Living in the presence of God’s love
The fresh air and rich soil in the Sungai Buloh Settlement are Nature’s best gifts to everyone living in this valley. The whole settlement seems vibrant, accompanied by the beautiful nurseries run by the inmates, lovingly cultivated since the settlement’s inception. Walking into the compound, we felt as if we have entered a garden in the middle of the city.
Previously, the leprosy patients made a living through the horticulture business and flower farming. As an indirect result of the hard work they’ve gone through whilst living an independent life during the segregation, they have turned this leprosy colony into a beautiful home.
“My fingers are bent but they are strong. Growing flowers is not a very tough job. I built the plant stands myself and grew a variety of flowers and foliage in my front yard. Over the years, nursery owners from outside have bought flowers from me. I could even transport six pots of flowers on my motorcycle and sell them on my own in the big nursery at the hospital. In addition to that, I could also ride out of town to get flower seeds from others places and try growing them back home. And gradually, that is how my front yard is now filled with a wide variety of flowers.” Ng Keng Chai, 80 years old now, smiled gently as he recounted how he’s managed to grow and sell flowers in his early years.
Ng Keng Chai comes from an Indonesian city of Bagan Siapi-api. His parents gave him away to a couple when he was 6 as they could not afford to raise him because of the family’s poor financial situation. As a result, Keng Chai had a dim memory of his early childhood and how his birth parents looked like. After the adoption, he remembers nothing more than being sent to a traditional private school as his adoptive parents intended to bring him up with a good education. Keng Chai attended class together with a dozen-odd children and they had a teacher who taught them Mandarin.
The private school was later closed down due to the unrest during the Japanese occupation, causing Keng Chai to lose access to education when he was 12. It was then that the bones of his fingers began to bend and he started to develop symptoms of leprosy on his feet. After seeing a doctor, he was diagnosed with leprosy. When his foster parents learnt about his disease, they were terrified. They immediately sent him off to a “Taikor Leow” (leprosarium) nearby and had never once visited him.
“The place was not really a hospital. It comprised of two shabby rows of wood sheds, one row for male patients and the other for female. It had neither any doctors nor nurses, let alone medicines. It housed several dozens of leprosy patients and there was only one female cook tasked with preparing two meals a day for us. At that time, contracting leprosy was like having a fatal disease – there is nothing you can do, except to wait for death. No outsiders dared to come into the place we lived. It was not until later that a few sisters from the church came to take care of us and help to dress our wounds. There was an Italian priest too who often came to visit and care for us. We called him ‘Father Lim’.”
Ng Keng Chai said Father Lim was a very compassionate man. He built a Catholic church on top of a hill near the shabby “Taikor Leow” where he often held Masses for the leprosy patients and took great care of them. Father Lim saw him suffering nerve pain in his limbs and even brought him some western medicines from Italy.
“Father Lim also preached to us very often, guiding and comforting us, and he taught us about the ‘Ten Commandments’. He was very kind and caring to leprosy patients. We were touched because he befriended us instead of showing disdain. Sometimes, he even bought food for us. We went up to the hilltop church together in the evenings and that gave us a lot of joy!” Ng Keng Chai was baptised a Catholic at the age of 18.
Nevertheless, the pastor was not a leprosy expert. After all, he could not treat leprosy, which was still an incurable disease back then. Many Indonesian patients came here by boat to seek treatment as they heard that there is a British-run leprosarium in Malaya that can cure their disease.
“An Indonesian patient told us that the Sungai Buloh Settlement has great facilities. It takes good care of its patients and provides food, shelter and even a mosquito net to sleep in at night. So, I thought, why not come here to try my luck and, hopefully, they would take me in. I told the boatman that I had no money and asked him whether he could let me tumpang (tag along) if he had a number of people going to Sungai Buloh in the same boat. The boatman was very kind. He said he would let me tumpang if he has seven passengers for that trip. I was lucky as he managed to fill his boat with enough passengers. He charged the others 500 bucks. I said I only had 80 dollars but he let me tumpang anyway.”
So, the eight patients all squeezed in a boat, drifted for a day and a night on the sea before arriving in a port called Ham Sua Kang near Morib. Before they went ashore, the boatman even arranged for small boats so they could row to the shore in groups of four. His plan was to sneak the patients ashore and get taxis to send them straight to Sungai Buloh, unfortunately he failed to get any taxis.
