Heritage Conservation and Adaptive Reuse’ was the topic of our special year-end session of our Heritage Speakers Series that took place on 18 December 2022. Though efforts have been ramping up in recent years, heritage conservation in Sarawak seems to suffer from scant heritage management and limited personal interest; a far cry from states such as Penang and Melaka, where living and built heritage are often diligently championed and protected.

Funding was awarded to SHS by the Ministry of Tourism, Creative Industry and Performing Arts, to allow us to extend invitations to three architects from Penang that are prominent in the heritage conservation and adaptive reuse scene. Each speaker was well versed in a different facet of heritage conservation – be it heritage management, conservation policies and preservation through adaptive reuse. The Sarawak Museum Department generously sponsored the venue, the Arts and Crafts Gallery of the Borneo Cultures Museum.

Through light-hearted jokes and a sunny disposition, the first speaker, Encik Rosli Bin Haji Nor, Penang’s Heritage Commissioner, highlighted crucial lessons learnt from his years of experience managing the heritage sites of Melaka and Penang. Though the heritage journey of Melaka has seen many accomplishments, he illustrated that the hard-fought preservation of living and built heritage faces the impending threat of over-tourism. Penang’s most glaring problem remains the gentrification of its heritage buildings and streets, where inauthentic measures are taken to beautify buildings without adhering to the set guidelines. In cities like Penang and Melaka, where cultural heritage runs rich, Encik Rosli called attention to the urgency to transform tourism into a tool for heritage conservation while maintaining the balance between authenticity and innovation.

Ar. Tan Bee Eu, Principal Architect of Beta Architects, shared her personal journey in adaptive reuse architecture, focusing on some of her standout projects. She exemplified that a careful touch and thoughtful problem solving allows for a new lease of life for heritage buildings whilst gaining increasing community involvement. In her projects, there is a common vein of sustained interest and continued investment – caring for the building’s purpose and its patrons long after project completion. The treatment of heritage buildings requires no less than a delicate approach. Ar. Tan showed how simple themes can give rise to articulate ideas and how thoughtful, rather than flashy design may just be exactly what the community needs.

Ar. Au Tai Yeow of T.Y Au Architects has been a staunch advocate of heritage conservation in his hometown of Penang. His talk was an honest depiction on the challenges of heritage management in Penang – showcasing the good, the bad and ugly of its extensive journey. Besides the many successful endeavours, there remain many examples of built heritage that have failed to be protected and preserved. Ar. Au attributed these to the mismanagement of resources by the responsible parties. Selective enforcement and lack of monitoring have contributed to the mishandling and mistreatment of heritage buildings, some to the point of no return. Ar. Au also spoke briefly about how economic and demographic changes are intertwined with the preservation of living cultural heritage in Penang. It may be challenging to manage conservation in a heritage area as big as Georgetown, but many, like Ar. Au, remain passionate about the cause and carry out major outreach and advocacy to preserve their cultural inheritance.

This session was an enlightening opportunity to examine the considerable revitalisation effort that has swept the shores of Penang and Melaka over the years, and provided valuable lessons for Sarawak’s own conservation journey.