The last keeper of the store

The Sungai Buloh Leprosy Settlement is a self-sufficient community where most of the jobs in the settlement are held by the residents themselves. The government gives the residents a meagre allowance in exchange for their labour, and the majority of the residents depend on this allowance as their main source of income. In the past, besides providing them with three square meals, the government also provided them with their daily necessities. At the Settlement’s peak, there were about 2,400 inmates and the job of distributing these daily necessities to the inmates fell to the storekeeper. 

A view of the inmates store where Ang Ah Sim used to work in. (photo by Tan Ean Nee)

A view of the inmates store where Ang Ah Sim used to work in. (photo by Tan Ean Nee)

Ang is an easy-going person who makes friends easily. (photo by Tan Ean Nee)

Ang is an easy-going person who makes friends easily. (photo by Tan Ean Nee)

By 8 in the morning, Ang Ah Sim is already at the store, ready to begin a full day's work. He says that his job requires bookkeeping, so only those who are literate are hired for the job. Ang Ah Sim has been the storekeeper since 1988. When he started this job, he was 44 years old.

“Before I took over, a guy named Ah Seng was in charge of the store and I took over after he died. I must have been the fifth or the sixth storekeeper. We Indonesians have green identity cards (temporary resident cards) which make it difficult for us to find jobs. I only got this job because not many people wanted it. I was ecstatic when I received the news that I had gotten the job because I finally had the chance to work for the government.”

Recovered patients who had just moved to the chalets were required to collect their daily necessities from the store. Ang Ah Sim’s job was to give them kitchen utensils such as pots, bowls, cups, spoons, mosquito nets, blankets, and so on. All the residents had to do, the first time they went to the store, was to show their papan (medical treatment board) and Ang would make a note on it. Besides this task, he also had to keep track of inventory by recording details such as date of supply, quantity applied for, name of applicant, actual quantity supplied, amount of stock left, and etc.  

“In those days, the tools needed by inmate workers were all provided for by the government, things like brooms, dustpans, sickles, and toilet cleaners that were used by cleaners; chopping boards, bread knives, meat cleavers, rice baskets, colanders, and tiffin carriers that were used by cooks and section attendants; combs, barber scissors, and razors that were used by hairdressers; as well as saws and other tools that the carpenters needed in their work.” The job of the storekeeper was to perform inventory control, keep the accounts and maintain ledgers on a monthly basis. 

"In the olden days, we also gave out hurricane lamp globes, matches and even coffins. Every month, we’d also distribute cooking oil, rice, sugar, powdered milk, condensed milk, Milo, Ovaltine, onions, garlic, and other supplies to the recovered inmates living in the chalets. However, the living conditions for many of the inmates have improved and they have switched to using gas to cook, so they don’t come asking for matches anymore. In the past, the poorer Indian inmates even asked us for coffins as they could not afford them. So we provided them with coffins that were made by the carpenters in our settlement’s workshop."

On February 1, 2011, the government abolished the food rationing system that had been in place since the British colonial times. Inmates were given a daily food allowance of RM18 instead. As a result, the market in the Central Section that used to be the central distribution area for rations now sits empty. The store also no longer carries supplies of matches, rice, cooking oil and salt.

Records of incoming and outgoing of supplies. (photo by Tan Ean Nee)

Records of incoming and outgoing of supplies. (photo by Tan Ean Nee)

“There are fewer items in the store now, and my job now is to exchange any old or broken items for new ones. When an inmate brings me something broken, I make a record of it and give them a brand new item in return. Nevertheless, each resident still gets two pairs of rubber shoes every year.” Although fewer and fewer inmates are coming here to exchange things, Ang Ah Sim still goes to work at 8 every morning. He will monitor the cleaning of the store by the lone inmate worker. “If no one comes, they will close earlier. It is an easy job."

Ang Ah Sim was born in 1944 in Bagan Siapi-api, Indonesia. He says that he contracted leprosy when he was 12. Red rashes appeared on his body and his mother brought him to a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner who prescribed him with herbal medicine. After taking the medicine for some time, a fair bit of the rashes disappeared but his fingers became deformed and curled. Among his three other siblings, he was the only one who contracted leprosy.

“My mother was very upset. She brought me everywhere in search of treatment. The symptoms lessened after taking the herbal medicine but my hands got worse. The doctors there did not know how to treat me. Even though my hands were deformed, my face was still fine. The old people used to say that as long as only the limbs are disfigured and not the face, it is okay. Perhaps I was born like that. People also used to say that leprosy patients should have big ears, big noses, and red patches on the body.” Ang said that his grandmother believed that he had a mild form of leprosy but there was not much else they could do.

