CONCERNS were raised this week that a village extension project near the historic Bongkissam shrine in Santubong could have destroyed ancient artefacts in the area.
Culture and heritage campaigner Karen Shepherd said the shrine, dating from the 10th to 13th centuries, was uncovered in the 1960s.
Found within it were a silver ritual box and 142 gold objects now on display in the Sarawak Museum, suggesting that the site was of sacred significance.
“This new extension project is just a few metres from the site of this shrine. There could have been countless treasures on this site and now we will never know.
“Whatever was there has been lost to the teeth of the bulldozer,” she said in a statement.
According to her, the Santubong peninsula has provided artefacts dating back to the seventh century, making it potentially contemporary to Kutai in Kalimantan, which is recognised as a historic fourth-century Indianised kingdom.
“Some researchers have even identified Santubong as the site of the city of Poni, the centre of a trading route which sent tribute and emissaries overseas from as early as the fifth century.
“The research potential in the area is enormous, making Sarawak a spot for international scholarship. Furthermore, there is tourism potential that comes with that, as seen in the RM6mil Santubong Archaeological Park and Wallace Centre, announced last year by the Chief Minister in his role as Tourism, Arts and Culture Minister.
“But work of this kind, with no reference to the heritage potential of the area, threatens all of that,” Shepherd said.
She called for a system to balance heritage needs with the social needs of local communities, such as the needs of Kampung Santubong residents for housing, while planning permission for projects should include a provision for heritage investigation.
“Government departments must work together to balance these two interests through dialogue and collaboration, especially in the case of areas with proven heritage significance such as Santubong,” she added.
In response, Santubong MP Datuk Seri Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar said the Museum Department had submitted a proposal to the state government on where the Bongkissam shrine should be gazetted.
He also said the shrine was not under threat despite the works in its vicinity.
“At the moment, it is not being disturbed although there is ongoing development opposite the shrine, which is a project to pave the way for a village extension,” he was reported as saying on Thursday.
To this, Shepherd responded that the relocation of heritage sites must only be a last resort and that the Museum Department should be included in future planning discussions, especially in historically significant areas.
“The Bongkissam site, which should have been gazetted decades ago, is already compromised but lessons must be learned from this and procedures strengthened to prevent it from happening again.
“The Museum Department has an array of academics and specialists at its disposal. Their expertise must have equal weight in our state’s decision-making,” she said.
On Friday, the Land and Survey Department said the state government had directed the Museum Department to carry out further investigations at the site to determine whether there are historical artefacts there.
“To enable these tasks to be carried out, we have ordered the contractor concerned to stop work at the site from March 24 to 31,” it said in a statement.
“The Museum Department is scheduled to commence its work at the site on March 27. Their findings are to be submitted to the government.”
This is a welcome development. It is good that the government is responding to concerns raised by the public about preserving heritage sites.
Hopefully, it will also take on board the suggestions for better heritage conservation.
As Shepherd points out, this is not about pitting development against conservation but finding a way to balance both needs so that one can be done without the cost of losing the other.