A political career ended, a new life blossomed
75-year old Tan Hing was a promising young man from Segamat, Johor, energised with dreams and ambitions of his youth. In the 1960s, he once joined the United Democratic Party founded by Dr Lim Chong Eu.
“I was around 20 years old when I participated in party activities and served as a vice-president in Johor,” Tan recalled, as he settled into a couch in his chalet. However, just as he was gearing up to make his mark in politics, he was diagnosed with leprosy, the disease that changed his life forever.
One day in 1964, Dr Lim Chong Eu noticed red spots developing on Tan Hing’s face. Tan himself, too, sensed something was wrong with his body. So, he took his friend’s advice and visited the Johor Bharu General Hospital. The doctor who examined Tan Hing was Tan Luan Hong, a colleague with whom he shared common political views. Dr Tan told Tan Hing that he would recover after taking medications and gave him a letter as safekeeping, after advising him to visit the Sungai Buloh Settlement for treatment in case any problems arose.
“I figured that my condition was unstable, so I came straight here to Sungai Buloh,” he said. “And it was 1965. Lim Chong Eu returned to Penang and founded Gerakan (the Malaysian People's Movement Party), and we have been out of touch ever since.”
Tan Hing was admitted to Ward Number 29, after arriving alone by bus in the Valley of Hope where his new life began. He was only 24 that year. A big reason why he was willing to report to the Valley of Hope was so that he could be closer to a politician he admired – Dr Tan Chee Khoon, the Member of Parliament for Kepong from the Labour Party of Malaya. Being a community adjacent to Kepong, Sungai Buloh was part of the parliamentary constituency of Kepong. After his admission to the leprosarium, he visited Tan Chee Khoon, his old acquaintance, straight away.
“When he saw that I had moved to Kuala Lumpur, he offered me a chance to work with him. He was hoping that I could serve as the president here, but I did not want to. Then, he made me a representative here, so I could assist the party’s members if they have any problem.”
Serving as Tan Chee Khoon’s assistant for five years, Tan Hing’s youthful days were nothing like those of the ordinary inmates in the settlement. His face lit up, as he recollected his early days and said, “I would travel anywhere to attend events. When there was a public assembly, I would give a speech on stage. I addressed all those events and helped him to extend his political influence. He trusted in me.”
In the 1960s, the Sungai Buloh Settlement still enforced control on access but inmates could usually sneak out because the security was not as tight as it used to be. Tan Hing enjoyed a great deal of freedom as he recovered well and remain able-bodied. The Medical Superintendent learnt about his involvement in politics and asked him to leave the settlement and go home. Nevertheless, Tan Chee Khoon stepped in to back him up so that he could stay.
During the interview, Tan Hing’s wife was frying a fish in the kitchen, while two dogs that have been their companion for more than 10 years were barking in the background. The couple is living a peaceful life in the scenic Valley of Hope. As years roll by, the ambitious young man has now become a silver-haired gentleman who is content with living a simple life.
In fact, after months of medications upon his admission, the doctor informed him that he could be discharged since the leprosy test on him had returned negative. Yet, he chose to stay in the settlement because he had poured all his mind and heart into running political activities for Tan Chee Khoon. He’s also secretly secured a job outside the settlement.
He worked as an inventory controller for five to six years at a nearby Japanese glass factory, where several other leprosy patients were also employed then. They were paid on a daily basis as informal employees. However after working there for a few years, Tan Hing quit the job as the employer had not offered to hire him formally. Then, he bought a plot of land with savings from his wages in order to plant flowers and trees.
“In the 1970s and 1980s, growing flowers became a good business, so everyone started to go into this field,” he said. “Then, slowly, the business grew into what you see today, plenty of flowers and nurseries. At that time, the land here was quite cheap. I bought mine for 2,000 or 3,000 dollars only. There used to be trucks coming here every day to buy flowers because at least 80 percent of the residents staying in chalets (in the Central Section for recovered patients) grew flowers.” Tan Hing hired a hand to help him, but he would still get up at 5 o’clock every morning to water the plants. At that time, lime trees were selling hot and he could earn an average of 700 dollars or so each month.
In 1971 or 1972, he started to work under the “royal employment” (government employment), first as a police officer for two years with a monthly allowance of 150 dollars, and then changed his job and worked as a prison guard to secure a higher pay.
The job scope of a police officer, according to Tan Hing, included guarding the gates and handling registration of all individuals and vehicles entering and exiting the settlement. “There were main entrances and security gates surrounded by wire fences, so you have to guard these gates,” he said. “Sometimes, when a vehicle comes in, you need to help it register.”
Back then, the settlement was safe, so he’s never arrested anyone. Tan recollected an inmate who stormed into a house to beat someone up, just to vent his fury, but ended up killing the victim by accident, leading him to be sentenced to years in prison by the Medical Superintendent. Another inmate was arrested at home by a group of policemen and then banished by the Medical Superintendent for taking opium in the settlement.
