Universal Values of Sungai Buloh Settlement
If the development of society is, in a way, a history of human progress, then the way we treat epidemic patients should be one of the indicators of human civilisation. By protecting the Sungai Buloh Settlement, we are essentially making an effort to preserve the tracks of human progress so that future generations would be able to relive the best and the worst of humanity, remembering the dark times of the mistreatment of leprosy patients, in the times before the Valley of Hope was founded.
For centuries, leprosy had been given all sorts of negative labels – some call it a curse, some said it is a sign of “impurity” – that gave rise to social discrimination against leprosy sufferers. Tang Ah Chai, a cultural heritage worker in Malaysia, says that the collective attitude of a society and its perception of the disease reflect the progress made by human civilisation. This leprosy settlement, if preserved as part of a national and world heritage, will help us understand the disease and our journey in the discovery of a cure, but also serves as a reminder to all Malaysians and the rest of the world of the progress made by humankind.
“In retrospect, man appears to be rather foolish, ignorant, prejudiced, hostile and discriminatory in a certain part of history. I think the preservation of the Sungai Buloh Settlement will serve as a historical and educational reminder for the future generations,” Tang said.
Looking back at the history and geographical distribution of leprosaria in Malaysia, he said the earliest leprosarium, scattered in different parts of the country depending on local needs, generally had very poor facilities and living conditions. In order to centralise the health services and save manpower for ease of management, the British government began to look for a suitable location in the 1920s to set up a leprosy rehabilitation centre, which eventually became the Sungai Buloh Settlement.
Humane approach to urban planning
On top of choosing a beautiful, natural setting, Tang Ah Chai said that the British also adopted a very humane approach to the planning of the settlement. He stressed the word “humane” because leprosy patients were being forcibly segregated in the time when there was no cure for the disease. Some patients were even arrested and locked up like prisoners. The whole segregation process was extremely inhumane; the patients were treated as if they had committed a serious crime.
He said that life for the patients was already hard enough with the burden of such a terrible disease, but all this subhuman treatment made it even worse. However, after being transferred to the Sungai Buloh Settlement where they were “treated as a person” rather than an invalid, a criminal, or the damned, their pained souls were soothed.
“This new living environment is a good remedy for the patients. The Sungai Buloh Settlement, the second largest leprosarium in the world, is characterised by its humane approach and a beautiful environment for rehabilitation and healthy living. It is our responsibility, being part of this modern society and the younger generation, to protect the settlement and make it our national heritage, and eventually, a world heritage.”
Patients from leprosy camps in Setapak and other places were transferred to the Sungai Buloh Settlement after it was officially opened. Even leprosy patients from Indonesia and other neighbouring countries flocked to Malaya when they heard about this place. Almost all of the Sumatran patients came here without legal documents, risking their lives to cross the sea by boats. Nonetheless, the settlement authorities did not turn any of them away but showed great compassion by taking them in. Today, many Indonesian patients without proper identifications are still living in the settlement. All these years, they have received equal treatment with other Malaysian patients.
Based on the findings of heritage and architectural scholar, Lim Yong Long, the “Garden City” principles were incorporated in the planning of Sungai Buloh Settlement between 1924 and 1925. The proposed self-contained settlement featured a rather clear zoning of housing areas, central park, surrounding green belts and other facilities. In January 1926, when world-renowned Brazilian leprosy expert, Dr Souza Araujo, came to Malaya, he was impressed with the policy of Sungai Buloh Settlement. He was amazed to see just how well every detail meets the criteria, including the ideal choice of site for agricultural activities, the establishment of a main administration building with hospital and medical facilities, and so on.
First Urban Planning Model
The very first idea of a “Garden City” was initiated in 1898 by a British, named Ebenezer Howard, but it was Charles Compton Reade (1880–1933) who introduced the “Garden City” concept to Kuala Lumpur, the first urban planning advisor in the Federated Malay States. Reade proposed a well-planned road network and specific height regulations for residential buildings in the capital city but the city hall rejected his idea. Meanwhile, Dr Travers was also paying a very close attention to urban living and town planning. He set forth the idea of a self-sustaining community to improve the living conditions of leprosy patients, at the 5th Biennial Congress of Tropical Medicine held in Singapore. According to Dr Travers’ proposal, the ideal setting for the new settlement would have to meet several criteria – it must have a water source, a cooler temperature and a natural confinement. His idea was accepted by the British government and so, the establishment of the Sungai Buloh Settlement is considered the brainchild of Dr Travers.
Architectural scholar, Teoh Chee Keong, said Malaysia saw a mushrooming of new residential areas in the 1960s, dubbed, “Garden”, and later known as “Taman” in Malay. What we call “Taman” today stems from the “Garden City” concept. Hence, the Sungai Buloh Settlement is technically the pacesetter for the “Garden City” in Malaysia.
Teoh said that the Valley of Hope was constructed between the 1920s and the 1930s, when Malaysia was undergoing a transition from classical architecture to modernist architecture. The design of the Sungai Buloh Settlement progressed from one that focuses on aesthetics to one that is focused on the function of its buildings. Though modern medical concepts can be imported from the West, Malaysia’s tropical climate and environment are very different from that of Europe’s and North America’s. So the planner had to take these environmental factors into consideration and designed the Sungai Buloh Settlement based on an open concept.
“Compared to the hospitals in the West, this is an open-concept settlement, designed to encourage patients to venture outside. The hospital wards have ventilation panels at the top and bottom of the walls because our climate here permits natural ventilation. I’m not saying that I’m 100-percent sure, but I think the designer and planner of the hospital facilities did take this point into consideration – they believed that an effective ventilation and an adequate amount of sun exposure for all its inhabitants, the patients and the equipment within, would possibly help to keep tropical epidemics at bay.”
