[updated 07 March 2017]
The ‘MaTiC’ complex, on Jalan Ampang, Kuala Lumpur, is centered on a colonial architecture house built in 1935 as the home of a business tycoon, the “Eu Tong Sen house” and the “Dewan Tunku Abdul Rahman”, the hall where Tunku Abdul Rahman was installed as Malaysia’s first Agong in 1957 and where Parliament held its first meeting in 1959. Over the years it has served various purposes. The complex is now owned by the Government and hosts the multi-facilities Malaysia Tourism Centre.
For both its architectural/aesthetic and historical significance the complex was gazetted as a national heritage site in June 2016.
In December 2016, so about 6 months later, the National Heritage Department issued a notice revoking the heritage listing of part of the complex, including the “Old Building of Malaysia Tourism Centre (MaTIC)”, understandably the Eu Tong Sen house and the Dewan Tunku Abdul Rahman. This appeared to be the first “de-registration” instance in Malaysia.
The notice created public outcries relayed by NGOs, not only for the prospect of seeing one more of Malaysia’s valuable heritage asset disappear, but also for the way the de-registration was enacted.
On 31 December 2016, the President of Badan Warisan Malaysia (Malaysia’s main national heritage conservation civil society organisation) issued a statement in which it
(i) points out that the National Heritage Act is silent on the possibility to de-register a heritage site: “It is questionable if the Commissioner has the power to revoke a site which has already been gazetted; i.e. is this revocation ultra vires the Act? “;
(ii) reiterates the historical and aesthetic value and significance of the Eu Tong Sen house and the Dewan Tunku Abdul Rahman;
(iii) recalls, in relation to redeveloping the surroundings of these two core buildings, that the National Heritage Act and subsidiary regulations require “a 200 meter “buffer” from the site boundaries for any new development to mitigate against any (negative) impact on the heritage values of the gazetted building and/or site” (Jabatan Warisan Negara guidelines and conditions in line with provisions of para. 40, 41 and 42 of the National Heritage Act).
The statement adds: “(…) One would definitely expect a high level of rigour as well as resources in all endeavours to undertake the gazettal of any heritage site. The NHA provides for the process to include notification to the owner/s, an objection period, hearing and eventually, the decision to, or not to, designate a heritage site; and all along the way, there are clear steps to ensure the public are notified of these decisions in the printed press (…).”
The Tourism and Culture Minister assured subsequently that the two historical buildings would not be touched by the proposed development and mentioned plans for the construction of a hotel. “It will be a waste if we do not fully utilise the area“, he said, reported The Star.
The concerns focused then on the future of the surroundings of the two historic buildings. In a letter to The Star newspaper entitled “Heritage sites are gazetted in perpetuity“, PAM (Pertubuhan Akitek Malaysia, Malaysian Institute of Architects) invited the use of Unesco’s operational guidelines on buffer zones as a reference, and urged “the relevant authorities to reconsider and review their decisions for MaTIC and to initiate further discussions with the stakeholders before proceeding further“.
This case highlights the importance of having well structured regulatory and implementation frameworks on heritage management. Legislation may need to be strengthened to address voids.
In absolute terms, there is nothing wrong to have provisions allowing for de-registering/de-gazetting a heritage site. But these should clearly and strictly be limited, as other countries require it, to cases where the heritage values that led to the registration have irremediably disappeared for reasons other than improper reasonable care by its owners. (For example, a historic, listed bridge may have collapsed and be beyond repair). The present case is obviously not of that nature. Also, indeed, the de-registration decision making process needs to be ‘symmetric’ to that of the original listing process.
This leads to another issue, touched upon by PAM: in Malaysia, the decision to register rests chiefly in one person, the Commissioner of Heritage (for Sarawak heritage listings, the Director of the Museum Department). Other countries are relying on multi-stakeholder commissions in a way to limit the risk of short term development considerations (or demands to be exonerated from by-laws constraints) taking precedence over long term heritage conservation considerations.
Also, Badan Warisan and PAM are right in recalling the importance of respecting the need for enforced and managed buffer zones around heritage buildings and monuments. Indeed, this case makes think of other projects which aimed at encasing heritage buildings into massive concrete constructions. Provisions for buffer zones seem to figure explicitly in Malaysian by-laws (200 meter perimeters – in other countries, this can go up to 500 meters). The need for the “breathing space” that most heritage sites originally had or ought to retain, or to regain, has too often been swept under the carpet.
From elsewhere: in an official reply to question, a French Minister in charge of heritage wrote : “Built heritage cannot, under any circumstance, be perceived solely by the constraints that emanate from its protection. It contributes significantly to the quality of life of the French people and represents an important economic asset for the national community, in a country with strong tourism attraction.” (2012)
Readers comments are welcome (scroll down to the ‘Comments” box).
“Statement by Badan Warisan Malaysia on the Revocation of Heritage Site status of MaTIC by Jabatan Warisan Malaysia“- Badan Warisan Malaysia website, 31 Dec. 2016
“Heritage status revoked for building where first Agong was installed” – malaymail online, 31 Dec. 2106
“Heritage sites are gazetted in perpetuity” letter to The Star, 6 Jan. 2017
“For the first time in history, Malaysian heritage buildings are going to be ‘de-heritaged’ ” – article by Iqtodabal, on Cilisos news website, 07/02/2017 .
“Modalités de radiation d’un monument inscrit dont l’intérêt a irrémédiablement disparu” (in French) – Defrenos, 10 Feb. 2012
* figures shown on the website when accessed on 19 Feb. 2017. We could not assess the validity of the poll.