Sarawak is a state without roots if it does not have a historical identity. Only when we understand the past can we build a better future. James Yong, president of the Sarawak Heritage Society (SHS), elaborates on what constitutes heritage value and talks about the society’s roles in the community and what can be considered as heritage.
Preserving Sarawak’s Unique Heritage
This is the first of a three-part series of articles on the preservation of Sarawak’s heritage.
It is often said that people who do not know their history will repeat their mistakes in the future.
And, while we may not have lived long enough to experience history, the past can live on through landmarks, photographs, and stories.
Thus, preserving our heritage is important, and conserving a historic building may reveal not only information about its architecture but also about how we used it in the past.
Echoing this sentiment, Sarawak Heritage Society (SHS), a non-governmental organisation (NGO), has been advocating the past for the future since 2006.
The organisation was formed to provide a community voice and to raise awareness of Sarawak’s tangible and intangible heritage.
Speaking to its president, James Yong, he said that only by recognising and understanding the local heritage can one form a connection with it.
“Only by knowing its history and significance can one realise the value of the place.”
Through SHS and its roles, it is hoped that the community can preserve the local heritage as it provides continuity from the past.
“And while your history shapes who you are today, your descendants will shape the future. The past influences the present and the future. Without preservation, it will all be forgotten,” said Yong.
Yong also said that a city without its heritage assets – buildings, monuments, landmarks, and streetscapes — is like a man without a soul.
Hence, through SHS, the organisation hopes to combine the juxtaposition of the old and the new.
“This allows us to share the history with the younger generation. Reading a history book can be boring, but going on a heritage walk is far more exciting and allows them to learn more effectively.”
Meanwhile, the Society’s mission is to safeguard Sarawak’s heritage, to prevent it from being destroyed too quickly, and to strive to introduce means to safeguard it. In doing so, SHS engages in activities that they refer to as the 3A’s.
⦁ Awareness: To create awareness via websites, newsletters, heritage walks, talks and Facebook groups within the local community on heritage and why it is important to preserve.
⦁ Advocacy: To be the voice of the community whenever there are certain buildings or monuments that are not treated properly (by defacement or lack of maintenance) and work towards finding a solution.
⦁ Advisory: The heritage society, through its members and network, hopes to create a body of expertise, knowledge and experience to provide sound advice to the authorities in any heritage related matters.
What can be considered heritage?
Heritage is often thought of as something old. Maybe 50 years old or a century old?
However, Yong believes that something need not be incredibly old to be considered heritage.
“Yes, age may be an influence in what is deemed heritage. But to me, it also has to do with the heritage significance of a place. In some ways, it is about how a community values that place.”
The description of heritage can be arbitrary. According to Yong, before a heritage building, area, object, or cultural practise can be designated as heritage, we must distinguish between true heritage and nostalgia.
“It’s common for older individuals like me to experience nostalgia. One person adoring it is nostalgic, but if a group of people are feeling the same way, you may have something.”
According to him, there are at least three dimensions to putting a value on heritage when evaluating antiquity:
⦁ Historical value: What is the history of the place? Different people have different stories. Usually, it was used during the Brooke’s era or a Malay kampung was built there.
⦁ Cultural value: How does a place feature in the culture of the different communities that interact with it?
⦁ Aesthetic/architectural value: What does a place or a building look like from an architectural standpoint? Who built it? Why was it constructed this way?
He also mentioned that there are two kinds of cultural heritage — tangible and intangible.
Yong said that tangible cultural heritage consists of physical items such as buildings, landmarks, monuments, and so on, whereas intangible cultural heritage consists of traditions, trades, music, languages, and others.
Development and heritage
Time is often the weakness of a heritage. Whether it is development, or wear and tear, Heritage can be devalued or threatened if it is not effectively conserved.
Natural disasters, systems, and human impact are three broad threats to heritage.
As an example of a negative human impact on heritage, Yong said that destroying the fabric of a building can devalue its sentiments.
“Simply adding too many incompatible elements into a historic building is the fastest way to lose its authenticity and consequently its significance.”
The Sarawak Heritage Ordinance 2019 was recently enacted. The ordinance is an improvement over the previous law, but it needs to be improved progressively, Yong said.
The ordinance, according to the SHS president, is a set of rules that can help in the preservation and maintenance of our heritage.
It contains provisions for a Sarawak Heritage Council and a Heritage Fund.
However, Yong believes that the effectiveness of the ordinance depends on how efficiently it is enforced.
While heritage preservation is important, Yong, who is also a member of the Sarawak Heritage Council, emphasised that SHS is not against development or modernity.
“I’ve seen a lot of old buildings demolished and replaced with parking lots and malls. I don’t think it is right. We are seeking a balance between development and heritage preservation, not against development.”
Further explaining, Yong said that SHS is only opposed to development in specific locations that are rich in history.
“The problem is that if you demolish all of your old buildings and replace them with contemporary high-rise buildings, your city would lose its distinct identity and become similar to many other cities throughout the world. Along with losing your historical significance, you will also lose your appeal to tourists and other visitors.”
“Keeping a piece of history alive through architectural existence keeps the stories of how the present community connects with its past. That is what SHS strives to preserve,” added Yong.
Yong believes that a healthy balance between modern development and heritage is how the new can coexist with the old without destroying the original fabric, design, or appearance.
In Sarawak, he said that there is still much to learn about how to make the two coexist.
“It must be well planned, and we must be mindful of the heritage value when building next to it. We must respect buffer zones around heritage areas,” he said, adding that this rule is also a cardinal principle established by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
Time might be a heritage’s weakness, but it can also be strength. With time, the value of heritage can be strengthened.
As new development seeps into the old, Yong said that a heritage building or landmark will eventually be demolished.
“But, before that happens, we must properly and effectively preserve it through photographs, paintings, or architectural sketches so that it will live on in the memory of others and may be more easily replicated if necessary.”
Even if it is no longer present, the sentimental memorabilia helps to strengthen the once-upon-a-time.
So, while you drive about Sarawak’s historical landmarks, take your time to appreciate the design, the walls, the flooring, and even the sounds that previously resonated in its vicinity, as well as the impact it had on the community.
Every heritage asset, tangible and intangible, contains a deeper tale. We may connect the past to the present and into the future just by listening and understanding. This allows us to gain a better understanding of ourselves.
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