George Town and Melaka, two historic cities on the Straits of Malacca in Peninsular Malaysia, were inscribed jointly as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO on 7 July 2008. Their inscription was based on three main criteria: (i) the cities represent exceptional examples of multi-cultural trading towns in the East and Southeast Asia forged from the exchanges of Malay, Chinese, Indian and European Cultures, (ii) they are living testimony to the multi-cultural heritage and tradition of Asia, where the greatest religions and cultures met, displaying a testament to the religious pluralism of Asia, and (iii) they reflect the coming together of cultural elements from the Malay Archipelago, India, China and Europe to create a unique architecture, culture and townscape, in particular, an exceptional architecture of shop-houses and townhouses.
The quest for world heritage listing had been a lengthy and tedious process, and not without the necessary and invaluable assistance and support of heritage and urban experts from other countries like Germany, France, Japan and other Southeast Asian countries, through technical exchange programmes and joint research and restoration projects (with Germany through GTZ, Japan through JICA, UNCRD and City Net, and France through the French Government and Embassy), and with close collaboration among the public and private institutions, the academics and civil society in local and international seminars and workshops.
George Town and Melaka hence joins a number of UNESCO-listed World Cultural Heritage Living Cities in Southeast Asia, such as Luang Prabang in Lao PDR, Vigan in the Philippines, and Hoi An in Vietnam. With inscription, comes the imposition of stringent guidelines in the planning, development, management and conservation of the cities. The Universal Outstanding Values and the cultural, historical and architectural integrity and authenticity of the cities are always in danger of being destroyed, not only by natural forces, such as flooding, earthquakes or fires, but also through man-made consequences such as the impacts of tourism growth, vehicular traffic, poor maintenance of buildings, improper restoration and repairs, gentrification, modernization and cultural changes. There is still many lessons to learn in the proper management of cultural heritage cities and in the safe-guarding of their tangible and intangible heritage values, not only in the UNESCO listed cities, but also in the other cultural and historic cities in Southeast Asia such as Chiang Mai, Jogjakarta, Solo, Cebu, Cagayan de Oro, Siem Reap and Batambang. This crucial learning process can be enhanced with closer collaboration among the heritage conservation experts and stake holders of these cities in carrying out research and exchange of ideas, experience and expertise.
Mr. Tan Thean Siew
Consultant, Town Planning and Real Estate Management Penang