“Someone had reported to the police that there were Indonesians sneaking into the country from somewhere around this area, so the taxis dared not come. We had no choice but to sleep on the shore for that night. The next morning, we sailed again to Tanjong Sepat… Only then, the boatman managed to get taxis for us to go to Sungai Buloh. But the taxi drivers dared not drive into the settlement because it was against the law to take patients in taxis. They just dropped us off by the side of the road and we had to walk all the way to the entrance.”
According to Ng Keng Chai, Dr K. M. Reddy, an Indian doctor who was in charge of the settlement at that time, was so powerful that not even the police outside the settlement dared to interfere with his decision. The doctor took the eight of them in unconditionally.
“At that time, there were more than 1,800 people here. There were a lot of nurses and also medicines available to us. I stayed in the hospital ward for a week before I was ordered to move into a chalet. Meanwhile, I kept receiving injections and taking medicines until I recovered a few years later. Then again, there were scarcely any opportunities for Indonesians to work. We, the Indonesians, only got to be the ganti (substitute worker) when local workers fell sick. My first job was to work as a ganti for a lawn care worker and then, slowly, I became a regular worker, with a monthly work allowance of 38 dollars.”
He said, the government would give each lawn care worker a sharpening stone and a scythe, a knife with a long, curved blade. The workers started working every day at 7am and finished at 10am. They worked in shifts and each shift had seven or eight members, cutting grass respectively in the hospital wards in the East, Central and West Section.
“We must bring our whetstones to work every day because the blades gets dull with heavy use. We had to sharpen the blades five to six times a day and a knife could last up to four or five months. We would only get new ones from the store when the blades are completely blunt.”
Ng Keng Chai worked as a lawn care worker for more than two decades until the government outsourced the settlement’s lawn maintenance work to a private company. After that, he held two jobs, doing land-clearing and working at a store. In the 1960s, the Medical Superintendent encouraged all ex-patients to grow flowers and plants using land next to their chalets as a way of supporting themselves financially. Many ex-patients have managed to make their own living this way and Keng Chai, together with his wife, decided to get into the horticulture business too at that point of time.
“My wife and I only started growing flowers in our fifties. Our business was pretty good at that time and there were big trucks coming in to buy our flowers. We have been in this business for 30 years. Surely, the money we made was not comparable to the big nurseries you see by the roadside, we were just running the business in our front yard. It was not that big a business and not really profitable either.” By the time Ng Keng Chai and his wife were interviewed, they have already retired for six months due to health and mobility issues. Their children, who all have their own families and careers now, often come to visit.
“My daughter will come and visit us twice a week and help us with grocery shopping. She treats us very well. I think it is fair for me to say that I am 1,000% content with my life! First of all, the government has been kind to us. They took us in, gave us medicines and fed us well, three meals a day. Thanks to that, we get to live a good life now. Secondly, our priest here has been taking great care of us, teaching us the Bible, comforting and telling us not to worry about falling sick because they will look after us. Previously, when we could not care for our children ourselves, as the government had a rule that disallow inmates from keeping their own child with them in the settlement, the church helped to take care of our children too. Two of my sons went to the Salvation Army Boy’s Home in Ipoh and my daughter was under the care of the “sisters” (nuns). I have served in the Chapel of Our Lady of Lourdes, a Catholic church in the East Section, for almost 40 years.”
In his early years, Keng Chai built his dream nursery with his own bare hands. Finally, the flowers had come into bloom and he had started a new life in the Valley of Hope after recovering from the disease. Though he was abandoned by his foster parents as a child in his hometown in Indonesia, he never blamed anyone. Rather, he is content and happy. Now that his three children have all earnt their places in the sun, he and his wife are both pleased and relieved.
It is rather hard for both of them to move about. Still, his wife manages to cook on her own every day and they keep their house clean together. To make it easier for them to move around inside the house, the couple placed a chair in every corner of the living area. With chairs around the house, they do not have to move a chair each time they want to sit somewhere else, for example to cool themselves in the breeze or to watch television. The thoughtful arrangement in their everyday life shows how organised they are and how well they can take care of themselves, paying attention to the little things in life.
It was just about lunch time when the interview ended. “Eat slowly and be careful with the fish, be careful not to swallow the fish bone.” Keng Chai said to his wife, tenderly, as they ate their lunch.
The way this couple interact shows just how in love they are with each other. The couple has been doing their best to practise God’s will from youth to old age and maintain the happy little family they have built. Living in gratitude always, they believe that God will bless them with a good life by His grace and mercy.
Narrated by Ng Kheng Chai
Interviewed by Chan Wei See & Wong San San
Written by Tan Ean Nee
Translated by Zoe Chan Yi En
Edited by Low Sue San