History and ‘the Valley of Hope’
Book Launch at KL Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall, 15 August 2009
Loh Kah Seng
Good afternoon, Elizabeth Wong, the staff of SIRD, members of Save Valley of Hope Solidarity Group and the KL Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall Youth Section, residents of Sungai Buloh, and concerned friends. I am grateful to the organisers to be here today to share some of my thoughts about history, leprosy and modernity in Malaysia and Singapore. I wish to say something about how writing about leprosy and leprosariums is one of the hardest things to do in social history.
We are here today to talk about a place commonly called ‘the Valley of Hope’. In 2005, when I visited Sungai Buloh along with Dr Jo Robertson of the Global Project on the History of Leprosy, the staff of the National Leprosy Control Centre gave us a presentation titled ‘Valley of Hope’. It recounted in numerous pictures the history of the hospital from the era of compulsory segregation to the victory over leprosy after the Second World War. ‘The Valley of Hope’, we were told, ‘is world renown for its research work’, a place Malaysia should be proud of in the global battle against disease.
One year later, Phang Siew Sia and Wong Chau Yin published a book about life in Sungai Buloh, titled Valley of Hope: The Sungai Buloh National Leprosy Control Centre. We read about the warm memories of the leprosarium and see it as a home through the eyes of the female patients, such as Saw Cheng and Rosie Tham. The voices of female leprosy sufferers are sorely lacking in much of the history of medicine and in history in general. I congratulate Siew Sia and Chau Yin for their efforts. I also realise that Sungai Buloh was the ‘Valley of Hope’ to them. I think in a way the book was about challenging the myths and the stigma that have closely accompanied the history of leprosy in Malaysia and Singapore. The book is a worthy successor to A. Joshua-Raghavar’s Leprosy in Malaysia: Past, Present, Future, published in 1983 and written by a former patient.
In 2007, part of Sungai Buloh was again threatened by demolition so that 16 hectares of the settlement could be redeveloped to build a medical campus. A group of concerned advocacy volunteers, academics and social workers came together to oppose the demolition. They had two motivations: one, that Sungai Buloh has an important place in the history of Malaysia and should be gazetted as a national heritage site, and two, that the elderly residents who have been living in Sungai Buloh for many decades deserve to remain and not face eviction at this late stage of their lives. The activists called themselves ‘Save Valley of Hope Solidarity Group’. As we all know, the efforts failed and the redevelopment plan proceeded. But the group is not giving up and is continuing to raise public awareness of leprosy and of the need to conserve Sungai Buloh through its activities. I am glad to hear from Chee Keong about a moment ago. Heritage and eviction are two pressing issues in present times, and they are particularly important in relation to leprosy.
What I want to highlight are these different meanings of ‘the Valley of Hope’ as expressed by the state, insiders and activists. My book Making and Unmaking the Asylum, kindly and ably published by SIRD, is a social history which argues that Sungai Buloh was not always a ‘Valley of Hope’ for the patients who were segregated there for long periods, even indefinitely. The authorities intended it to be a hospital and a place for care. They also saw it as an asylum, where people thought to be contagious and to pose a danger to the public, were safely confined, out of sight and out of mind and far away from urban centres, on islands or in the wilderness. I should emphasise that leprosy is a very mildly contagious illness. The authorities called the residents ‘lepers’ and ‘inmates’. But for most sufferers, it was initially a prison from which there was little hope for release in the prewar period when leprosy was incurable. As one of my informants in Singapore told me, life in the leprosarium was ‘living hell’. It is an important first step for us to know how the leprosarium was experienced by the residents themselves. Much of the official history and even academic history of public health neglect this crucial approach. I spoke to a small number of residents in Sungai Buloh when I was here in 2005. One of them Rattan Singh has since passed away. I also spoke to a larger number of residents in Silra Home, the shelter for former leprosy patients in Singapore. The need to speak to these elderly people is an urgent task.