“Many leprosy patients from my village went to Medan to seek treatment, but they did not get better. In the end, they still came back to Bagan Siapi-api. What could they do? Getting this illness was like getting a death sentence. There was no cure.” His mother brewed herbal medicine for him and he knew, even at that tender age, that he was ill and so forced himself to drink the bitter brew.

Ang says his hands are condemned. (photo by Tan Ean Nee)

Ang says his hands are condemned. (photo by Tan Ean Nee)

After his childhood companions discovered that he was ill, they started to ostracise him. He saw how the neighbours pointed at him and looked at him. “They ignored me. My friends’ parents asked them not to come near me. Those who were more afraid of me even severed our friendship. Slowly, I began to feel ashamed. Nobody would play with me so I just stay indoors.” When he was 15, Ang Ah Sim’s mother died of a kidney disease. After losing his mother, Ang gradually isolated himself from the rest of the world. His heart was filled with feelings of inexplicable shame, loneliness and uncertainty. The experience of being discriminated and ostracised by his childhood playmates left him feeling as if he has indelible stains on him, which lasted to today. When he thinks about his past, he only remembers that leprosy caused him to lose not only his friends but also his innocence. Throughout his growing years, he suffered his illness alone. His hurting heart craved for a safe and
dependable place.

“When I walked out of the house, people were frightened when they saw me. So, I dared not go out during the daytime, and only ventured out at night. It’s horrible that I feel ashamed because of my deformities! It’s really terrible!”

Ang Ah Sim’s hometown, Bagan Siapi-api, was an important fishing port in the early 20th century. Fong says that in those days, Indonesia still used the barter system in international trade, where both parties exchanged goods of equal value to get what each needed. At that time, many Indonesian businessmen traded rubber, terasi (shrimp paste), dried shrimps and other seafood in Malaya in exchange for electronic goods.

"They exchanged it for goods such as radios, sewing machines, watches and Parker pens. When the Indonesian businessmen came to trade at Port Klang, they found out that there were also many leprosy cases in Malaysia. And so when they return to Indonesia to spread the word, many Indonesians came here in search of treatment." Fong says that his father had business dealings with some of these businessmen and heard about the well-equipped Sungai Buloh Leprosy Settlement from them.

"My father was chatting with these businessmen in a coffee shop when he found out that some boatmen is willing to help send leprosy patients to Malaya. He contacted one of them and set a date for me to be sent there." When Ang left, his mother had already passed away so only his father and elder sister were there at the harbour to send him off. It was his first time leaving his home and Ang could not help but cry. He was only a child of sixteen then, forced to go to an unknown land with several other strangers in order to seek treatment. His small, slight body shook incessantly in the dark as his tears fell like rain. 

"I did not want to leave my family, so of course I cried. I didn't know whether I could adapt to life in Kuala Lumpur, but at least I didn't have to face any more discrimination from relatives and friends. I just wanted to recover quickly and return home. My father asked me to get well and come home as soon as possible, and told me to write home if I needed anything." Three of the leprosy patients on board were also from Ang's hometown, and together with the other passengers, they left their familiar hometown for a strange country. Ang's emotions swung between fear of leaving his home and his urgent desperation for a cure. Eventually, they arrived in Malaya.

"We disembarked at Port Dickson, then took a taxi to Sungai Buloh. When the guards at the Settlement's gate asked for identification, I said I was from Indonesia so I did not have an identity card. Upon admission, the doctor arranged for me to stay in Ward No.37 of the Children's Ward. The next morning, he performed a skin smear, taking samples from my earlobe." Thereafter, Ang was given Sulphone injections twice a week. A month later, he was transferred to the East Section's children's dormitory Ward No. 88 where he lived and studied together with the other child patients. 

He says that life in the dormitories was very disciplined. The children woke up at 6 every morning and breakfast was served at 7. "We had bread and butter, Milo and coffee for breakfast. Lunch was at noon, then we drank milk at 4 pm while dinner was served at 6 pm."

Ang studied at the Settlement's Travers School for 6 years. When he was 18 years old, his teacher appointed him to be a prefect. Whereas others might think that this was something to be proud of, Ang was not too happy about it. "The teacher probably chose me because I was a good and hardworking student who did not cause any trouble. I am actually a humble person who does not enjoy the limelight so I did not enjoy being a prefect at all!"

