Wednesday, September 12, 2007

(News)NST-Spotlight: Home sweet... gone?

Ali Long, 63, gazing forlornly at the eastern part of his 'home' which has been demolished. He hopes the settlement will be spared "for memory's sake".
Ali Long, 63, gazing forlornly at the eastern part of his 'home' which has been demolished. He hopes the settlement will be spared "for memory's sake".

The 77-year-old Sungai Buloh leper settlement was once hailed as the most scenic and impressive leprosarium in the world. Now bulldozers are crashing through this unique garden city in the name of development. TAN CHOE CHOE checks out the place.

Chui Ying, 70 (left), and her husband Kong Cheen, 75, are doubtful if their home can be saved from development.
Chui Ying, 70 (left), and her husband Kong Cheen, 75, are doubtful if their home can be saved from development.
This 1969 picture shows a patient-turned-farmer working on a plot of land that he'd been allotted.
This 1969 picture shows a patient-turned-farmer working on a plot of land that he'd been allotted.
THE scene is right out of a watercolour painting. The sky is overcast; the landscape dotted by farmers growing flowers, grass and potted plants; coconut trees swaying in the breeze with ripe fruits beckon at every corner.

But on closer look, one can see scores of abandoned cottages, some roofless, some partially collapsed, and some with trees growing right through them.

Strangely, the farmers, although friendly, are not leprosy patients but mostly Indonesian workers.

This is the much talked about Sungai Buloh leper settlement, once noted as the most beautiful and modern leprosarium in the world because of the surrounding lush forests.
It was built by the British colonial administration in 1929 as a self-contained settlement for leprosy patients uprooted from society and condemned to live in isolation under the Leper Enactment.

Badan Warisan executive director Elizabeth Cardosa wrote in her New Sunday Times column in July that the settlement "represents a part of our medical and social heritage, which sadly most of us know nothing about".

Author Joyce Wong Chau Yin, whose book ‘Valley of Hope’ details the history of the settlement and its inmates, described it as "a very important part of the history of leprosy in this country as well as the world".

The leprosarium originally covered an area of 230ha, but was reduced to 120ha to make way for the new Sungai Buloh Hospital, a nursing college and a new highway.

The area will be further reduced because 16ha on the eastern side of the settlement has been alienated by the Health Ministry for Universiti Teknologi Mara to build its medical faculty.

The construction of the faculty is estimated to displace between 40 to 50 residents of the settlement, most of whom are elderly former leper patients.

The authorities are still mulling over whether to gazette the area as a heritage site, giving hope to the inmates that their home won’t be taken away from them.

But in a move that was described as a "blow to heritage" last Sunday, UiTM had gone ahead and torn down some walls and removed tiles from the roof of the old prison — making some of the inmates nervous about their future.

"It’s the only home we know and we’re all mostly elderly people now. Why can’t they let us live out our lives in some semblance of dignity and peace?" asks former patient Kong Cheen, 75.

Kong Cheen has lived in the settlement since he was 25 years old. He met his wife Chui Ying, another leprosy patient, when she was admitted in 1961.

"They said we will be given houses on the western side, but what about our farming plots here?

"We will lose our main source of income if we move and they destroy our farm," says Chui Ying.

The couple admits that they are too old to work their farm plots themselves. Instead, they lease it to an outsider who employs foreign workers to work the plots for them.

"We get a few hundred ringgit in return to supplement the monthly allowance of RM136.80 from the government. It’s not much but it’s a lot to retirees like us," says Kong Cheen.

Another villager, Sin Kok Han, 72, says he has lived in the settlement for over 55 years.

"I don’t want to leave. This place bears testimony to the story of my life and my wife’s. How would you feel if I ask you to leave your place of birth? That is how we will feel if they evict us," says Sin.

Echoing his sentiments is Ali Long, 63, a leper patient who has lost both his hands and legs.

"It will be a loss (sayang) if they give this place up to development. This place has witnessed much... so many stories... so many memories," says Ali.

Those still living in the settlement are mostly elderly people in their 60s and 70s or very young children.

Many youths have since moved out and assimilated with society at large in the ‘outside world’.

One youth who remained after his father — a former leper patient who has passed on — is Lourdes Surenderen, 29, and he welcomes development because he feels that the settlement is being exploited by outsiders.

He says many immigrants have settled in the area, occupying some of the abandoned cottages, "getting free electricity, water, and shelter".

"They are causing us social problems. There have been increasing cases of theft and vandalism since they came here," he claims.

Malaysian Leprosy Relief Association (Malra) secretary-general Datuk E.J. Lawrence believes it’s time the settlement was developed, but for different reasons.

Lawrence, who helped found Malra in 1959, says the association was set up to help former leprosy patients rehabilitate and live independently.

"The interest of the outside world in this settlement shows Malra has succeeded in eroding the stigmatism that has long been associated with people afflicted with leprosy.

