By Ooi Kee Beng Editorial in Penang Monthly, July, 2019
What did heritage conservation look like or sound like in the pre-modern age when things changed slowly, and conservatism was not an ideology but a social default; when great changes that eradicated what we would today call tangible and intangible cultural heritage came only through war, conquest, natural disaster or sickness?
Granted that this understanding of life in the past is highly biased, and changes were probably more normal than we moderns for our own purposes wish to believe, the point still remains that the idea of conserving and protecting what one had was often a civilisational one, and the loss that was feared was often one of total loss – of Atlantis being drowned; of Athens being sacked by Sparta; of Qin conquering the Central States of China; of Vikings raiding a whole village and carrying off goods, women and children to be raised as another people; of Africans transported to the West Indies to become slave labour in the cotton and sugarcane fields; of Israel falling to Babylon; of Native Americans losing their lands, their rights and their lives; and of course, of genocides. Loss of heritage was quite total; it was the lot of the war refugee.
With these words, I present a dramatic conceptual and emotive backdrop as context for the protecting, defending and conserving heritage and items of legacy in our age.
Over the last five hundred years, we have lived through huge changes, which we now see collectively as the dawning of the Modern Age. Civilisations have fallen, economies destroyed, polities dismantled – and peoples eradicated. This is true even of the West, from whence much of modern changes emerged to flood the world. After all, what we call world wars were largely fought in Europe.
Before that, of course we had dynasties falling, crusades occurring, and hordes from Central Asia invading in all directions. So change has been a constant.
What signifies Modern Times in this misty tapestry of chaotic events, is the thoroughness with which systems have been transformed (the industrial revolution and parliamentarism), the big bang that has taken place in the acquirement of knowledge for humanity as a whole (the science and technology revolution); the connectedness – positive and negative – of human societies today (globalisation, we call it).
In Malaysia, the most dominant discourse where conservation of heritage is concerned has been about the losing of Malay land, Malay rights and Malay sovereignty. Our whole country is constructed around that fear of instant cultural change, immediate loss of identity, and permanent subjugation if not extinction.
Construction has always followed destruction, and vice versa; and winners have always alternated with losers in a cosmic dance through the ages. But the speed at which this occurred in recent centuries, accelerating exponentially into our times, into our days, into our minutes, does not allow for the adjustments that once upon a time after each catastrophe needed generations to happen.
Now, in one lifetime, a person has to adapt to revolutions in lifestyle more times than he can handle. In such a scenario, the small remnants of the big things that have been lost or are being lost, become highly valued. Cultural conservatism in the face of irresistible change becomes a project more defensive and desperate than ever before. Fighting a lost war is heroic the way swimming across an ocean is epic.
For we do need orientation to know where we are going, where we have been, and what we value; and whatever appears unchanged and unchanging, be it forested hills, mouldy shophouses, flaking walls, human rights, and yes, even wrinkles on aged people, is comforting.
In such a situation of fast and deep change, I doubt we can always know what has passed, and what has remained. What we do instead is identify what appears not to have changed, or what appears to evolve more slowly than its surroundings, and value that.
We all watch with pride – and a huge dose of regret – as our children grow and change. And it often upsets us that they do not value the things we ourselves value, and if we are honest, these are often things we notice are under threat of being lost, and that are sliding out of sight. In the end, I suppose we take some comfort in the fact that our children will experience the same regret, and will finally appreciate us and the things we value in some form, even as we and our values threaten to slide from their sight.