A decade of devotion to research

Eddie was always at his desk at the Community Hall office, helping the Settlement Council with records of its expenses and donations. For all his life, he has been living an orderly and simple life, focusing on his work and responsibilities. In the prime of his youth, he had devoted 10 years of his life to the Sungai Buloh Settlement Research Unit.



The Sungai Buloh Settlement Research Unit, founded in 1930 during the British rule and known for its drug resistance research, made its mark in the history of international leprosy treatment. It remained under the charge of British doctors for 20 years after Malaya gained independence.

Hailing from Taiping, Eddie Khoo was educated in the English medium from a young age. After graduating from the settlement’s Travers School in 1971, he began to work as a data clerk at the Research Unit. He was in charge of collecting patients’ data and filling up forms based on the data, before passing the documents to the secretary to be mailed to London. The Research Unit removed the clerical position 10 years later when the patients’ data has been completely sorted out. In other words, Eddie was the only clerk directly engaged by the British side.

At that time, the key project of the Research Unit was to study DDS (Dapsone) resistance. When Eddie was working for the Unit, Dr M.F.R Waters detected the first case of primary dapsone-resistance and made an immense breakthrough in anti-leprosy drug research.

According to Eddie, the Research Unit classified leprosy into four categories: Leprometous, Borderline, Tuberculoid and Indeterminate. The researchers would group patients based on their conditions and examine smears from patients who were on medication to see if there was any sign of rejection. If a rejection was detected, the doctor would prescribe red (rifampicin) or black (clofazimine) pills for the patient. Besides, he said, the researchers would also take skin tissue from patients, crushing them before injecting them into the feet of mice. Then, they would feed medicines to the mice, which by then would have contracted Mycobacterium leprae in order to test their reaction to the drugs.

Eddie’s task was mainly filling in forms based on information on a patient’s wooden plaques and medical records (that have been completed by the doctors). He said he was paid four cents for each copy of the form before becoming a full-timer. When he secured the job as a permanent staff, his monthly salary increased to RM300. Back then in the settlement, RM300 was a tremendous amount of money, only next to the highest-paying job – the inmate lay superintendent who was paid more than RM400.

Eddie’s working hours was from 8am to 4pm but the doctor gave the staff members a great deal of latitude and allowed them to take a day off or leave early as needed. So, it was a plum job for Eddie.

Based on Eddie’s account, four of the hospital wards in the settlement were zoned as Research Wards to house patients who were selected for clinical trials. The Research Wards were staffed with dressers and attendants, while the Research Unit had junior and senior research assistants.

Eddie’s memory is so good that he can even name every single foreign doctor who had served at the Research Unit. In the 10 years of his service, the Research Unit had been led by a total of seven foreign doctors, including Dr John H.S Pettit, Dr Pearson, Dr M.F.R Waters and Dr Laing from Britain, Dr Gilbert from the United States, Dr Smelt from the Netherlands, and Dr Helmy from Saudi Arabia. These doctors, in his opinion, were all very compassionate, selfless and dedicated.

After the data collection for the Research Unit was completed, Eddie took on various other jobs, including serving as a health inspector in the settlement for four or five years. His job was to patrol the settlement and ensure that the areas used by inmates to rear chickens, ducks and pigs and to grow plants met the required hygiene standards.

At that time, the Valley of Hope was a bustling place just like an ordinary village ­– there were ducks quacking, chickens clucking and pigs oinking, apart from the boisterous crowd. The inmates lived a self-contained and peaceful life, growing plants, building chicken coops and pig pens in order to rear them in their front and back yards. Today, such scene no longer exists because the settlement had banned animal farming a long time ago on the ground of public hygiene.

When Eddie was a health inspector, he used to patrol the settlement on a motorcycle every morning from 8am to 10am, to check if the inmates are keeping the areas clean. After the inspection, he would return to the office to write a report and submit it to Mokhtar, the then Inmate Lay Superintendent, who must then sign the report.

He said, all inmates used to follow the rules and he had never issued any tickets during his service. Even if some of the inmates’ yards were dirty, they would clean up the areas after being reminded and never caused him any trouble.

His pay working for the settlement was way lower than the amount he received from the Research Unit. The monthly allowance of this job was slightly more than 140 dollars.

The workshop that Eddie works every day. (photo by Joshua Wong)

The workshop that Eddie works every day. (photo by Joshua Wong)

Beginning from 1988, Eddie became the workshop supervisor of the settlement  with a monthly allowance of about 200 dollars. The settlement was still housing over 1,000 patients, he recalled, and the workshop supervisor had car mechanics, wiremen, plumbers, carpenters and other workers working under him. All repair works in the settlement were undertaken by inmate workers. The wiremen would be available upon requests even if there was a power failure at night.

If the inmates encountered any problems, they simply have to make a report to the steward of the settlement. Then, the steward would instruct corresponding technicians to solve the issue. Those days, carpenters in the workshop not only made cabinets and patients’ wooden plaques for hospital use, but also built coffins for unclaimed bodies.

Eddie said they would request for planks from the settlement every year to build coffins – not just for ethnic Chinese but also Muslims. They would build about 10 coffins each year and keep them somewhere near the wards, so that patients who had passed on can use them for free.

As the number of inmates plummeted and the technicians faded away, the government privatised the repairing and cleaning services and removed positions held by the technicians and others. Currently, the workshop only has a carpenter and a painter left. Nevertheless, Eddie still inspects the workshop every morning, come rain or shine. The only difference is that he used to work from 7am to 1pm, but now, the inspection only takes him an hour or two. After that, he will return to the Council Office situated next to the community hall to attend to the Council’s affairs.

Despite being able-bodied and looking as normal as others, he is still afraid and reluctant to show himself in public and disclose his Chinese name. Apparently, the social prejudice in the past has resulted in a deep scar, burnt into the inmates’ hearts. Though leprosy had become curable for a long time, society has yet to gain a proper understanding of it. Many patients still keep their history as former leprosy patients a secret and try to cover it up in their everyday life as they are concerned with how people see them. 

The working environment of the workshop. (photo by Joshua Wong)

The working environment of the workshop. (photo by Joshua Wong)

Narrated by Eddie Khoo
Interviewed by Chan Wei See & Wong San San
Written by Chan Wei See
Translated by Zoe Chan Yi En
Edited by Low Sue San

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