"It shows that people are no longer afraid to come here and mingle with the patients and this should be viewed positively," he says.

Leprosy was once considered an infectious disease that could not be cured — "but it’s no longer true", says Lawrence.

By 1969, powerful drugs had been discovered that could halt, in a matter of days, early cases of the debilitating disease and prevent the hideous deformities that are often its legacy.

Leprosarium facts

• Officially opened in 1930, it was hailed as the most modern and impressive leprosarium in the British Commonwealth because of its scenic setting and modern buildings and facilities.

• It was second largest only to the Culion Island Settlement in the Philippines that was established in 1910, with a population of about 6,000.

• Divided by a hill in the centre, the west section is for the sick and disabled who required care; the east is a village for cured patients to live independently, each working their allotted plot of land to grow fruits, vegetables and raise livestock.

• Every kind of imaginable facility was provided — a school, churches, mosques, Indian and Chinese temples, grocery shops, workshops, etc.

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

• Between the 1930s and 1980s, it was a major centre of treatment and research in the world, especially for trials of alternative drugs

• At the height of the illness in the 1950s, it housed some 3,000 patients.

• About 300 patients still live there today, although most have been cured and are free to leave.

Gazetting a piece of history

IN the limelight after it was abruptly ordered to halt demolition works at the leprosarium last Sunday, UiTM is asking for answers from the Culture, Arts and Heritage Ministry on why no efforts had been made to gazette the settlement even though it has existed since the 1900s.

The question arises: How exactly do the authorities go about gazetting a heritage site?

Under the National Heritage Act 2005, the Heritage Commissioner is responsible for the National Heritage Register and the National Heritage Department (Jabatan Warisan Negara) is the administrating department for this.

The commissioner, Datuk Prof Zuraina Majid, has the power to identify areas that are to be gazetted, including the buffer zone around the area, if necessary.

Anyone who thinks a site is of heritage value can nominate the site to the commissioner, by sending an application letter with information on the historical background of the site, its built and usage.

The application should also include photographs of the building, building plans and site plan with the location of the buildings clearly indicated.

"Once we have identified the area, we will visit the site and examine its heritage value and authenticity of history," says Jabatan Warisan Negara head of enforcement Khalid Syed Ali.

This is done after a notice is given to the owner of the site, seven days in advance, of the visit.

Once the significance of a site is verified and the commissioner thinks it suitable to be gazetted, the commissioner will send a notice of her intention to the owner of the site — 60 days before making the designation.

"A notice of intention will also be forwarded to the Land Office," says Khalid.

If the commissioner thinks it necessary for the purpose of conservation and preservation, she will issue an interim protection order to the owner, with the concurrence of the state authority.

Then she will publish the intention to gazette in local newspapers after getting consent from the state .

"We are open to objections from the public for 30 days after the gazette is published, as stipulated under Section 28 of the Act," says Khalid.

If there’s no objection, the commissioner will issue gazette notice to the owner and the local town and city planner, and publish the designation in the Gazette and local newspapers.

If there are objections, the commissioner will set a date, time and venue to listen to the objection and then decide whether to go ahead with the designation or not.

Badan Warisan executive director Elizabeth Cardosa says a site can be gazetted as Grade 1, 2 or 3, which corresponds to the interest, uniqueness, level of authenticity and architectural significance of the site.

Grade 1 is the highest and is synonymous to the term National Heritage, while 3 is the lowest.

"Grade 1 and 2 sites are likely to qualify for conservation grants, but not Grade 3. There are guidelines on what owners or custodians can and cannot do with their sites once gazetted," she adds.

For example, for Grade 1 sites, the external face and internal layouts of the buildings must be retained along with all architectural elements and materials, "but appropriate adaptive re-use is permitted".

In the case of the leper settlement, researcher Lim Yong Long had submitted a nomination form to the Minister of Culture, Arts and Heritage on July 10 for it to be gazetted as a National Heritage site.

And Badan Warisan’s views on the settlement are clear in a Press statement issued on Tuesday where its president, Tan Sri Ahmad Sarji Abdul Hamid, said: "Badan Warisan has written to, and spoken with, the Minister of Culture, Arts and Heritage, on the historical importance of the Sungai Buloh Leprosy Settlement at national as well as international levels.

"… The history of leprosy is an extremely valuable legacy to humanity … the role and significance (of the settlement) is found in all references to the history of leprosy of the world …"

"It was so successful that it became a model on which other leprosy centres around the world were based."

Pertubuhan Arkitek Malaysia heritage and conservation committee chairman Mohd Zulhemlee An agrees with Badan Warisan.

"We should conserve the leprosy centre, not because it’s a heritage building but because it’s an independent and sustainable community that is of historical value to us ... since the 1920s.

"The buildings may just be simple cottages to many people, but they were built with colonial features and adapted to tropical climes. They are of architectural significance," he says.

Source: NSTonline

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