“Bad” songs from childhood
Many years ago, Lee Chor Seng left his home and arrived at the “Valley of Hope” to seek treatment for his illness. Along with his personal belongings, he also brought with him memories of the Communist songs he had heard off during his childhood, tucked away somewhere in his head. In the 60 years since he is here, he has never hummed them publicly, until one night when he called. He told me that had he not contracted leprosy, he might have become a “big bad person”. I asked him curiously, “How bad?” And so he began to tell me the story of how he almost turned into a “bad guy”.
Over the phone, he spiritedly sang one Communist Party song after another, singing a total of four songs in the end...
Lee Chor Seng was born in 1936 in the small town of Teluk Anson, Perak. He was an active child. Together with other children his age, he started school at the age of 8 but was forced to stop at 11 years old due to his illness. He was the second of 8 children in his family – he had an elder sister, two younger sisters and four younger brothers.
“Actually, I contracted leprosy when I was about six or seven. My hands and feet started to curl and red patches appeared on my face. In those days, people would stare at me like they had never seen a leprosy patient before. So, I stopped going to school when I was in Primary 5. Fortunately, my neighbours were not afraid of me and continued to play with me.”
During the years between the age of 11 and 18, Lee had no one to educate him after he dropped out of school. So he spent his time in idleness, gallivanting about town. Lee remembers that at that time, quite a number of people in Teluk Anson were members of the Communist Party. They were very active and frequently sang the song, “The Three Principles of the People”, when they meet for party activities.
“As children, we did not know if it was legal or illegal. While people were singing, we would go in and listen. The local Communist Party leaders did not stop us either. Many teachers were also members of the Communist Party.” As a result, Lee had subconsciously memorised many of the Communist Party’s songs.
“I do not know how to write some of the words, my pronunciation is not very accurate, and I do not know the titles of certain songs. Maybe they wrote these songs themselves during one of their activities. I just listened and sang along. I think there was one song that went like this – A bright future! A bright future! We are the young ones the Republic of China is recruiting. We pursue justice, we are united; for our future, for the truth, move forward! Do not hesitate!” His excited voice rang clear like an echo in a valley, flowing naturally and easily from his lips. Those listening were also unwittingly drawn into the long-ago scene of his introduction to the Communist ideology.
One by one, he sang the long forgotten songs of the Communist Party, dusted off and brought to life once more. His emotions also see-sawed along with the songs. The melodies were very clear, but certain lyrics were difficult to be understood. Lee said that he had still not mastered the national anthem of Malaysia and was unable to sing the whole song in one go. However, for some reason, the Communist Party songs were fresh in his memory.
"One of my friends eventually joined the Communist Party. He even hid in the mountains for a few years. When the government asked them to surrender, his mother begged the authorities for mercy. They made an agreement that her son would surrender voluntarily but the police were not allowed to shoot him. When the appointed date came, my friend really came out of hiding to surrender, but the police still shot him! What a pity! If I had not contracted leprosy and had frequently taken part in the Communist Party’s activities, I could very well have become one of them….” However, leprosy took away this possibility and Lee’s life went down a different path, one that he could not have imagined.
“My mother brought me to numerous doctors, mostly traditional Chinese doctors, but I was still not cured. The condition of my hands and feet continued to get worse. Then a former leprosy patient told my parents about an excellent place in Sungai Buloh where I could be cured. After some discussions, my parents decided to send me to Kuala Lumpur for treatment.
In 1958, a young Lee in the prime of his life was forced to leave his home and travel more than a hundred kilometres to the Sungai Buloh Leprosy Settlement to seek treatment. Initially, he was very reluctant to leave home. But after considering how encouraging his parents were for him to leave home and seek treatment, he had no choice but to take their suggestion.
“My father brought me here to seek treatment. At that time, I only had three sets of clothing, a toothbrush and toothpaste with me. Before my father left, he gave me 20 dollars and told me that he would be back soon to see me.”
