Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Elizabeth Cardosa: There's hope for the valley of hope
The original Sungai Buloh leper asylum.
The original Sungai Buloh leper asylum.

IF any of my friends in the Klang Valley want to buy plants, they are likely to drive to Sungai Buloh, about 25km from Kuala Lumpur.

Young and vibrant. The leprosarium's cadet corps get into line in 1969.
Young and vibrant. The leprosarium's cadet corps get into line in 1969.
Many of the commercial nurseries which thrive there are within the Sungai Buloh Leprosarium, which can trace its history back to the mid 1920s.

From the earliest times, those suffering from leprosy (Hansen’s disease) were ostracised by society and forced to live in inhumane conditions.

Lepers were segregated in compounds with fences surrounded by barbed wire, as if they were criminals.

In the 1940 Straits Times Annual, Harry Miller’s article titled "Lepers at Sungai Buloh … A Model Settlement in Malaya" informs us that of the 3,000,000 lepers in the world then, 2,000 lived at the Sungai Buloh settlement. The inhabitants were a mixture of races:
"Chinese, most of the races of India, Malays, Javanese, Thais, Eurasians and a sprinkling of other nationalities.

"They form a big family of men, women and children with different languages, religions and customs isolated by law, bound by the common fetter of leprosy, yet living in complete harmony."

Back in 1922, Dr Ernst Travers (after whom Jalan Travers is named) took charge of the leper asylum in Setapak, Kuala Lumpur.

What he found was 400 men, women and children living in appalling conditions, with no clothing, blankets or food.

He offered them compassion, treatment, clean bedding and clothes — turning around a wretched situation, wracked with daily riots and disturbances, into one of hope.

It was his advocacy that was to see the lepers transferred from the asylum in Kuala Lumpur to a new settlement at Sungai Buloh.

When the settlement was officially opened in 1930, it was the largest and most modern leprosarium in the British Commonwealth, said to be the "most impressive because of its scenic setting and its modern buildings and facilities" (www.leprosyhistory.org).

The Sungai Buloh Leprosarium was also a noted centre for research.

From as early as the 1930s, drug trials and development of alternative drugs and other scientific investigations were carried out until the early 1980s.

Among these were investigations, from the 1940s through the 1960s, into the first successful multi-drug treatment and the development of a new regime for leprosy which has cured millions of patients.

And this model of a self-contained settlement had a profound influence on the design of other leper settlements in other parts of the world.

Anthony Joshua-Raghavar in Leprosy in Malaysia. Past, Present and Future (1983) calls the Sungai Buloh Settlement a model of modern human settlement planning.

Clear zones for housing, social facilities and medical facilities, with modern sewerage, safe water supply, and buildings which were functional and modest, were constructed.

In response to the tropical climate, deep overhanging roofs and good ventilation provided more comfort for the lepers, who were very sensitive to bright light and high temperatures.

Two sections were divided by a hill with forested slopes and the reservoir.

The west, for sick and disabled patients who required care, and the east which was the "kampung" for those who were healthy and could live independently, working the allotments which they were given to grow fruit trees and vegetables, and raise animals.

There were also communal facilities — a school, churches, mosques, Indian and Chinese temples, grocery shops, workshops, etc.

Originally covering an area of 230ha, it was reduced to 120ha when the new Sungai Buloh Hospital was built, together with the nursing college and new highway access.

In 1940, the settlement had several social clubs, one for women to play both outdoor and indoor games, one for Indians and another for Chinese and even an English speaking club.

A drama club, a book club, educational facilities, and food and sundry shops were found here, and there were even special currency notes to eliminate the possibility of infection spreading outside of the settlement.

The settlement was managed by the lepers themselves, working as clerks, police, gardeners, watchmen, dispensers, dressers and nurses.

It was a self-supporting and empowered community whose inhabitants could live with self-respect and dignity.

Today, one still passes through a small gateway to enter this township of gardens and nurseries. Homes are neatly laid out along narrow streets meandering through the area, but only a few hundred inhabitants still remain.

In the book, Valley of Hope (2006), Joyce Wong Chau Yin and co-author Phang Siew Sia record the story of the settlement and its residents. Wong’s parents were patients there and she was born there and grew up nearby.

In an interview, Wong says: "Sungai Buloh is a one-of-a-kind place, probably in the whole world. Very seldom can we find such a well-organised, self-sufficient community.

"It is a repository of stories of patients who have struggled to live through both the physical and psychological sufferings caused by leprosy.

"As such, it is a very important part of the history of leprosy in this country as well as the world."

The Sungai Buloh Leprosarium represents a part of our medical and social heritage which, sadly, most of us know nothing about.

In May this year, Badan Warisan Malaysia awarded a Mubin Sheppard Memorial Prize Measured Drawings Grant to a group of students from Taylor’s College to document a selected number of buildings in the Sungai Buloh Leprosarium.

During their research, supervising lecturer Lim Yong Long (to whom I am indebted for much of the research for this article) learnt that the eastern section of the settlement is to be demolished soon and the area is to be redeveloped into new facilities for the Universiti Teknologi Mara Medical Faculty.

On July 10 this year, Lim submitted a nomination form for the settlement to be included in the National Heritage Register.

His passionate appeal appears to have caught the sympathetic ear of the Minister of Health who is reported to have said that his ministry had decided to preserve some parts of the centre because of its historical significance and there were plans to "turn part of the centre’s heritage buildings into a heritage site ... (and) a tourist attraction" (NST, July 21).

With this stay of execution, I hope that a cultural heritage impact assessment is carried out on the whole site to help make informed decisions on what is best in this redevelopment plan; that the stakeholders, most especially the inhabitants and their carers, are consulted and their views taken cognisence of.

Could, for example, the original dwellings be preserved and converted into accommodation, the wards turned into care centres for the surrounding communities, the existing religious facilities maintained and used by the local population?

For this to be a viable and vibrant tourist attraction, the historical, scientific, social and cultural significance of this model centre for treatment and research in leprosy must retain its authenticity and its heritage values.

It is reassuring to know that this settlement will continue to be a living testimony of the story of leprosy in Malaysia.

The writer is executive director of Badan Warisan Malaysia. She can be contacted at heritage@badanwarisan.org.my.

Source: www.nst.com.my

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