Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Editorial: (NST) Conserving a community

WHEN less than two months ago Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek acknowledged the historical value of the Sungai Buloh Leprosy Settlement and announced that the cabinet had agreed to the formation of a working committee — which included representatives from the Higher Education and Culture, Arts and Heritage ministries — to look into the matter of turning it into a heritage site and a tourist attraction, it seemed assurance enough that there would be a stay of execution on the plans to develop a medical campus.
It was, therefore, more than a little shocking that the walls of some buildings had been torn down and tiles had been removed from the roof of the old prison. With so many parties involved, it could just be a matter of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. In which case, while the damage has been done and what has been destroyed has been irrevocably lost, it is not too late to save the rest. There is no reason why the confusion cannot be speedily straightened out, as appears to be the case now that the order has been made to stop the levelling.

But this does not appear to be just a problem of a demolition that has jumped the administrative gun. Sadly, this is not an isolated case. More often than not, heritage conservation has consisted of valiant rearguard actions against the destruction of the built historical landscape rather than the long-term commitment to protect the legacy of the past. Like the stigma that still seems to stick to leprosy, this appears to be another case that reflects an aversion to heritage preservation.

Just as bad are the mutations and modifications in the name of conservation which compromise the authenticity of heritage buildings and sites and devalue their historical, social and cultural significance. Bearing in mind that the 77-year-old settlement is still home to a self-sufficient society of patients from diverse backgrounds, races and religions who have been living there since they were young, growing flowers, fruits and vegetables, and developing strong bonds of friendship and community with each other, it becomes even more imperative that it continues to become a living testimony to its social as well as its medical heritage. And this should include preserving the nurseries which are very much a part of the settlement’s identity. It is vital to maintain the spirit and substance of the community and its way of life even as plans are made to redevelop the settlement.

Source: NSTonline

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