Lee’s father kept his word and came nearly every month to visit him, giving him twenty to thirty dollars each time. “That was a good sum. In those days, a cup of coffee costs 10 cents, a piece of kuih (local cake) was also 10 cents. Chicken rice only cost 50 cents and fried noodles from the Indian shop was only 30 cents. But I spent all that money in no time at all!”
When he was first admitted, the doctors arranged for him to stay in Ward No. 37 in the Children’s Ward. Lee still remembers that there were 17 patients in that ward.
“The youngest patient in my ward was around seven or eight years old. The bed next to me was empty. 18 patients could fit in that ward. The day after I was admitted, the Medical Superintendent cut off a piece of skin from my ear to be tested. They also took X-rays of the parts of my hands and feet that showed symptoms of leprosy. My hands and feet were already not too good when I arrived at Sungai Buloh. The doctor gave me some injections and every Monday and Wednesday, I had to take a Dapsone pill, the white coloured one. If our hands or feet started to rot, the doctor would write instructions on our papan (medical treatment board) for the rotten part to be cut off. Then, the nurse would wheel us into a room where the inmate worker would use a big pair of scissors to cut our fingers off. No anaesthetic was used, nor did they use a file to smoothen the stump. It was not a proper operation, so once the affected part has been cut, they consider the job to be done. They’d just bandage the stump and send us off to the hospital ward while the wound kept bleeding. The next day, when they changed the dressing, the whole bandage would be soaking wet. ”
In early 1959, after spending a few months in the ward being treated for leprosy, Lee moved to a chalet in the Central Section. He still remembers that he lived with two other leprosy patients who were bachelors and the three of them got along very well with each other.
“My housemates cooked our meals and I ate with them. We lived in a chalet near the Teochew Association in the Central Section. Our chalet was No. 398. At that time, there were more than 1,000 people in the Central Section alone and more than 2,000 people in the whole settlement.”
At that time, people were fighting for jobs inside the settlement. Lee had to wait for many years before he got one. In 1966, after numerous applications, the Malaysian Leprosy Relief Association (MaLRA) finally hired him as a clerk in the Admission Room located in Ward No. 25.
“If it was an inmate’s first admission or re-admission, they had to register at Ward No. 25. We would arrange for them to see a doctor. After the doctor had inspected them and confirmed that they are to be admitted, I would look through the record books and find a vacant bed for them in one of the wards. Then, I would write down information such as the patient’s name and the assigned ward number on a piece of paper and hand it to Mokhtar, the Inmate Lay Superintendent.”
Since the job that was offered to Chor Seng was one that had to be rotated among the inmates, Lee only held this position for a year. After that, he was sent to guard a rubber estate and MaLRA paid him RM15 per month for that.
“There was a big rubber estate behind the hospital and it belonged to MaLRA. They asked me to look after the rubber estate and make sure that there were no fires. I said, “Okay!” But I did not go up the hill to check and just continued to draw my salary every month. Once, a fire broke out and I was called up for investigations. The investigator asked me, “Chor Seng, last night there was a fire up in the hills. Why didn’t you report it?” I replied, “My legs are not good. I can’t climb up the hill, how am I supposed to help you look out for fires?” The man said, “This won’t do!” In a moment of anger, I snapped, “Since you know this job is not suitable for me, why did you give it to me?” Finally, he understood and he did not berate me. Had it not been for the fire that occurred, they would never have found out that I couldn’t climb the hills. They were just giving me the 15 dollars for nothing every month.”
Soon, MaLRA authorities transferred him to a factory within the settlement so that he could become a painter. They asked him to paint flower racks but Lee’s right hand was fingerless, so he had to rely on the weak, curled fingers on his left hand to paint, making painting particularly difficult for him.
