Lay off, Penang Forum tells detractors over vicious attacks

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GEORGE TOWN: The Penang Government and detractors were told to hold their fire against Penang Forum, which was recently slammed for sending a letter to Unesco over its concerns on the World Heritage Site status here.

In a press conference today, the influential grouping of NGOs said it was shocked with the “vitriol and headline-grabbing rhetoric” against them.

It also told the state government that it had done nothing wrong by reporting the planned transport hub to Unesco.

Forum member Khoo Salma said the Penang Government had nothing to fear if it felt it had done no wrong.

“They should welcome it and let it be evaluated that there is no wrong,” Khoo, who is also Penang Heritage Trust vice-president, said today.

The Forum had in June sent a letter to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) expressing its concerns over a transport hub to be built close to the heritage site.

This had angered the Penang Government, which cried treason over the unilateral move of sending the letter to the UN body in Paris.

A state body in charge of heritage also vilified Forum member Dr Lim Mah Hui over the matter.

The state government said the planned transport/LRT hub would be built outside the heritage site and so saw no problem.

It also accused the Forum of putting the heritage status at risk.

Khoo said although the planned transport hub was to be built outside the heritage site, the onus was on the local authorities to ensure that external factors that might affect the site were looked into as well.

Quoting the Unesco World Heritage Committee’s operational guidelines, she said planning and management of the site was essential, an approach that went “beyond the site, including buffer zones, as well as the broader setting”.

Khoo also said any individual or NGO with concerns over the heritage site could write in directly to Unesco as they wished.

“Unesco is not an enforcement body like the police. Its main role is to protect the universal-value heritage sites and render assistance when there is a potential threat to a heritage site.

“What if the Forum had not written to Unesco? In that case, if the proposed project had absolutely no impact on George Town’s outstanding universal values, there are no negative consequences.

“But if there are consequences, George Town would risk losing its heritage status.

“In fact, Unesco has in the past come down to George Town for other problems – such as on swiftlet breeding (for bird’s nest harvest) and on four planned building projects that exceeded height restrictions in the heritage zone,” she said.

According to Khoo, the heritage site manager, George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI), ought to have reported the planned transport hub to Unesco before the Forum did.

“GTWHI, as the official protector of the outstanding universal value of George Town, should be the first to inform Unesco of this project, as is made clear by clause 172 of the operational guidelines.

“It should explain if it has taken any proactive steps to contact and discuss this project with Unesco or even Jabatan Warisan Negara,” Khoo added.

Meanwhile, Khoo said the state government should hold off signing any agreements with the LRT builders, until given the green light by the heritage authorities, including Unesco.

“What is of immense concern is what would happen if the state has already signed and is committed to SRS Consortium to build the transport hub but is then faced with a scenario where Unesco finds out that the project endangers the world heritage site.”

SRS Consortium won an open tender to be the project delivery partner of the Penang Transport Master Plan.

The public transport and highway plans are to be funded through the reclamation of three islands to the south of Penang.