New Straits Times

Foreigners buying Malaysia’s Penang heritage

As foreign property speculators flock to snap up Penang Island’s valuable heritage estate, Malaysians are left to question: who will own Penang?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 February, 2017, 2:01pm
UPDATED : Monday, 06 February, 2017, 2:18pm

History is important because the past causes the future to be the way it is, and when evidence of the past is swept away, can the present be understood. Large swathes of Penang’s valuable heritage real estate have been bought by foreigners. If continued unabated, at least on the island, who will own Penang? The marginalised locals living on the undesirable urban fringes, yet to be forced out, or the foreigners who own most of the island? For, if one is looking purely from the perspective of investment, the “Pearl of the Orient” is truly worth owning, not just parts, but all of it.

Penang is not quite there yet, but if left to the state government, not only will the heritage zones become foreign owned, most of the island, too, will be turned into a tourist hot-spot. At the moment, those against the purchase of heritage buildings by foreigners are saying that some 250 buildings are no longer owned by Malaysians, disputing the state government’s lower figure. That the once vibrant heritage zones of pre-war tenements, lived in by generations of the same family, are now dead after dark testifies to this truth. Their homes have become too expensive to restore according to the standards set by the local authority, making the millions offered seductive, a fact compounded by endless pestering of real estate agents out to make a fast buck.

The state government has come up with promises of restricting this trend. It speaks of raising the minimum purchase price to RM2 million (US$452,233), but already, heritage buildings are fetching multiples of this. It promises to restrict ownership of strata titles, too, and impose other measures to make the purchase more prohibitive. But what can make Penang Island especially undesirable to foreign property speculators and developers? Then, if and when successfully curbed, who can ensure that these historic treasures will be preserved if reality demonstrates that those who owned them had not the wherewithal? In fact, some are saying it is already too late because the original residents have all sold up.

One wonders why the state government has not made restoration of the buildings its business. Instead, it has fallen into foreign hands whose interest, if at all, in restoring the buildings is for purposes of tourism and other money-spinning ventures. And, when they own all of it, can the state government resist the pressure to allow development without strings, at which point regaining ownership would be unaffordable and therefore uneconomic. Of course, politically, future state governments may nationalise, but such a move would frighten investors. One option still open, however, is to slap further restrictions aimed at maintaining these historic pre-war buildings in pristine condition as a living heritage city. This might force foreign owners to relinquish their investment and discourage future investors because why pay exorbitant sums for a piece of someone else’s history? And, if those to whom the history belong cannot afford to own it, then the state government, as custodian of the collective past, must.

Foreigners buying Malaysia’s Penang heritage