“I had to paint from top to bottom, but I couldn’t reach the bottom. In the end, the person-in-charge complained again, 'Chor Seng, this won’t do! My workers have had to repaint many of the flower racks that you have painted.' I replied, 'You already know very well that I am unable to perform these kinds of task and yet you still want me to do them! I don’t have a job, so since you’re giving me work, I have to force myself to do it!' I was paid 50 cents for painting a flower rack. The most I could do was paint three racks per day and I have never finished a full day’s work.”
In 1970, Lee finally had the opportunity to do the clerical work that he enjoyed. The settlement authorities allowed him to work as a clerk in the administration office for the Welfare Department. Lee still remembers that the person in charge then was Edward Arokiasamy. Every month, Lee received RM104 for his work.
“I was the first worker to help Edward. My job scope included typing and preparing inmate workers’ salary slips. If an inmate’s roof was leaking, I had to fill in the application form on his behalf so that he could get his roof fixed, and then pass the form to the supervisor for his signature. After that, I would pass the signed paper to the inmate concerned and get someone to fix his roof. Additionally, if a baby was born in the settlement, I had to record the names of the parents, the baby’s date of birth and so on. I had to record in detail every patient’s admission, discharge or re-admission. If it was a re-admission, I would record the details in red ink. If it was a first-time admission, I would use a blue pen. When a patient has passed away, I had to record the date of death and use a red pen to cross out his name. But I only held this job for a year."
In 1980, he became the section steward at the Central Section's Food Distribution Centre (the headquarters) where he received a monthly wage of RM226. He arrived at the centre around 7 am every day to start his work. His main responsibility was to collect food orders of all the recovered patients and distribute the work. This job was the longest one he held in the settlement.
"First, I would ask the section attendants if there are any patients in their group who has been warded or discharged. If so, they would inform me and I would cross out their names accordingly. Then I would calculate the total amount of food needed for the remaining patients, who had recovered and were still living in the chalets. For example, if the government gave each person 300 grams of vegetables per day, I would multiply that by the number of people and place an order for the next day's vegetables. After the calculation, I would write down the figure for each type of food needed in a form, then get a peon (errand boy) to deliver it to the kitchen in the West Section so that the person-in-charge there could estimate the food required for the entire settlement. This way, the supplier would be able to deliver the right amount of food the next day to the Food Distribution Centres in the Decrepit Ward, Central Section and East Section.
Lee says that the daily ration for each recovered patient consisted of 100 grams of rice, vegetables, white bread and fruits. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, the government provided them with 300 grams of fish, such as mackerel, fresh sardines, stickleback, threadfin beam, arowana and etc. The government also provided fruits such as bananas, limes, apples and pears. Every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, the residents received 400 grams of chicken. Before, the government even provided the inmates with pork and beef. If the inmates could not consume them, they were allowed to exchange it for seven pieces of bean curd. Lee says that they rested on Sundays, so rations for that day were distributed a day earlier on Saturdays. Every weekend, the government also gave each resident 4 eggs, anchovies or salted fish.
"If a particular weekend was a week when they were supposed to deliver salted fish, then the government would also give us bean sprouts so that we could fry bean sprouts and salted fish to go with our rice. The rest of the time, our vegetables were choy sum, mustard leaves, lettuce, cabbage, carrots, radish and so on. The buns distributed during the weekends had fillings in them, such as kaya or grated coconut. Normally, on weekdays, we would only get plain buns."
As the Central Steward, Lee had to make sure that the food delivered every morning was fresh, otherwise he had the right to reject them.
"If the fish was not fresh or if the vegetables looked limp and yellow, I would refuse to accept them. Next, I would ask the Lay Inmate Superintendent to confirm the decision and then we would reject the lot. I heard that the previous Medical Superintendents, such as Dr Reddy and Dr Lim Kuan Joo, were even stricter. They would personally check that the fish and pork were fresh. At that time, whole pigs were delivered and the inmate workers would cut it up into pieces before distributing them to the residents. If the Medical Superintendent discovered that the fish or vegetables were not fresh, he would reject it on the spot and order the suppliers to send fresh replacements by 2 pm that same day. But during my time, the Medical Superintendent, Dr Palani, was not that strict anymore. If things were rejected, the suppliers would only send the replacements the following day. When the inmates complained because they didn't get any food, I simply told them to complain to the Medical Superintendent."
