On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

The living angry over proposed building

The complainants argue that the columbarium would not fit
into the environment because Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah, formerly Northam Road,
has been promoted as a tourist district.

Among the landmarks in the area are the E & O Hotel, City Bayview Hotel, the
Homestead, which was the home of the late Yeap Chor Ee who founded Ban Hin Lee
Bank, and the late Loh Boon Siew's mansion.

The protesting businessmen and residents want to know why the council did not
bother to seek their views as adjoining property owners and whether an impact
study was carried out.

Regarded as the Golden Mile of Penang, the businessmen there fear that property
values would drop once the columbarium is built and the area might eventually
be known as the Memorial Mile. They want to the columbarium to be sited
elsewhere on the island or the mainland preferably near a crematorium, in line
with the environmental character of such areas.

A memorandum, which includes the signatures of some well-connected businessmen
in Kuala Lumpur, has been sent to Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah
Ahmad Badawi.

Those who feel that these businessmen are over-reacting have said the
columbarium would, in fact, be merely an extension of the Christian cemetery
where the founder of Penang, Captain Francis Light, is buried. The tomb of
Thomas Leonowen – the husband of Anna, the tutor of King Mongkut's children,
who was portrayed in the movie Anna and The King – is also at the

Critics of the project say that although the cemetery is rich in history, the
state government has failed to exploit its tourism potential. They add that it
could not be regarded as an extension of the columbarium because the last
recorded burial was in 1894.

Defenders of the project point out that the columbarium – to be known as the
House of Remembrance – would not affect the aesthetic beauty of the area
because its facade looks like a five-star hotel.

From artist impressions, the columbarium certainly looks classy with shiny
marble floors and fountains at the lobby and other parts of the building. Under
the project, the old Shih Chung school would be incorporated into the new
building and thus help stop heritage buildings from being torn down.

The columbarium, argue the defenders, would not affect the cultural value of Penang
and may even become a tourist attraction if it was properly maintained, like
the Nirwana Memorial Park in Semenyih, Selangor.

The council can expect plenty of questions from Penangites: would hotel guests
want to see funeral services conducted near the columbarium, no matter how well
maintained it would be? That aside, during the annual Qing Ming (All Souls'
Day) festival, the area would be jammed with traffic, even with an underground
car park.

Last week, state executive councillor Datuk Dr Teng Hock Nan said the project
had been approved and the question of review did not arise. Earlier, the
council's planning and development chairman Tan Hiap Seng said the developer
had complied with the requirements to build the vault to hold the urns and that
approval was given last year.

The developer, Stamford Raffles By The Sea Sdn Bhd, has not commented on the
project despite its magnitude.

The site was originally owned by Cheah Tek Soon, a prominent 19th century
figure after whom Tek Soon Street was named. The island's first four-storey
private residence was built there before 1893 and later acquired by businessman
Tye Yee Koon who turned it into a hotel. It has appeared in old postcards as
''Bellevue Hotel'' and ''Raffles By The Sea.'' The site was later occupied by
Shih Chung school which was founded in 1908.

For the council to keep silent on the project when a controversy is raging is
poor urban management. If it feels strongly that it is right in approving the
columbarium, then it should explain the rationale to Penangites.

Surely there must be merits to the building of a columbarium, given the
shortage of land on the island. Despite the negative perception of such a
project, it certainly fulfils the needs of the people.

However, the council should not give the impression that it does not owe
Penangites an explanation. The trouble with many state and council leaders is
they forget that their salaries come from taxpayers.

Penang has lost its shine over the years because of poor urban planning and
lack of vision. The people of Penang deserve to have a say in how they want the
city to be run.