Wednesday, November 14, 2007

News:(TheStar)Reduced to rubble

Reduced to rubble

The Sungai Buloh Leprosy Settlement has lost the fight to achieve national heritage status. But even as its walls come down, its legacy of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity lives on.

Stories by SHOBA MANO

Had it not been unceremoniously torn down, the majestic 78-year-old Bok House would still be standing right now at Jalan Ampang, Kuala Lumpur.

Alas, it is now gone and the Culture, Arts and Heritage Minister, Datuk Seri Dr Rais Yatim brushed the whole episode off by saying: “It was just a house belonging to a rich man.”

Encroached upon: Demolished homes.
Today, the Sungai Buloh Leprosy Settlement in Selangor, just 25km from the city and a place of great historical significance, is also being demolished.

If these two are not worthy of being called “national heritage”, what is?

Badan Warisan Malaysia president, Tan Sri Ahmad Sarji Abdul Hamid had nominated Bok House as a national heritage as provided for under Section 68 of the National Heritage Act 2005, in a letter to Dr Rais on April 12, 2006 – eight months before it was demolished on Dec 15. It did the building no good.

In a press statement issued in the aftermath of the partial demolition of the Sungai Buloh Leprosy Settlement on Sept 20 to make way for UiTM’s medical faculty, a shocked Ahmad Sarji said:

“Badan Warisan had written to and spoken with the Culture, Arts and Heritage Minister on the historical importance of the Sungai Buloh Leprosy Settlement at the 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 in the world.”

Sadly, the settlement’s 77-year-old legacy has come to an end, and Malaysians have lost yet another heritage site that could have easily drawn tourists. All that’s left of it now are memories stored in a book called Valley of Hope, by Joyce Wong Chau Yin and Phang Siew Sia, published last May.

Both had grown up in the settlement as the children of leprosy patients.

It is the first book on life in the settlement after Joshua Raghavar’s more academic and authoritative account in his 1983 book, Leprosy in Malaysia – Past, Present and Future.

Joshua’s book records that in the early 1900s, leprosy camps were surrounded by 5m-high steel and barbwire fences, with guards posted around them. People suffering from leprosy were arrested as they went about their business.

The late Ratan Singh and wife Rose.
They would find themselves shoved with poles and staves to the police station by officers too terrified to touch them. The authorities would then disinfect their houses, vehicles and implements. Later, they would be incarcerated in the camps.

“Children and adults, the tramps and the educated, those in advanced stages of leprosy and the newly diagnosed, were all dumped together in overcrowded camps without any provision for work or recreation.

“The only objective was to separate patients from the rest of society,” said Joshua, whose dream of working as a journalist was dashed when he contracted leprosy at 39, and was sent to the settlement in 1950.

There, Joshua re-trained as a teacher and taught at its only school until his death last year.

Ironically, he achieved his peak as a journalist within the walls of the settlement, thanks to his book, which is today hailed as a world authority on how leprosy affected Malaysia – medically, historically and socially.

Before the settlement was established in 1930 on a 230ha lush paradise in the Bukit Langgong Valley, six leprosy camps were set up from 1860, with Pulau Serimbun, an island off the coast of Malacca, being the first.

Selling plants has grown into a money spinner for the inmates.
The settlement was the brainchild of Senior State Health Officer, Dr E. A. O. Travers, who was appalled by the inhumane conditions at the camps. This prompted him to create a settlement free of high walls and barbed wires.

“The cool weather, simple but well-equipped chalets for dwelling, and little plots of land where inmates grew plants and vegetables, allowed the leprosy patients some semblance of a dignified life.

“It also gave them the will to turn adversities into opportunities. The inmates filled every available job since people wouldn’t come into the settlement to work,” says Wong.

The colonial government trained the unskilled, and soon a community developed as a school, prison, church, temple, mosque, barber shop, kopitiam outlets, sundry shops, bicycle repair shop and social and drama clubs were established.

When it became too tedious to sterilise money that passed from the settlement to the outside world, the authorities came up with a special currency called the Kingfisher (because the bird graced the notes).

Wong’s parents are among the 341 people still living in the settlement. They worry that no provision has been made for their welfare since the only home they have known all their adult lives is being demolished.

“In their youth, many had hoped to be cured and return home. But after living in the settlement for decades, they feel safe there and realise they are home. Now, with this demolition, they are being victimised all over again,” says Wong.

Lim Yong Long, 33, an architectural researcher at Taylor’s College, is a strong proponent for the preservation of the settlement, and has even appealed to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) to save it.

“This settlement has gone beyond being a national heritage. It is truly a world heritage as it is a model of a complete and comprehensive township that had emerged from a leper colony.

Old currency of the Sungai Buloh Leprosy Settlement called the Kingfisher.
“It is also the largest and most elaborately planned leprosarium in the entire British Empire and was modelled on the concept of a lush haven rather than a prison. Other countries emulated this.

“Even the medical breakthroughs discovered by doctors at the settlement contributed to finding a cure for leprosy. This benefited the whole world,” Lim stresses.

Lim was among the group that was awarded the Measured Drawings Grant under Badan Warisan Malaysia’s Mubin Sheppard Memorial Prize this May. But the demolition has put a stop to his architectural drawings.

“Many countries have preserved their leprosarium. Brazil alone has preserved 13 of them through its Ministry of Health. The one in Kalaupapa, Hawaii, US, has been gazetted a National Historical Park.

“The Carville Leprosarium in Louisiana, US, is now the Carville Historic District and Losheng Sanatorium in Taiwan has been preserved too, so why not Sungai Buloh Leprosy Settlement?” he asks.

Like the Badan Warisan Malaysia, Lim, Wong, Phang and other Malaysians are still reeling from shock and dismay that the country has yet again lost another invaluable legacy.

Related Stories:
Triumph over hardship
What is leprosy?

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