The leprosarium had a fire brigade which was made up of police officers and a fire engine. The police would train once a week in the football field near the East Section. In the event of a fire, they must rush to the rescue in the fire engine.
In those days, striking the bell to announce time was also part of the police’s daily tasks. According to Tan Hing, such practice continued until the 1990s.
“This is how it worked: We must ring the bells hourly, just like nowadays. Say, if it is 11 o’clock now, you strike 11 times. As we struck the bells over here at the gates, there was another bell to be rung at the hospital too. The inmates did not need a clock.”
According to his description, there were four bells in the settlement: two at the East and West gate, one at the settlement administration office, and another one at the central market. The one at the administration office would only be rung during emergencies or paydays. The bell at the central market was struck every day when rations were ready for distribution. When a bell rang, it could be heard from every corner of the settlement.
In order to get a higher allowance, Tan Hing switched to a new job as a prison guard, for which he was paid 190 dollars per month. He said prison guards had longer working hours. Inside the prison, there was a room and a pantry for prison guards. Guards on duty must rest in the prison and remain on standby for four hours following every 8-hour shift, so that was technically 12 hours of work a day.
In 2007, the prison at the East Section was demolished by the government. Hence it is only by piecing together the fragments of Tan Hing’s memories can we picture it.
“There were eight cells in the prison,” he said. “Prisoners were kept alone in separate cells where walls were built 12 feet high, all plastered with cement. Each prisoner was provided with a blanket and a pillow.”
The prison was very spacious, so the prisoners had plenty of room to move around. During the daytime, they were allowed to grow vegetables and flowers in the vacant yard and even cook for themselves.
“We would let the prisoners out at 7 o’clock (in the morning) and they could walk around freely within the compound because they were surrounded by three fences. There was plenty of uncultivated land in there, so the prisoners could plant whatever they preferred. When weeds got tall, we would just ask the prisoners to clear them out.”
On days when films were showing, prisoners could even venture out for a movie.
“Well, they used to show movies in our ‘dewan’ (community hall). When there was a movie showing, prisoners could apply for a movie night out and we would take them out, handcuffed, to watch it.”
In the 1970s, Tan Hing slowly disengaged himself from politics. He became content with his marriage, his children and his job in the settlement, where he was also actively involved in the Hokkien association. Prior to his admission, he trained as a traditional Chinese doctor and practised Wuzuquan, a kungfu variation of the White Crane style. He has put his skills to good use by helping to treat inmates’ injuries with traditional Chinese therapies and even taught kungfu in his younger days.
“I also did some coaching in the 1960s. I taught people lion dance and Chinese martial arts. I had been a trainer here for some time. The foreigners, the nurses, and the British people… They all came here to learn from me, so I taught them.”
Speaking of his connection with traditional Chinese medicine, he remembered his father and his three elder brothers being detained by the government under the Emergency Ordinance when he was studying in the Sixth Form in high school. He was forced to quit school to support the family because he had six younger siblings at home. So, he learnt traditional Chinese medicine from a Chinese doctor for several years, hoping to keep his family fed with such skill. Unfortunately, the intractable disease held him back from continuing with his training.
“Since I had dropped out of school, I just picked this up. But I quit halfway through because I fell sick. After contracting this kind of disease, I had no choice but to give up. What a shame!”
Although Tan Hing had suffered the malevolence of fate, the skills he acquired in his early years has come in pretty handy in the settlement.
“I am still helping people now, you know,” he said. “Some of the foreign workers would come to me every day. When they need to get their broken legs, arms or other fractured parts fixed, I help to treat them the traditional Chinese way.”
As the population of the settlement shrank, Tan Hing picked up a leadership role again six years ago, serving as the president of the Sungai Buloh Settlement Council and the chairman of the Hokkien association. Even so, leading these organisations in the settlement is simpler and less complicated than the violent conflicts between political parties and fierce battles in the political world outside.
“Life is like this,” said Tan Hing, as he flashed back to the rocky path he had been through in life. “But when you got this kind of disease, it seems like you are able to let go of everything. No matter what you have done, you feel like you have become somebody else. So, you see, I have learned to give up everything.”
After his admission to the settlement, he slowly settled into this comfort zone. Though he was fully cured within three months of being admitted and his physical appearance remained intact, he chose to stay here for good as he has lost the desire to leave this place.
“Right now, it is easier to live here because it is less stressful. If you go outside, you will find that both working and living out there is tough.”
Tan is not the only one who had experienced such change in mentality. Many inmates, too, used to count their days as every quarter passed when they first came here. Then, as time goes by, they gradually forget about the fast-moving world outside and decides to spend the rest of their years here, living in tranquillity in the Valley of Hope.
Narrated by Tan Hing
Interviewed by Chan Wei See & Wong San San
Written by Chan Wei See
Translated by Zoe Chan Yi En
Edited by Low Sue San