the area. THE SOLUTION
To solve the issue, KRI is pushing for a more inclusive approach to fix the deteriorating homes and premises within the site.
This includes the Community Development Fund (CDF), where individuals and corporate companies can make a tax-deductible contribution to the cause.
Money from the CDF will then be disbursed accordingly by the state government to tenants in need to refurbish their rented homes. This will give tenants the opportunity to participate and share the renovation cost. This would indirectly make them ‘partners’ to the properties and allow them to better negotiate their tenancy rental and rights.
“CDF is a strategic funding model that engages and empowers vulnerable communities to actively take part in, design and lead community-based initiatives that aim to make their living conditions better,” said Suraya Ismail, KRI director of Research (Cities).
She said, the pilot project for the CDF, featured in the report as “the Hock Teik Initiative”, saw funds being given to six deserving families to be used to upgrade their rented spaces.
“The amount used for the pilot project was US$15,000 or approximately RM40,000. Once the application was approved, the tenants negotiated with the trustees on their tenancy agreement. The tenants proposed for the monthly lease to be converted to a 10-year period at a rent of RM400 a month,” said Suraya.
She added that it was not just a financially viable solution but the process has also strengthened the tenant-owner relationships.