Kopitiam operator Wang Teng Kok, who specialises in Siamese chicken rice, is not a happy man. He has until 30 November 2016 to vacate his well patronised coffee-shop premises fronting Penang Road.
Teng Kok, who employs 10 workers, is currently paying RM3,500 in monthly rental for the shoplot. His two-year tenancy agreement expired on 31 August 2016.
The shop he operates from, along with 25 others at Penang Road and Bertam Lane, has been sold by the landlord to companies affiliated to World Class Land, in his case WCL (Bertam L) Sdn Bhd.
World Class Land is the property arm of Singapore’s Aspial Corporation Ltd, which started out as a traditional jeweller in 1970. The firm now has property development projects and investments in Singapore, Australia and Malaysia. Aspial is headed by CEO Koh Wee Seng, the son of the family jewellers who is now ranked 43rd among Singapore’s 50 Richest by Forbes.
“We are deeply concerned that ONE company (regardless of foreign or local) is uprooting a great number of families and gutting a number of heritage buildings in George Town,” says George Town Heritage Action founder Mark Lay.
“The WCL model is to buy, evict tenants, renovate, build and drastically increase rentals which local Penangites are mostly unable to afford.”
Over at Noordin Street/Gurdwara Road nearby, 37 houses have been targeted in one spot alone. All tenants have been evicted.
The firm’s overall plan appears to be to increase floor space by building high-rise blocks. In Melbourne, WCL is building the southern hemisphere’s tallest residential tower, the 101-storey Australia 108.
In George Town, WCL has submitted an application to build a 46-storey tower block that would rival nearby 65-storey Komtar in height. The application involves the demolition of 11 houses to be replaced by 115 condos and office space.
The application has not yet been approved. What this means is that such plans can still be stopped by the authorities without having to pay any compensation.
Noordin Street/Gurdwara Road lies in the Seven Streets Precinct, which was included by the city council in a dossier to Unesco in 2008 as worthy of conservation. But because the precinct lies outside the protected Unesco heritage buffer zone, conservation guidelines are lax and it has become the latest playground for developers. This may explain why WCL has snapped up 128 properties in the entire precinct, according to Mark (see below):
The George Town Heritage Action founder is at pains to stress that WCL is doing nothing illegal. If anything, it is going by the book.
“But there is a moral issue at stake here,” he says, that is the loss of diversity both in the built and intangible cultural heritage of George Town.
That’s not to mention the displacement of the established local community.
Mark suggests five steps that could be taken to stop or slow down WCL’s bulk purchases of heritage properties:
- Limit the change of use for heritage buildings.
- Zone out certain activities – ie high-end businesses which do not benefit the local community.
- Make use of provisions of the Penang Heritage Enactment/Penang Heritage Regulations 2016 (which comes into forces today). The enactment provides for the position of an all-powerful state heritage commissioner, who can “declare any cultural heritage and natural heritage as state heritage”.
- Involve the National Heritage Department (JWN) – should the buffer zone be extended to cover Seven Streets Precinct?
- Involve Unesco – seek advice/comments when Unesco officials come to assess Sia Boey.
As things stand, the state appears to be leaving the Seven Streets Precinct as a free-for-all area to be gobbled up by property developers who want to turn it into an ‘international city’ – and all that it implies.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Mark suggests that the new state heritage commissioner could declare the precinct as part of state heritage, worthy of conservation.
Otherwise, what we are faced with now, he warns, is a Unesco world heritage site in inner city George Town while next to it, another world is emerging: a playground for the rich – similar to the superficial heritage trappings, fancy eateries and glitzy lights of Nagore Road – that is well beyond the reach of ordinary Penangites. Indeed, gentrification is fast swallowing up the cultural and natural heritage of the area.
What is gentrification? According to Benjamin Grant in pbs.org:
Gentrification is a general term for the arrival of wealthier people in an existing urban district, a related increase in rents and property values, and changes in the district’s character and culture. The term is often used negatively, suggesting the displacement of poor communities by rich outsiders. But the effects of gentrification are complex and contradictory, and its real impact varies.
Many aspects of the gentrification process are desirable. Who wouldn’t want to see reduced crime, new investment in buildings and infrastructure, and increased economic activity in their neighborhoods? Unfortunately, the benefits of these changes are often enjoyed disproportionately by the new arrivals, while the established residents find themselves economically and socially marginalised.