The Straits Times
Published on Dec 05, 2012

Sad and painful dismantling of our heritage


THE photograph of people dismantling part of late artist Ng Eng Teng's house was a painful sight ("Salvaging history from home of late sculptor"; last Friday). Large parts of this country, rich in history, have been demolished to make way for roads or houses. We must learn to progress and yet still preserve the old charm.

I recently visited Penang and was deeply impressed by its pursuit of progress, yet also preserving its heritage.

George Town, the state capital, is a wonderful example of a place where heritage is preserved even as progress is pursued. Its efforts to preserve its old charm have led to it being named a Unesco World Heritage Site.

The Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion was built in the 1880s by a rich Penang merchant on a vast plot of land in a prime area in George Town. It would make sense to monetise it by demolishing it for housing or to erect a shopping mall.

Instead, it was acquired in the 1990s by a group of Penang conservationists and then restored as much as possible to its original form. It went on to achieve the Unesco Asia-Pacific's Most Excellent Heritage Project Award in 2000.

It opened its doors for business, offers boutique accommodation, and rents out its space for weddings and filming. This is how a historical site should be made available to the public. Documentation with paper and ink is not the same as looking at and walking in the real thing.

Penang is a fine example of a modern state with a rich historical background made available to us today. It offers something no country in the world can replicate. Because of this uniqueness, tourists continue to flock to Penang.

Some may argue that Singapore is a tiny island where land is scarce. That is exactly the point of preservation. Because of our small size, we must offer something special. The lure of casinos, gardens, zoos and mega shopping malls will eventually fizzle out. Whereas things that are unique, with their own character, last forever.

Shirley Woon (Madam)