The fight to preserve Penang’s heritage has continued since 1982 when the colonial Catholic seminary building and surrounding parkland in Pulau Tikus, a suburb northwest of George Town, were sold to a private developer.
In December 1983, the Penang City Council re-divided the land from religious/institutional to commercial and residential, contrary to the city planning policy. A petition against the zoning change garnered 900 signatures within a few weeks.
During the real estate boom of the early 1990s, Georgetown’s rapid urban renewal also sparked protests, as the developer defied a heritage protection order and demolished a prominent heritage building, the Hotel Metropole.
A 2021 Tatler Asia article said that to this day, Georgetown’s heritage properties remain a “highly desirable” investment opportunity. Especially since it was listed as a World Heritage Site in 2008.
Penang as a tourist destination is one of the factors that investors consider it to be highly profitable. As a result, most of the heritage has been converted into commercial facilities such as hotels, cafes and souvenir shops, the article said.
Unlike some countries, Penang authorities cannot legally intervene in voluntary buyer-seller situations involving heritage buildings.
Redevelopment may not happen immediately. Heritage activist Mark Ray said developers would build banks first and then when the time was right they would start building condominiums, for example.
According to a report by the Khazanah Research Institute in 2017, 591 households and approximately 8,500 residents left Georgetown within two years of its inscription as a World Heritage Site in 2007, during which time the number of residents was 18,660.
“World Heritage inscription has successfully raised Penang’s image and opened the way to boost tourism, but it has put additional pressure on housing prices,” the report said.