The United Kingdom sent this certificate to me!
Sinnathamby is a devout Hindu. He has a shrine set against the wall by his bedside, dedicated to the Hindu god of Shiva. Every morning, he will burn kemenyan incense and offer fresh flowers and fruits to Shiva, while dressed in a white robe, and a tilaka of one red dot and three horizontal stripes across his forehead, performing a prayer for good health and longevity.
He was born in 1926. His father was a manager of a motor shop and his mother ，a housewife. As a child, he enjoyed going to school and had pretty good results. The teachers loved him. At the age of 18, when Sinnathamby was still studying at Anderson School, Ipoh, signs of leprosy – reddish spots – suddenly appeared on his hands, face and other parts of his body. His family sent him to Kampar Hospital and the doctor diagnosed him with Borderline Tuberculoid leprosy (BT). Then, he was sent to the Sungai Buloh settlement by an ambulance, accompanied by his mother.
“My mother was there with me to register for admission. The Medical Superintendent then was Dr Gordon A. Ryrie. He assigned me to Ward No. 99 where I stayed for a year until my recovery. Then, I was transferred to Children’s Ward No. 91 in the East Section. When I was 19, the doctor saw that all my limbs were alright, so he encouraged me to take a nursing course. I completed the training very soon and became an Assistant Nurse when I was 20. I dressed patients’ wounds, distributed medicines and gave injections to them, and received 17 dollars a month.”
Sinnathamby said he stayed at the job for only three years because he was fully cured when he was 23，he and then requested to be discharged by the Medical Superintendent and went back to Ipoh to reunite with his family. Having been well-trained in the leprosarium and with relevant working experience, he applied for a nursing position at the Ipoh Hospital and successfully secured the job. He served at the Ipoh Hospital for three and a half years. Then, he joined the British military in Teluk Intan and worked as an inventory controller at the barracks for two years.
“Over the two years, I had been staying in the British barracks in Teluk Intan, with a pay of 97 dollars a month. The benefits were pretty good. Room and board expenses were all covered by the government. Nonetheless, when the British military was going to retreat to Kota Bharu, Kelantan, I decided not to follow and chose to stay in Perak.”
It was perhaps thanks to his English-educated background, his young age and eagerness to learn that has secured Sinnathamby another job soon after, despite his choice to stay in his hometown. He became a rubber estate foreman. At that time, many Indian labourers were brought in by the British government to work mainly in estates and eventually develop Malaya into a flourishing land. Sinnathamby’s income as an estate foreman was RM146 a month.
“I would wake up at 6 every day and go to the estate to oversee the workers, ensuring that there were enough men tapping the trees and collecting the latex when the sap stopped dripping. Then, I would return to the office to write up work reports. The job was very easy.”
He could have stayed in this easy and high-paying job until retirement. However, in less than two years, his disease returned when he was 30 and brought him back to the Sungai Buloh Settlement again.
“At that time, my leg began ulcerating and I knew it must be leprosy. So, I came back voluntarily to see the doctor. The Medical Superintendent then was Dr B. D. Molesworth. I recovered after some time of treatment. Dr Molesworth asked me to stay and serve as an assistant nurse in the settlement’s laboratory. Later, I managed to pass the qualifying examination for the government’s civil service system and became a ‘real’ nurse.”
Sinnathamby said part of his job was to record the family history of a new patient, for example, whether any of their family members had had leprosy or not, and also any drugs they had taken, if any. He must also take blood samples and skin smears from the ear of the new patient, administer injections to patients and write medical reports.
“My superior at that time was Dr R.J.W. Rees. The patients’ smears were sent to the British headquarters to be screened. Following the diagnosis, the doctor would prescribe the most suitable drugs for the patients. If the drugs does not work, the doctor would prescribe other medications on a case by case basis, depending on the condition of the patient.”
For the inmates who had completed a specified period of treatment and have thus recovered, as proven by clinical diagnosis and bacteria tests, the doctor would request for them to return for a follow-up visit after a year or so. Sinnathamby said not all ex-patients would leave the settlement and start a new life in mainstream society. In the 1960s, the general public still had misconceptions about leprosy, so ex-patients tended to find it difficult to adapt to the life outside and returned to the settlement.
Then he continued his story, “My father died of illness when I was 16. My mother lived with my elder brother and sister after I was admitted here. Then, they passed away and I just stopped going home.”
Sinnathamby served in the laboratory for 24 years before he retired with a pension of RM285.98 per month. Being a bachelor, he gains inner peace throughout his life from his strong belief, and finds a foothold in life through quiet hard work on what interests him. He proudly showed us a certificate he received from the Medical Research Council of the United Kingdom when he retired in 1981. “Over the 24 years, I had worked under many famous doctors including Dr Waters, Dr Pettit, Dr Pearson and Dr Helmy. The United Kingdom sent this certificate to me!”
“I was also the councillor of the first Sungai Buloh Settlement Council. Take a look at this picture.” In the photograph, Sinnathamby is wearing a tie and a pair of suit pants with his hair combed back neatly in a perfect, sleek finish. One can imagine how smart and glorious he looked when he was younger.
He is 90 years old now and requires long-term medical care because of diabetic leg ulcers. Despite being wheelchair bound due to immobility, we never see him complain or get moody at all. Every time we visit him, he just says cheerfully, “May you be blessed with a long and healthy life. We must have god in our hearts and be happy every day.”
Narrated by Sinnathamby
Interviewed by Tan Ean Nee
Written by Tan Ean Nee
Translated by Zoe Chan Yi En
Edited by Low Sue San