Keeper of the Books
Philip Yong rides around the settlement every day on a big-wheeled, custom motorcycle. This ruddy-faced man is sincere and friendly – If he comes across any visitors, he will guide them around enthusiastically, riding ahead on his motorcycle. He grew up, studied and worked in the Valley of Hope, and this, is his whole world.
Philip Yong, now 64 years of age, comes from a town in the outskirts of Malacca. Both his parents were laundry workers and he has a younger sister. He caught polio as a child and lost the use of his legs. When he was 7, his mother noticed red spots developing on his buttocks and immediately brought him to the Sungai Buloh Settlement by bus so that he could get some medical attention. And here he is, for good.
When he first came here, he lived in the Children’s Ward and moved about a year later to Ward No. 86 in the East Section. Soon after his admission, he attended Primary 1 at the settlement’s Travers School. The hospital fitted him with a pair of prosthetic limbs so that he could walk around in the settlement.
Back then, there was a classroom in the settlement designated as the Occupational Therapy Department where various facilities were available so that patients are able to learn typing, sewing, making handicrafts, and other skills, including those that would help them regain, or even maintain, physical flexibility. Philip Yong, a secondary student at that time, would always skip class for an hour so that he could learn how to type using a manual in that classroom.
In response to the question of what made him choose typewriting over other skills, he said, “I did not really have a choice, did I? It is all a matter of luck.”
He had lost the use of his legs but all of his fingers remained intact. So, the person in charge of the Occupational Therapy encouraged him to obtain a typing certificate and pursue a clerical career path, telling him that with a certificate, he would stand a better chance of securing a relevant job in the future. Philip Yong wrote a letter to a newspaper and asked for details about the examination. The newspaper replied and gave him the address of CYMA College. So, he got his friend to take him there, and he ended up taking an elementary typewriting course and obtained an intermediate certificate.
The Community Hall used to have a theatre upstairs where two movies were shown every week and just before the screening, the management would always make important announcements. Philip Yong, 19 years old at that time, had pretty much nothing to do after completing the Malaysian Certificate of Education (MCE) examination. When he heard that the settlement was hiring a typist, he immediately applied for the job. Applicants had to go through an interview and also a typing test; Philip Yong stood out among all of the applicants with a typing speed of 80 words per minute, and that’s how he came to be a typist at the Inmate Lay Superintendent’s office.
He can still remember to this day that 1st August 1974 was his first day at work and from that day on, he worked at the Admission Room every day. He helped his superior, Mokhtar Bin Haji Karim, the Inmate Lay Superintendent, to type letters, prepare the work allowance list, record admission and discharge of patients, keep birth records, handle inmates’ complaints, assist the Medical Superintendent in hearing cases, and so on.
The Admission Room has now been converted to an Information Gallery. He said that the Admission Room used to have three offices, a temporary office for the Medical Superintendent and another two for the Inmate Lay Superintendent and the Security Steward.
Every morning, The Medical Superintendent would come into his temporary office to get a briefing of the major incidents and hear the cases. Both the Inmate Lay Superintendent and the Security Steward would do their best to support and work with him.
“At 8 o’clock every morning, the Medical Superintendent would be here,” Philip Yong recalled. “At that time, there were a lot of issues, like fights and so on, and the Medical Superintendent would see these patients every morning in the office. We had local police officers here as well. Say, if there was a fight or something, we would ask the police to bring so-and-so here – the accused and the accuser, both of them must be here – and the Medical Superintendent had to solve the case.
He knows everything about the inmates’ jobs, from A to Z. He said, “The Security Steward’s job was to manage all inmate mata-mata (spies for the police). If there was a fight between patients, he had to investigate and bring the involved patients to the Medical Superintendent the next morning. We used to have a fire brigade that comprise inmate police officers too and they trained once a month.”
Philip Yong worked from 8am-12pm and from 2-4pm. He said, the Section Stewards of the West, Central and East Section used to gather at his office every day around 3pm or 4pm to report and discuss any issues the inmates faced and work out a solution together. Usually, the cases were of recovered patients moving to the chalets from the Decrepit Ward, chalet residents applying to be admitted for medical treatment and so on.
To keep track of the patients’ movement and calculate the accurate amount of food for each day, the Admission Room had been keeping a record of patients’ admission and discharge for all these years. This record book is the second set of records apart from the settlement’s Record of Admission. Since the administration block has been adapted for a new function, Philip Yong has brought the records back to his own house because he no longer has an office.
Philip Yong said, “Our second set of records had less information. All patients were assigned to the West Section when they were admitted here, so the West Section recorded a lot of things. The records on my side were forwarded from the West Section, containing a patient’s name, age, gender, identification card number, address, next of kin, date of admission, and most importantly, registration number – every patient were given one upon admission.”
