It’s been an eventful week in Penang. Between the furore over a visit to the Sia Boey archaeological site and fallout from the Penang Forum’s letter to UNESCO, it seems things have come to a head there.

Much digital ink has been spilled over both of these events, so I shall confine myself to two thoughts here:

1. The uproar over the Sia Boey site visit seems, to my mind, like a lot of wasted energy on the part of the state. Anil Netto argues that ‘the PDC team and the USM archaeologists have acted with tremendous professionalism and competence in enriching our understanding of the area’. I am inclined to agree.

I’m struck by the difference between Penang and Singapore, where I am currently based. Not long ago, a significant archaeological dig was conducted at Empress Place. Not only was the media granted considerable access to this rich site — which yielded some 2.5 tonnes of artefacts from Singapore’s ancient past — but the dig itself was made possible by mobilising a small army of volunteers.

By contrast, Sia Boey has now been declared a ‘secure zone’; the public will now have to wait until November for an archaeological report from USM. This is worrying, particularly as the site was previously earmarked for a public transport hub.

If the Penang state government wishes to embody the values of ‘Competence, Accountability, and Transparency’ it so often invokes, they could do worse than to look to their neighbours to the south — at least as far as archaeology is concerned.

2. The Penang Forum’s letter to UNESCO has prompted the state to accuse NGOs of backstabbing them. While this is in itself a childish response, what really worries me is the quality of discussion that’s followed — particularly in Facebook groups such as the Penang Heritage Trust Discussions and George Town Heritage Action.

One consistent theme of the comments, echoing the state government’s own line, is that these groups have sabotaged Penang. This fundamentally misunderstands the point of the Penang Forum’s letter, which is to raise heritage concerns with UNESCO before any permanent damage is done to the World Heritage Site. It also misunderstands the role NGOs have to play in our civil society. (This is to say nothing of the political amnesia at play here — some of those involved with the letter were instrumental to securing the city’s World Heritage Listing in the first place.)

A number of commenters seem to think the Penang Forum has crossed a line by going straight to UNESCO. Yet UNESCO’s own website says:

The States Parties to the Convention should inform the Committee as soon as possible about threats to their sites. On the other hand, private individuals, non-governmental organizations, or other groups may also draw the Committee’s attention to existing threats [emphasis added]. If the alert is justified and the problem serious enough, the Committee may consider including the site on the List of World Heritage in Danger.

NGOs have therefore done nothing wrong; they have simply done their duty.

What worries me about so many of the Penang Forum’s critics isn’t that they disagree with the Forum. As citizens, they have every right to their own views. What is concerning is that they wish to silence NGOs. And the reason they wish to silence NGOs is because they do not agree with them. This is not the recipe for a healthy public sphere.

A number of commenters have gone so far as to accuse members of the Penang Forum of being Barisan cronies. As I see it, this reveals just how partisan Malaysian politics has become. This is bad news for all of us. So many Malaysians are disillusioned with the powers that be — myself included. But that shouldn’t mean giving the opposition a carte blanche. It is the job of NGOs and citizen activists to hold our politicians to account.

A robust democracy is one in which we are never afraid to question our leaders, no matter which party they belong to. As a young Malaysian, I hope for political change. But I want that change to mean more than a different set of bums in the seats of the Dewan Rakyat. I want to see a political culture that is radically transparent, one which is open to debate, disagreement, and criticism. We should always hold our leaders to account — even the ones we vote in by large margins.

One thing is certain: whether Penangites choose to speak up or sit back and listen, they will end up with the city they deserve. For my part, I am glad that Penang’s famously quarrelsome civil society is doing its thing. The state — and the nation — would be a poorer place without them.

ETA: this letter to the Malay Mail has been brought to my attention, and pretty much hits the nail on the head. If the Penang state government has been managing George Town properly, it has nothing to hide from UNESCO. If they are committed to transparency, they have nothing to fear from Penang Forum.

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