In September 1963, Malaya joined together with Sarawak, Sabah and Singapore to form Malaysia (though Singapore eventually pulled out in 1965), prompting Indonesia to cut ties with the newly-formed country and relations between the two countries were not normalised until 1967. During that time, Ang lost contact with his family in Indonesia and they stopped sending him money. He became practically penniless. Fortunately, he received an allowance of 5 dollars per month for his prefect post and that ensured him a bit of spending money.

At that time, there were more than 200 pupils in Travers School, so it was to be expected for some of these pupils to be unruly and thus had to be sent to detention. Ang's job was to keep an eye on these pupils.

"I sat with them during detention at night. And every night, except on Wednesdays, movies in various languages would be shown in the settlement for the inmates’ enjoyment but these pupils in detention were locked up in classrooms and were not allowed to watch the movies. So we prefects had to take turns to guard the pupils and could not watch the movies either."

On weekends, the pupils were also allowed to leave the Children's Ward if they wanted to visit their friends in the Central Section's chalets. However, they had to obtain permission from the prefects and get a pass before they could do so. According to the rules in the settlement, they were only allowed to be out for two to three hours each time and were not allowed to spend the night at their friends' chalets. If a pupil was found to have broken the rules and return late, then Ang Ah Sim and the other prefects would take down their names and submit a report to the principal. The following day, the student would be called to the headmaster's office, either for a lecture or for a punishment by caning.

Generally, once a child has reached the age of 18 or 19, he or she would have to move out of Children's Ward No. 88. However, because Ang Ah Sim was well-behaved and responsible, the school authorities allowed him to stay on until he was 22. "Quite a number of students here have obtained their Senior Cambridge School Certificate, and I was one of them. I remember that after I lost contact with my family, I was so poor that I could not afford the exam fees, so the school authorities helped me pay for it. However after receiving a scholarship from MaLRA, I managed to pay the school back for the exam fees." Ang recalls that the subjects he studied included Malay, English, Chinese, Geography, History, Science, Maths, and religious classes. 

"We had a pastor from Hong Kong who came to preach to us and taught us how to sing hymns and read the Bible. They were not afraid at all to come near us and they did not look down on us either. Because of that, I was very touched. I believed in Christianity's love, so I converted to Christianity." After Ang moved out of the Children's Ward at the age of 22, he was sent to Chalet No. 399 in the Central Section.

Ang Ah Sim, a Christian who believes that God will guide him whenever he faces difficulties. (photo  by Tan Ean Nee)

Ang Ah Sim, a Christian who believes that God will guide him whenever he faces difficulties.
by Tan Ean Nee)

"There were many people here at the time and every chalet was full. As Indonesians, we did not have citizenship rights so the settlement authorities would not hire us. Only the Hokkien Association would hire me and they paid me for my work." Because Ang was literate, his first job was as a secretary for the association and he drew a monthly salary of 60 dollars.

In 1970, he married a female inmate and they had three children together. In order to earn some extra income for the family, he and his wife started to grow roses for sale. Eventually in the 1980s, the number of inmates in the settlement dropped from a high of over 2,000 to 900 inmates. With fewer people and more jobs to go around, the competition for jobs also decreased and foreigners like Ang Ah Sim, who carried green identity cards, finally had a chance to be formally employed on the government payroll.

"I currently receive an allowance of RM169 per month. However, I am a bit worried about this as the government has not made any promises and can stop the allowance at any time. I hope that the government will continue to let us enjoy this benefit, seeing that we inmate workers have worked from young till now, and treat this as a form of pension because we are already in our golden years."

It has been more than half a century since Ang left Indonesia at the tender age of 16, and he has not returned ever since, due to the fact that he does not have any legal documents. "My father died in the 1980s but I could not return for his funeral because I did not have any identification papers. I only learned about my father's death when my younger brother wrote me a letter. My younger brother have also passed away many years ago due to a heart attack! Three or four years ago, my elder sister said that she wanted to come and visit me, but she too has passed on before she could do that, due to an illness. She was only 20 years old when I left, I still remember her tear-filled eyes when she sent me off at the jetty…"

It was the first time he left Indonesia in search of treatment, the first time he felt a sense of helplessness at the forced separation, the first time he saw the crying faces of his beloved family as they sent him off... His feelings still run deep after all these years, that his tears still flow when he thinks of that moment.


Narrated by Ang Ah Sim
Interviewed by Tan Ean Nee
Written by Tan Ean Nee
Translated by Khor Jiak Ling
Edited by Low Sue San

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