Other monthly rations provided for each inmate were a kilogram of sugar, 300 grams of salt, 300 grams of peanuts, 1 kilogram of cooking oil, 150 grams of ginger, 500 grams each of garlic, onions and shallots, a bottle of chilli sauce and tomato sauce, 30 packets of 3-in-1 Milo, two bars of laundry soap and two boxes of matches.
"In those days, those with gastric problems received special treatment. Once the Medical Superintendent had recorded on their papan that they suffered from gastric problems, they would get Diet No. 2 rations. They would be able to exchange their chicken for better-quality fish, such as black pomfret, red snapper and Asian seabass.
During pre-independence, according to Joyce Wong and Phang Siew Sia's book The Valley of Hope – the Sungai Buloh National Leprosy Control Centre, the medical and administration staff were also entitled to food rations. The type of rations one received depended on your rank, racial group, dietary requirements, and so on, and the meal types were divided into eight categories. For example, Diet No. 8 was for medical supervisors and other high-ranking officials. Diet No. 2 was for lower-ranking staff such as medical staff and hospital workers. Most inmates received Diet No. 1 or No. 2 rations. The first post-independence Medical Superintendent, Dr K. M. Reddy, abolished this discriminatory system after he assumed office. Since then, except for a handful of vegetarian Hindus and inmates with illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension and gastric problems, all other inmates were given the same food rations.
"I worked from 1980 till 1 February 2011 when the government announced the abolition of the food rationing system. As a substitute, they gave a daily meal allowance of RM18, so we stopped distributing food. But I still continue going to work as usual. I deliver letters to the inmate workers who in turn will pass it to the chalet residents. If somebody gives us angpows, I will also hand them out to the inmate workers at the food distribution centre. If we get a donation of foodstuff, I am also the one responsible for distributing it. The Settlement Council provides RM20 monthly to inmates who are unable to work and the task of handing them out also falls on me."
Lee started his nursery business in the 1980s. Today, he is one of the few inmates who are considered financially independent as his business has prospered over the years. In 2007, the government developed this area and asked the residents to move, in order to make way for Universiti Teknologi Mara's Faculty of Medicine expansion plans. Lee's nursery business was indirectly affected by this. At the time, he was a member of the Sungai Buloh Settlement Council and he actively led the residents in protesting against the plan. However, their protests were in vain and they were forced to compromise and accept the compensation given by the authorities. In the end, the 39 residents of the East Section were eventually forced to relocate to the Central Section.
"I hope that the government will let us continue to draw our monthly allowance until the day we die, as a form of pension for us. I also hope that the government will preserve the history here so that the descendants of these leprosy patients will know of the history of leprosy, and what the residents used to do here. More importantly, I hope that the government will be kind to us and not force us to move again. Hopefully, future development plans will not affect our livelihood. Just let us live our days out in peace. We have no other requests."
When asked which period of his life was the happiest, 75-year-old Lee unhesitatingly replied, "When I was a kid! At that time, I did not know anything. I did not know I was sick. I was happiest playing with my friends. We played with marbles, kites, and a kind of game with rubber bands. We would put a stick into the ground, then everyone would take turns to throw a rubber band at the stick. If your rubber band did not land on the stick, it would go to the next person and it’d be the next person's turn. I was happiest then!"
As I listened to a 75-year-old man reminisce about his childhood, I could not help but be infected with his enthusiasm.
Narrated by Lee Chor Seng
Interviewed by Tan Ean Nee, Wong San San & Chan Wei See
Written by Tan Ean Nee
Translated by Khor Jiak Ling
Edited by Low Sue San