Also in the News: Sat. 18 April 2015 – Fort Alice, Sri Aman, re-opens. For day programme,  see Sarawak Museum webpage.

For more on the Fort, see our articles of  02/02-17/05/201509 March 2015 & 12 March 2015


An eye-catching facade in Carpenter Street, Kuching. Warranting heritage listing?

An eye-catching facade in Carpenter Street, Kuching.
Warranting heritage listing?

The Sarawak Cultural Heritage Ordinance 1993 puts forward the following criteria for the registration/listing of heritage buildings as historical monuments:

Buildings  (a) pre-1940, of historical significance; or    (b) “of special architectural, artistic or cultural interest or beauty”; or    (c) “closely associated or connected with a person or event important to the history of Sarawak”,  “that in the opinion of the Director [of the Sarawak Museum] ought to be retained as a cultural
heritage for the benefit of the people.”(1) Once a site has been listed, alterations to it require prior permission.

SHS’s understanding is that the State does not have subsidiary, more specific rules or guidelines for the implementation of the Ordinance.

There is therefore, currently vast room for subjective assessment. Think about it : just on the question of screening heritage buildings, what is “of special architectural, artistic or cultural interest or beauty”? In a multicultural society such as Sarawak in particular, appreciation of such criteria vary, sometimes widely. Values also change with time: experience from elsewhere shows that what is considered as ‘best practice’ has evolved. For example, just look at the way Singapore handled the conservation of old Chinese quarters some 30 years ago and compare it with the approaches developed more recently in Penang.

Screening buildings or parts of buildings – or more generally, any heritage item, tangible or intangible – for mandatory protection through official listing, and proper subsequent management of these require specific criteria and guidelines.

In this respect, the most advanced and probably the most secure approach may be to follow UNESCO’s concept of “universal”  values – i.e. values shared by the global community, and the derived corpus of practical guidelines. After all, heritage conservation is not only for the benefit of the local communities or just for the tourists, but of the global community as a whole. And one can reasonably assume that the ‘global best practices’ are the result of a patient build-up of many worldwide trial-and-error processes. Over the years, these criteria and guidelines have been and are still being fine-tuned, and it is worth noting that they do increasingly take into account the regional cultural specifics (2).

Also, heritage management is enhanced when participatory/consultative processes are in place, involving the community and professional organisations in addition to governments. UNESCO strongly advocates for this. It allows to better take into account local cultural specifics and favours sustainability of conservation actions. NGOs such as the Sarawak Heritage Society can contribute by channelling suggestions or concerns over threatened heritage.

We would argue that following such a path does not mean surrendering itself to ‘alien’ values, or to sector objectives such as tourism promotion: it can, on the contrary, prevent short-term or vested interests to take precedence.

The task in not easy though: heritage management cuts across many sectors and industries such as urban planning, building, transport, tourism, etc. And the trade-offs between ‘universal’ and ‘local’,  ‘short term’ and ‘long term’, and between ‘ancestral’ and ‘modernity’ values are never easy to manage. As for most public goods, we are in the face of issues, the complexity of which is too often, in itself, cause for pushing the whole topic under the carpet.

What is required is careful, open and transparent processes, allowing to look at things ‘from a distance’ and endowed with checks and balances. The key questions are, in any case : (i) Does a given building, quarter or object carry authentic, universal values which deserve to be protected by public decision? (ii) How to ensure good management of this item to retain its authenticity?

Where effective, workable policy and regulatory frameworks as well as implementation guidelines with built-in enforcement capability are not available, upgrading the existing – political will permitting – is warranted.  Calling in state-of-the art specialists, experts in facilitating such exercise can be an investment with good long term return.

Most importantly, as such upgrading cannot be an overnight endeavour and as in many cases, action in heritage protection is running against time, it must not prevent smart action to be taken on the ground based on the existing setup, however imperfect it is.

In the case of Sarawak, sound and active heritage management can without doubt contribute a lot more to overall sustainable and equitable development than it has so far.

(1) Malaysia’s National Heritage Department for the listing of heritage buildings has more specific criteria in application to The Malaysia National Heritage Act 2005 – see our article of  21 Feb. 2015. SHS’s understanding is that the National Heritage Act 2005 is not in operation in Sarawak and that Sarawak’s heritage matters are governed by the Sarawak Cultural Heritage Ordinance 1993.

(2) For example, the 2001 ‘Hoi An Protocols’, elaborated under the auspices of UNESCO, aim at providing “regional standards of best conservation practice which will assure that the values inherent in the heritage sites of Asia are safeguarded and that their authenticity is preserved and truthfully explicated during the process of conservation, restoration, rehabilitation and subsequent maintenance and use.”  (Hoi An Protocols for best conservation practice in Asia – Professional guidelines for assuring and preserving the authenticity of heritage sites in the context of the cultures of Asia, 2001, p.3). [full text]

This article is contributed by a Sarawak Heritage Society member.

©Sarawak Heritage Society