Activist: Penang has no vision for George Town


PETALING JAYA: A heritage activist has urged the Penang state government to look into ways of protecting traditional trades and residents within the George Town World Heritage site, rather than solely through reviving rent control.

Khoo Salma, vice-president of the Penang Heritage Trust, said the state could consider new laws to control tenancy or create a special scheme for traditional trades.

A proposal for re-introducing rent control was too vague, she said, and proper measures were needed to protect life in the old city.

“There is no vision for the city now. Without a vision, how can the local government plan the development of the city?” she said. “We need residents to live in the city so that the local businesses can continue to survive. This is part of the healthy organism of a living city,” she said.

Conservationists and Penang residents have been protesting against the mass purchases of heritage property by foreigners, many of them Singaporean, and spiralling rents, causing traders, shopkeepers and residents to leave the old city.

Among the latest to be evicted is Kong Thai Lai coffee-shop in Hutton Lane, known for its traditional breakfast of kopi, roti bakar and half-boiled eggs for between 80 sen and RM3.

The shop was a favourite of towkay Loh Boon Siew, the Honda “king” an “sugar king” Robert Kuok, Malaysia’s richest man. The owner, Tan Jeng Seow, 56, has been served an eviction notice by the landlord, a Singaporean, who wants to sell the row of five shophouses, the New Straits Times reported.

In response to such news, state political leaders recently suggested re-introducing the postwar Rent Control Act, which was abolished by the federal government in 1997 at the urging of businessmen.

Rents of as little as RM60 a month allowed residents and traders to remain and ply their trades in the city centre, giving George Town its vitality and cosmopolitan atmosphere. In recent years, rents have rocketed to as much as RM7,000 to RM10,000 a month, with traditional trades being replaced by boutique coffee-shops and restaurants catering to the young.

Critics have raised protests at the continuing gentrification of the old city.

Khoo Salma said a full study was needed into the trades and the types of premises to be covered, and to obtain residents’ views. The state proposal was too vague, she said.

“It is a very complicated issue and we’ve been talking about this for a very long time so before the state implements anything, they need to know all the facts first such as the number of residents affected, the
number of houses involved, the number of trades, how long they’ve been living in the premises, the length of their leases, the market rental rates and how to balance the rights of the owners with the rights of
the tenants,” Khoo told Malay Mail Online.

Property agent Michael Geh also preferred another way to protect endangered trades and residents as rent control would to all house owners. Protection was needed for endangered trades or residents who have lived in an area for generations.

He said not all landlords were rich. Most of them could not even afford to upkeep the properties at the minimal rents collected during the days of rent control, he said.

George Town Heritage Action Group spokesman Mark Lay also called for proper studies. “Rather than reinvent the wheel, the authorities should be studying cities where rent control is effective, such as Berlin, and cherry pick the best bits,” he said.

Khoo Salma said a study commissioned by the heritage agency Think City in 2009-2013 showed fewer than 10,000 residents are left in the 5,000 houses of the heritage zone


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