We need to know and care about things we want to preserve
MENTION heritage conservation and the first thing that comes to my mind is usually preserving old buildings.
I suppose this is because beautiful old buildings can be seen and admired for their historical, architectural and cultural value, and it follows that they should be protected from being torn down or unsympathetically renovated.
Indeed, efforts to preserve and restore historic buildings are an important part of heritage conservation.
However, as I learned in an insightful talk by renowned architect and conservationist Datuk Seri Lim Chong Keat recently, it is about much more than just preserving old buildings in the urban environment.
For him, heritage also encompasses the rural environment, nature and culture, including flora and fauna, forests, rivers and folk art. Calling this ethnoheritage, he said its conservation begins with empathy, compassion and knowledge.
And Sarawak, he said, is one of the most diverse areas in terms of nature, culture and its tapestry of people.
“I am envious of the tremendous range of cultural values you have in Sarawak,” the Penang-born architect said.
In his wide-ranging talk on “Ethos, Heritage, Conservation and Advancement”, Lim offered insights and counsel on heritage conservation and how to go about doing it.
Interestingly, the founder of the Penang Heritage Trust advised the Sarawak Heritage Society not to do what Penang did but to do things their own way, suited to Sarawak’s environment.
This is in line with his main point that heritage conservation must be rooted in knowledge and appreciation of one’s own environment.
“If you have no sense of your own culture, you are not in a position to do heritage. I have challenged urban architects here before that they know nothing about rural architecture and the rural people.
“You have to learn and discover your own country, your own heritage,” he said.
Lim, 87, has certainly done his part. He has travelled extensively in Sarawak since the 1960s, going to such far-flung places as Long Akah in Baram and the Lanjak Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary as well as places closer to town like the Semenggoh Nature Reserve. Also a botanical researcher, he has discovered over 70 new species of palms and gingers in Malaysia, including some in Sarawak.
But Lim was keen to emphasise that the discovery of heritage should be done for its own sake and not for commercial exploitation alone.
“The danger in heritage conservation today is to ‘do it for tourism’. We must start with valuing heritage for its own sake, not for exploiting it,” he said.
As for urban conservation, Lim had some interesting observations to share. Heritage advocates need to have a rapprochement with planners to stop what he called “rapacious development”. Good planners are also needed to determine what should be conserved and to control development to ensure that it is compatible with heritage buildings.
“If we have better architects and planners, even a tall building can be sensitive to its surroundings,” he said.
I came away from the talk with a better sense of the broad scope of heritage. More importantly, all of us need to know and care about our heritage so that we can preserve it, not merely for the sake of trying to attract tourists but to continue using and enjoying it ourselves.
Our heritage is a big part of our identity as Sarawakians. Losing it would be like losing a part of ourselves.