Tuesday, July 14

State govt urged to work with NGOs to preserve historical icons

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KOTA KINABALU: The Sabah government needs to work with dedicated non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in preserving historical icons in the state.

Heritage advocator Richard Nelson Sokial, in making the call, said a concentrated effort is needed when preserving these valuable items, adding that under the state’s Cultural Heritage Enactment 1997, there is supposedly a State Heritage Board set up to address these issues.

“However, so far as I know, there does not seem to be any sign of the actual existence of this board or whether they even have done any studies or draft of policies pertaining the preservation of selected heritage colonial townships. Does the state government have a heritage list for Sabah historical townships?” he asked.

Sokial said the State Government needs to get dedicated NGOs and interested parties involved and provide them with the adequate funding to facilitate the necessary studies before proper and effective built heritage policies can be made, adding that architectural measured drawing exercises have to be done for all parties to understand the architectural significance and structural components of a heritage building to ensure that proper restoration and repairs can be carried out.

“In 2005, I helped facilitate the architectural measured drawing of selected buildings in the state capital, Bongawan, Beaufort and Membakut for the undergraduates of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) when they came to Sabah to study our heritage towns. This is because Sabah’s own university (UMS) does not even have their own Department of Architecture.

“Sadly, all the information from this 2005 exercise is now property of UKM Department of Architecture in Kuala Lumpur. We do not even have a copy of those records in Sabah.

“If the Sabah government is sincerely determined to preserve our local history, they must be willing to take the necessary measures. Time is running out for our heritage buildings. The state government must do something, otherwise the people of Sabah will be left with no history to share with the future generation,” he stressed, when responding to the recent fire that gutted a row of old shophouses in Membakut.

Sokial added that on Sabah’s West Coast Division, only a handful of settlements such as Bongawan, Membakut and Beaufort still have these type of shophouses.

“Places like Kinarut, Tamparuli, Tuaran and Papar also have a few. However, the shophouses in Membakut and Bongawan are unique as they are the only existing examples of wooden shophouses using decorated roof ornaments called bargeboards dating back to the late 1920s to early 1930s. Beaufort town used to have similar decorated shophouses but were all burned down in 2005,” he said.

He believes that at the rate that these shophouses are being destroyed, it is estimated that all will be gone by 2020 if the state government does not take preventive steps to protect them.

Asked on whether these icons are worth preserving and whether it would contribute to the social and economy of Sabah, Sokial said that of the few surviving built heritage left in the state, these shophouses are the ones most important to be saved as their existence marks the history of how urban settlements that were influenced by the construction of the North Borneo railways that began in 1914.

“These shophouses are an untapped tourism asset for Sabah as tourists not only come to our state for the nature but also to experience the culture and history of the people. This means more revenue for tourist guides as well as the local communities.

“Imagine if Sabah state really capitalises on the potential of the North Borneo railway heritage trail, taking tourists from the city on a ride through colonial history, stopping at selected townships where they can buy food and souvenirs and even stay overnight at the colonial shophouses. You give the tourists a taste of local history.

“History is not confined inside a museum. We must allow locals and tourists to know our history and understand the story of our people in their original surroundings but if we do not take care of these wooden shophouses that are evidence of the history, how can we tell our story?” asked Sokial.

Many people who do not understand the true Sabah history and the importance of this memory to the social direction and well-being of the future generation will view preserving heritage as a waste of time.

“Mostly, it is fueled by negative comments from commercial developers who want to use the prime land of a heritage site for their own uses without wanting to study the history of the place. They just want to make quick money – but does this justify destroying the historical fabric of the local community?

“In 2008, when I was invited to Washington D.C. in the US as Malaysia’s representative for the IVLP Cultural Heritage Preservation programme, we were brought to some places where heritage buildings were actually adopted by commercial developers who studied their history and worked with heritage advocators, architects and the local community that created a positive environment for commercial and business opportunities while keeping (and upgrading) the heritage buildings surrounding without destroying its heritage value.

“Some of their wooden buildings have existed since 1879. These sites are currently major tourist attractions and generate a lot of economic activities and revenue at the same time. In fact, these sites generate so much revenue that they do not rely on government funding for upkeep and maintenance.

“So, preserving heritage buildings is not an obstacle to development. We simply have to change our attitudes and how we bridge the link between development and heritage. A simple example is that in the 1980s, many commercial developments in Sabah liked to use important foreign names like Palm Springs, for instrance, for their commercial developments. However in the late 1990s onwards, local developers have been using local names like Nountun and Lok Kawi. This shows a growing awareness among our local developers who now understand that using local names does not downgrade the prestige and quality of development but instead gives a sense of local pride, history and geographical context,” he said.

The next step, he added, is for developers to understand more about the value of Sabah heritage, finding a balance between its commercial projects and how its designs ties in and respects the existing heritage site or buildings in terms of architectural facade, scale and suitability.

In terms of generating local economy, it is obvious that heritage buildings require continued maintenance to ensure its longevity.

“Here is where local businessmen can benefit, by studying our heritage buildings and how to maintain them. They can become experts or specialists in this field of work. So far in Sabah, there are no known contractors or workmen who can specialize in conservation of Sabah’s old building structures.

“Just imagine that if some people are interested in this area of construction, it will become their professional niche in our local construction industry,” he said.