But the leprosarium did become ‘the Valley of Hope’ in the end, as the word ‘unmaking’ in the title of my book indicates. How this was possible is reflected in the subtitle Leprosy and Modernity. The one defining factor in the history of leprosy in Singapore and Malaysia was the ‘high modernist’ approach. Most academics have focussed on leprosy in the colonial period and emphasised racism as the basic European motivation. I agree this was true in Malaysia and Singapore during the British period, where the Chinese immigrants were expressly targeted. But why then, in Singapore, did leprosy patients still come under a policy of segregation from 1959 till 1976? Why did the cured patients in Singapore, as in Sungai Buloh, still experience being rehoused from the asylums in 1993 and 2005? I argue that in the long term, both the colonial and postcolonial governments in Singapore and Malaysia followed a policy of governing the leprosariums based on ‘a self-confidence about scientific and technical progress’. This high modernist approach sought ‘the mastery of nature (including human nature), and above all, the rational design of social order commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws’. A Federated Malay States report in 1934 stated that the leprosarium was not intended as a place for cure but to transform ‘an unkempt, filthy, hunted looking leper’ to ‘a clean, skin-whole, self-respecting member of an organized community’. Sungai Buloh was a site for the social engineering of those seen to be dangerous and relegated to the margins of Malayan and Singapore society.
If high modernism had succeeded, the leprosarium would have simply become a ‘total institution’, where life was completely determined by those who managed it. But the other strand of social history in Making and Unmaking the Asylum was a history where the policy of high modernism was countered and in the end transformed. The residents of Sungai Buloh, Pulau Jerejak off Penang and Trafalgar Home in Singapore found ways to contest the formal regimes and routines of the leprosarium. They formed their own secret societies and fought one another and even the police. They organised strikes in protest for better wages and against relocation. But most of the time, because of the unequal power relations between the governors and governed, they utilised ‘the arts of resistance’ and ‘the weapons of the weak’. They employed passive resistance against official routines they did not find useful, such as ineffective and painful treatment and therapy. But in an active sense, they also built enduring family and social ties which gave them an inner sense of meaning and made life in very difficult circumstances bearable. They formed their own families and practised their own traditional customs and religion in the leprosarium. They built long-lasting bonds with fellow residents, often more strongly than with their families and friends outside. They even practised ways of life frowned upon by the state: they smoked opium, manufactured Chinese wine at night and enjoyed social gambling. It was under such conditions that Sungai Buloh became a ‘Valley of Hope’. This was made possible only after a long, even lifelong, struggle, much of which was covert, social and cultural in nature. It demonstrates that leprosy sufferers in Malaysia and Singapore were not victims of history but dynamic and resourceful actors who were able to transform the high modernist regimes of the leprosarium.
What does history mean for us today, for those of us who are concerned about Sungai Buloh and its residents? I think it tells us two things. One, there is a deeply entrenched history of high modernism practised by the state, reaching into the British era. Constant development and redevelopment, based on rational and scientific principles of social organisation, are an integral frame of everyday life in Malaysia and Singapore. This is true of social life in general, and not limited to leprosy. But in leprosy, where there is an asylum for confining people for long periods of time, we see high modernism at work most explicitly. We also see the failings and unintended consequences of high modernism in the history of leprosy: the blind faith in the rule of reason and science, the exaggerated fear of contagion and the effect of intensifying the stigma against leprosy, making it more difficult for cured patients to find social acceptance outside. The move to redevelop part of Sungai Buloh into a university campus in 2007, ignoring the needs of the elderly residents in the process, is the latest evidence of how high modernist planning often neglects the rights and needs of the people it is supposed to benefit.
The other point we can learn from history is the agency and resilience of the residents of the leprosarium. They might seem weak, powerless and old today but they are the true subalterns of history. We ought to remember that, even in the prime of their lives and in the heyday of the leprosarium, they had very little help from outside in remaking the conditions of segregation. There were no activists then but this did not prevent them from silently transforming a prison and an asylum to a genuine home. It may or may not be possible to stop the future redevelopment of most of Sungai Buloh. I am hopeful but not optimistic. But I suggest there are a few other things we can do. We can talk to the elderly residents and find out their needs, which the authorities have largely ignored in the unceasing pursuit of development: the need for an identity, for family and friendship and for a physical space which caters to their old age and disabilities, and in which they can find the comfort of a home, a place of hope. We also ought to record the history of ‘the Valley of Hope’, as the Solidarity Group is now doing, remembering how the prison became a home. And we can, most importantly perhaps, listen to the residents and record their voices, so that the people’s history of leprosy, and the lessons it contains, would not be easily lost or forgotten.