Just like what his predecessors did, Philip categorised the registration numbers by colours – red is used to indicate a previous admission, which occurs when a patient returns after being discharged, and blue is for those being admitted for the first time. If a patient has passed away, he would cross off that person’s name. It is clear from the care taken in his work that the inmates’ records have been kept in a very neat and orderly manner.
Every morning, according to Philip, the West Section Steward would write a note that contains the names of patients who have been admitted or discharged and pass it to the Central Section Steward so that he may do the same and add any updates from the Central Section. The note would then be passed on to the East Section Steward and finally to the Admission Room where they tally up the number.
“This is interrelated to our meal arrangement. The contractor delivers food by head count. One of the duties of the Section Stewards is to keep track of the number of patients. Only then can we find out how much rice, sugar and vegetables we need to distribute each day.”
The authorities did not fill the vacant Inmate Lay Superintendent position after Mokhtar passed away. So, Philip Yong has been carrying out the duties of an Inmate Lay Superintendent to this day, for 200-odd dollars – the amount of work allowance for a typist. Today, Philip still conducts a morning huddle at 7am every day with the workers to receive the latest updates on the settlement’s population and handle complaints concerning leaks, utility issues and so on. He also needs to print the work allowance list for inmate workers and distribute paychecks every month.
Another record book kept by Philip Yong is the birth records of the children born to patients, containing the child’s name, gender, date of birth, the parents’ names and the child’s whereabouts, that is, whether they have been adopted or taken under the care of relatives. This book of records has been in Philip’s keeping for 42 years and it has enabled the second-generation descendants of the inmates to trace their roots back here, and verify their origins.
According to this record book, the first baby was born in the settlement on 9 December 1945 and the last one on 28 October 1982. There were a total of 1,147 babies born in the settlement over the 37 years.
With Philip Yong’s assistance, three children of leprosy patients have most recently discovered their origins. It stirs him every time he leads them to the Decrepit Ward. “Quite a few (inmates) have found their children, but some are just not that lucky. For an unlucky few, the parents have already passed away,” he said.
One day in 2009, Philip Yong learned from the newspaper that a Malay woman named Noraeni Mohammed had sought MCA Public Services and Complaints Department head，Michael Chong’s help in her search for her biological parents. So, he called Michael Chong’s office and left a message, suggesting that they try the records here at the Sungai Buloh Settlement, but did not receive a response.
“Then, she was directed here by the reporters and we helped her to locate the grave. Particularly, Tan Ean Nee, she was a great deal of help!” he said.
Tan Ean Nee, formerly a television broadcaster, is now a member of the settlement’s Council. Over the past 10 years, she has been helping descendants of the inmates in the search for their roots and writing stories about the inmates. She and Noraeni then co-authored a book entitled, Reunion at the Graveyard: A True Story of a Lady who was Determined to Search for the Truth of Her Origins, in which she tells the story of Noraeni’s quest for her birth family.
As the number of inmates plummeted, Philip Yong became the very last record keeper. The two book of records are well-worn over the years, the covers and text blocks have come loose from the bindings and the handwriting inside, barely legible.
During the home interview, Philip was resting in a custom-made four-wheeled cart, which is pretty much his legs when he is home. He can cruise around in his house simply by pushing his hands against the floor. As he ages, he has stopped wearing the prosthetic limbs, and has done so for more than a decade now. He said growing old makes him fear walking with prosthetics, worrying that he may stumble over his next step. When he is out of the house, the custom motorcycle is his only means of transportation. So, when he eats out, he usually picks a restaurant where he is able to ride straight inside and dine.
He owned his first motorcycle in 1970, when he was only 18, to be exact. A hot-blooded young man in his youth, he has a few stories from his wild days to share. One day in the 1980s, he and his friends read about the completion of the Penang Bridge in the newspaper. So, the three young man – somehow with exceptional courage – decided to travel north on their motorcycles and look for the Penang Bridge. To their disappointment, the Bridge was still not completed yet by the time they arrived, after a 340-odd-kilometre ride.
Yet, their aspiration was barely even dented. They returned to the settlement and planned another expedition. When they arrived in Penang for the second time, they finally got to ride along the awe-inspiring Penang Bridge, rocketing across the Penang Straits.
It is now rather hard to imagine that Philip Yong, now in his golden years, once “pioneered” something so crazy when he was younger. He is fluent in English, and is responsible and outstanding at work. Has he ever wondered how life would have been if he had not contracted Leprosy?
“It was a blessing in disguise, so to speak. I would not have had the chance to attend school if not for the disease because my family was poor and I suffered from polio. It would have been much less convenient for me to go to school.”
It was an answer beyond our expectations. The Valley of Hope is, after all, a place that brings hope. At least, it is where Philip Yong has found the hope to live and moulded him into the confident man he is today.
Narrated by Philip Yong
Interviewed by Chan Wei See & Wong San San
Written by Chan Wei See
Translated by Zoe Chan Yi En
Edited by Low Sue San