Monday, September 3, 2007

Lim Yong Long: Living legacy

The Sungai Buloh Leprosy Settlement represents man’s triumph over the disease and is a reminder of how a group of people lived together in isolation, transcending colour and creed.

SEVENTY-seven years ago, in an isolated valley of Bukit Lagong, Sungai Buloh, Selangor, a group of Malays, Chinese, Indians and Eurasians set up a contained community. They lived in harmony and interdependently of each other.

They were leprosy patients, sent to live in the Sungai Buloh Leprosy Settlement, where they found hope and dignity. It was a haven that allowed them to re-define themselves as human beings and enabled them to make friends and sustain friendships, express their feelings, form families and be individuals who contributed to their own community.

From the time it was built in 1930, Sungai Buloh was one of the biggest leprosy settlements in the-then British Empire, and the second biggest in the world. It was equipped with advanced facilities and planned following the principals of a garden city. It was a pioneer project based on the “enlightened policy” of segregating leprosy patients in a self-supporting community. Over the years, the settlement also became a research centre for leprosy.

Historical landmark: Plans to destroy half the leprosy settlement threaten to destroy Sungai Buloh’s authenticity as one of the most perfectly planned leprosarium models in modern history.
Since its establishment, the settlement has been relatively undisturbed due to the public’s fear of, and the stigma attached to, leprosy.

Recently, the government announced plans to preserve part of the settlement as a national heritage. But 40 acres (16.19ha) of the settlement has been surrendered to the government, to make way for the medical faculty of the Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM).

The project threatens to destroy Sungai Buloh’s authenticity and wholeness as one of the most perfectly planned and impressive leprosarium models in modern history. It will also erase evidence of the country’s contribution to the history of humankind.

Old segregation camps

The policy of segregation for leprosy patients was enforced under British rule in Malaya. It stated that every patient had to be segregated, either on his own accord under the supervision of health authorities, or in a camp.

There were four leprosy asylums then, in Pulau Serimbun, Malacca (built in 1850), Pulau Jerejak, Penang (1871) Setapak, Selangor (1893) and Pulau Pangkor Laut, Perak (1903).

Dr Richard Green, a bacteriologist in charge of the Setapak Camp between 1925 and 1928 described the poor condition of old-fashioned segregation camps, which had fences and barbed wire. “It was like living in a prison, dull and brutish, and many leprosy patients tried to escape. No one entered voluntarily. Those who could not escape consoled themselves with the opium.”

Self-supporting community

In 1923, an “enlightened policy” to reform the living conditions of leprosy patients was introduced by Dr E.A.O. Traverse. He proposed a place that was not so confined, a small town where they could live independently within a contained community. There, they would find refuge and receive comprehensive treatment, and be able to live in a dignified manner.

Constructing a world apart

In 1926, Sir George Maxwell, chief secretary of the Federated Malay States, set about building the leprosy settlement. The site chosen was a beautiful and lush valley in Sungai Buloh about 15 miles north of Kuala Lumpur. It was surrounded by scenic Bukit Lagong (575m), and intersected by two rivers, Sungai Buloh and Sungai Cemubung.

The natural setting and cooler temperature of the valley were ideal for leprosy patients, who are sensitive to heat. Water, which came from a reservoir, was subjected to monthly bacteriological and chemical tests.


The whole housing area within the settlement was designed to encourage the establishment of a community, especially for leprosy patients who had severed ties with their family, relatives and friends. Houses were arranged in clusters to encourage interaction between neighbours and give them a sense of security.

At the heart of each cluster was a market or food distribution centre, where patients could socialise every morning. The outlying residential areas were surrounded by green belts where allotments were given to patients to plant fruits trees and vegetables.

Social control

Clubs and activities played a very important role in strengthening community ties within the settlement. Surrounding the central park were the Green Club (for English-educated patients), gospel hall, rehabilitation club, Travers school, scout activities hall and Dr Ryrie Club.

Over the years, many more set-ups were established, such as the Chinese clan associations, the Malay Club, Indian Mutual Aid, Rukun Tetangga, dramatic club, and indoor and outdoor clubs. Festivals and anniversaries were celebrated with dinners, and there were funfairs, tea parties and stage performances.

Religion also played a very important role in a leprosy patient’s life – it was source of spiritual support. The settlement has a Hindu temple, a mosque, Buddhist and Taoist temples, a Roman Catholic chapel, an Anglican church and a gospel hall.

Quarterly magazines were published by the community to record events and activities, and give residents an outlet for creative thought. They also served as a vehicle to send out messages to the outer world.

The settlement had more than 2,000 patients from diverse backgrounds, races, and religions. Therefore, maintenance of order and harmony was very important. The settlement was headed by a medical superintendent who registered births, marriages and deaths. He was also responsible for overseeing a divorce court.

The settlement implemented its own rules and regulations and issued its own internal currency. There was a police force and a fire brigade. There was also a prison to detain those who broke the rules. Psychiatric wards were provided to house those suffering from mental disorders.

The settlement was run by the leprosy patients themselves. There were those who became administrative workers, watchmen, general labourers, nurses, mechanics and teachers. Those who had the capital were allowed to set up small grocery shops, kopitiam and barber shops.

Treatment and research

Leprosy patients had to undergo long and tedious treatment, under supervision. Many of those who recovered chose not to leave the settlement because they had been living there since they were young and had forged strong bonds with the place and other patients.

Besides providing treatment, the Sungai Buloh resettlement was a well-known leprosy research centre. One of its most remarkable achievements was the detection of the Dapsone resistance, in 1964-65.

Dapsone pills, pioneered by Dr R.G. Cochrane, was the treatment of choice for leprosy. Initially, it worked wonderfully, but eventually, it became ineffective because the leprosy bacteria developed resistance to it.

Eventually, a World Health Organisation study group developed Dapsone, rifampicin and clofazimine, the first successful multi-drug treatment. It has since cured millions of leprosy patients.

“Leprosy is curable” is a slogan widely used to drum home the message that the disease is treatable. But it has been recognised as one of the oldest diseases that afflicts humans, one that condemns and ostracises its victims.

The establishment of the Sungai Buloh Leprosy Settlement is evidence of man’s triumphant efforts to fight the scourge. It is a memorial to humanity; it is a reminder about the common values of a group of people who, although segregated, were able to live together regardless of their colour, beliefs and abilities.

This settlement is a common heritage that should be recognised, affirmed and fully preserved in Malaysia, for the benefit of present and future generations.

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