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Penang – Culture Capital (PEM Editorial February 2011)

THE UNESCO decision to put Penang jointly with Malacca on its World Heritage List two years ago signified a few fascinating things.

For one thing, it was of course a satisfying triumph for the many NGO activists in Penang who had been patiently pushing for that status for years.

Secondly, the listing of the two port-towns marks the acknowledgement of the uniqueness not only of the history of these two human settlements but of the Straits of Malacca itself and its human and historical dynamics.

Aside from these dual urban centres, there are no other cultural heritage sites close by listed under the Unesco programme at the moment which are not purely archaeological in nature.

The closest cultural site to the Straits of Malacca is possibly Angkor Wat in Cambodia or Ayutthaya in Thailand, followed by two other sites further north – the historic town of Sukhothai and the Ban Chiang site. Then come three heritage wonders in Central Java, including the Borobudur Temple Compounds.

All of these are archaeological in nature. Unlike these undeniably impressive relics of bygone civilisations found in continental South-East Asia and Java, Penang and Malacca are sites that are still socially alive, and represent the historical vibrancy of the Straits. They are reminders of what makes archipelagic Southeast Asia tick.

What’s more, what the Unesco listing does is shine the spotlight on these places – especially Penang – as a generator of education, culture, industry and political activism.

Now, changes had to come aft er Penang got onto the listing in July 2008. This was independent of whether or not there had been a change in government earlier that same year. It took a while for investors to notice the economic possibilities of George Town’s enhanced status. Money has been pouring in, largely into real estate and into the hotel business. It also took a while for Penangites themselves to realise that they had been living in a place worth calling a World Heritage Site which foreigners are willing to pay big money to come experience or live in.

The question to ask now though is; where do we go from here?

It is only logical that we should be digging deep into our historical pockets, and acknowledging what others have acknowledged. We have more living culture and living history to be proud of than most places in the region.

Indeed, we should even see the brain drain from Penang to other parts of the country and the region as part and parcel of the continuous and historical emanation of cultural goods from this little Unesco heritage site.

Synergising this newly awakened spirit among Penangites is what needs doing. And the best way of doing that is by thinking of Penang as a Culture Capital, and by thinking of Culture as Capital.

So remember, you read it here fi rst. Let’s recognise Penang as the Culture Capital of the Straits of Malacca and its surroundings.

Based on its history of multi-ethnicity, economic innovativeness, educational prowess, political activism and cultural density, Penang can easily generate a healthy and wealthy culture for our common future.

In fact, it is already happening.

– Ooi Kee Beng, PEM editorial, February 2011

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About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.

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