The damage at the Protestant Cemetery was due to lack of supervision of landscaping workers tasked by the MPPP to prune and remove trees that were affecting the old tombstones.
The work was deemed necessary as the roots of the trees were undermining the tombstones while the tree cover had promoted the growth of fungus.
An expert botanist had identified the problematic trees – just over 80 of them. Most were for pruning and less than a quarter for removal.
The project was undertaken by the George Town World Heritage Inc while the actual work of pruning/removal of the trees was carried out by the MPPP’s landscaping department.
A private contractor was tasked with removing 14 trees while the remainder were handled by the MPPP.
The cemetery has about 400 tombs, not all of them identifiable. Francis Light, who took possession of Penang Island for the East India Company, must have turned in his grave as the excavator snorted and grunted.
World War II resulted in a section of the cemetery being destroyed, and some of the damaged tombstones in this section were later embedded into a section of the cemetery wall.
Apparently, following a trip to Singapore, then chief minister, Dr Lim Chong Eu, ordered many open spaces around Penang to be used as nurseries for roadside trees. The damaged section of the cemetery, by then an unused open space, was used to plant some saplings – which in hindsight, was not a brilliant move. (The place originally had only a row of frangipani trees.)
While the work to remove those trees was being carried out, an aghast heritage enthusiast who spotted what was happening spoke to the workers about their reckless methods. “But there was utter disregard (for these concerns),” said the enthusiast.
Photos later showed several cracked, shattered or chipped tombstones. These will now have to be somehow restored.
There are lessons to be learned from this unhappy episode. Workers have to be trained in such heritage restoration and maintenance work, they have to be meticulous and careful, and there must be very close supervision of the contractors and their workers.
If those tasked with carrying out the work are found to be incapable of handling the job to satisfaction, then it would be better to call off the work altogether rather than risk inflicting more damage than if Nature had taken its course.