Update: Now, there is talk that there is a plan for a much smaller station at Sia Boey. This could be located at the car park so the archaeological findings and the canal are not disturbed. But then this would make it difficult for the planned monorail from Tanjung Bungah (under Phase 2 of the SRS proposal) to come by. So, who knows, that monorail line could be scrapped. All the same, the people of Penang are being sold the idea that a ‘Big Bang’ approach that requires massive land reclamation is needed – which is not the only option available to us. We shall see how things pan out.
Three months after the responsibility for Sia Boey was transferred from the Penang Development Corporation to George Town World Heritage Inc, this is the derelict state of the site.
The PDC had earlier been involved in a RM2m project to brace up the old shophouses and spruce up the site for the Sia Boey Reborn project, which would have seen Prangin Canal being revitalised and the area turned into an arts and heritage district. During the work on the site, the team unearthed an older canal.
USM archaeologists were then asked to carry out excavation work at the site, and they uncovered remnants of an old police station and other artefacts. The USM final report is now believed to have been completed and submitted.
But a proposal to turn the site into a massive transport hub under an exorbitant RM50bn proposal for Penang transport infrastructure could overshadow any semblance of the original vision for Sia Boey Reborn.
This controversial proposal stands in contrast to an alternative “Better, Cheaper, Faster” initiative put forward by Penang Forum that could be incorporated into Sia Boey Reborn by using the old market as a tram interchange.
GTWHI’s main job is to protect the world heritage site of Penang. But now this (photo above) is the state of Sia Boey, which lies near the fringe of the heritage buffer zone and is part of the broader setting for the world heritage site.
Said one observer: “The canal smelled and (it could potentially be) a mosquito breeding ground. Not to mention the wild vegetation that is growing in between the historic granite blocks. Look at the shophouses. Disintegrating before our eyes.”
In the excavated pit, wild grass has grown.
In June, civil society coalition Penang Forum, in accordance with Unesco provisions, alerted Unesco about the possible fate of Sia Boey.
Unesco then contacted the National Heritage Department about the issue.
In August, the National Heritage Department intervened to issue an interim protection order on Sia Boey under the National Heritage Act 2005. This, however, could only be enforced with the approval of the Penang state government.
At present, Unesco is believed to be waiting for the department’s report on the proposed transport hub and its impact on Sia Boey. How will GTWHI answer Unesco if it asks why the site is left in such a dire state?
In line with CAT principles, GTWHI should immediate make public the USM archaeological report as well as an expert historian’s report on the historical socio-economic significance of Sia Boey.
In some ways, what is happening at Sia Boey reflects a clash of two competing visions for the future of Penang.
One vision delights in skyscrapers and towering luxury condominiums (never mind if there could be a glut), massive land reclamation and artificial islands (at the expense of fishing grounds), and six- and eight-lane highways. It is the same vision that would like to see 1,200 homes on Pulau Jerejak, a relatively unspoilt natural green lung.
The other vision seeks a more balanced, sustainable approach to development, taking into account the state’s limited financial realities. It includes a call for a more holistic transport masterplan that would be cost-effective and cause minimal harm to the natural environment, while taking into account the mobility needs of ordinary people, especially vulnerable groups. It also seeks to preserve or revitalise historically significiant sites, as links to the past, to ground our present, and carry us forward into the future.
Sia Boey is the latest battleground between these two competing visions for Penang.