“You can see that they used natural ventilation for both the hospital wards and the chalets for recovered patients. The patients’ chalets are actually not very big. If they really wanted to save on construction costs, they could have just built a big residence hall with small living units just like the common hospital wards. Why did they design it this way and build small, detached chalets instead? My speculation is that they wanted the residents to spend more time outdoors. That is why the housing quarters are all built in a cluster, with the public amenities positioned in the middle. The design not only allows people to move about freely but is also an ingenious way to gather them in the public areas so that they can interact and get familiarised with each other.”
Teoh pointed out that a closed, air-conditioned environment tends to lead to higher power consumption and traps germs within, so designers of modern buildings, including schools and hospitals, should rethink the prevailing trend and incorporate environmental factors such as these in their design. If the Valley of Hope can be preserved, modern architects will be able to take a close look at its facilities and environment, and contemplate: Why can’t modern buildings be designed to be more in tune with the natural environment?
Wood houses in the early phase
The chalets for the recovered patients come in different architectural styles. The East Section quarters were built in the earliest phase and they were detached, concrete chalets with a European design, whereas the ones in the Central Section were semi-detached, concrete chalets and houses built with weatherboard, both unique in their own ways.
Teoh Chee Keong explained that when the settlement was established in the 1930s, the living quarters were zoned into only two sections – the East and West. The land in the middle was meant to separate the East and West Section. Later, when the plan seemed to be working well, the authorities decided to move leprosy patients from other parts of Malaya here to be managed centrally. So they built many new homes with land between the two existing sections to accommodate the new residents. These new houses are now the semi-detached, concrete chalets in the Central Section. Before the new homes were ready, the settlement authorities allowed the construction workers to build and stay in, what was supposed to be temporary, wooden houses. However, these wooden houses were eventually kept as homes for the patients, perhaps to accommodate all of the newly transferred patients. This is why the Central Section now has both concrete chalets and weatherboard houses.
The weatherboard houses in the settlement are quite similar to the common houses found in the average kampung baru (new village), with the exception of the unique roof design. Teoh said these wooden houses are the very early ones developed in Malaya back in 1935. The steeper roof and higher ceiling create ample space that allows warm air to rise away from the floor, making it favourably cooler indoors.
He said, “Compared to the leprosarium abroad that we know of, the Valley of Hope embraced a more humane consideration in its overall design and planning. It is definitely an exceptional luxury to be able to live here, in a much better home, and sharing it with just two or three other persons. It really is something to be proud of – to be able to create a neighbourhood like this in Malaya at that time.”
Tang Ah Chai shared the same view, “If we look at the Sungai Buloh Settlement today, it surely can be considered to be a very upscale and luxurious neighbourhood. Under normal circumstances, it would be arguably a high-end residential area.”
Tang Ah Chai and Teoh Chee Keong made their way into the Valley of Hope for the first time when it was threatened with a demolition plan in 2007. Later, they formed the “Save Valley of Hope Solidarity Group” to protect this historical site. Though the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage had issued an interim protection order to stop the demolition under Section 27 and 33 of the National Heritage Act 2005, pending discussions between relevant parties, the ultimate outcome was regrettable and part of the East Section was eventually demolished. Nevertheless, following the event, the historical and cultural values of the leprosarium earned wide recognition. In 2008, the Pakatan Rakyat-led Selangor state government adopted a resolution in its state assembly to designate the Sungai Buloh Settlement as a heritage site.
In February 2016, it was reported that the Ministry of Health plans to demolish part of the Central Section buildings to resolve the issue of empty chalets being illegally occupied by foreign workers. Once again, the Sungai Buloh Settlement, the world’s second largest leprosarium, was faced with another eviction crisis. In response to this matter, the members of “Save Valley of Hope Solidarity Group” came together again to urge the Ministry of Health to preserve the settlement as it is. Fortunately, their initiatives yielded great outcomes. In July, the National Heritage Department had a meeting with the group and expressly stated its intention to nominate the Valley of Hope as a National Cultural Heritage and register this settlement in the World Cultural Heritage list.
In retrospect of the past decade, Tang Ah Chai said it was actually a process of education and re-education. Mentality change is a key part of the process of campaigning for heritage protection. If people’s mentality changes, the policy will change and things will eventually work out well.
“The process is more of a struggle, which involves both the public and the government, including the agencies in charge, like the Ministry of Tourism and Culture and the National Heritage Department. It is a constant struggle for all these parties to answer the questions, “What should we do with the settlement? Should it be preserved as a National Cultural Heritage?” So on and so forth. Simply put, it is a struggle between monetary value and heritage value. It is easy to work out the price of a plot of land, you can measure the land with your own two feet and get a square foot, and then measure the total area to find out how much it costs per square foot, and you will get the figure for its monetary value. Heritage value, however, is not something you can just quantify and convert from the price of the land. It tends to take a lot of lobbying.”
Tang said that if the settlement is successfully listed as a National Heritage, it shows that our country recognises the cultural value of this place. The public can then get to discover the settlement all over again, including repurposing the settlement itself and turn it into a public space. In terms of the value that comes from a World Heritage listing, the Sungai Buloh Settlement is a heritage worthy of protection, for it marks both the positive and negative turns in history. If it is designated as a world cultural heritage, it means that the UN recognises its universal values and significance, which spans beyond regional and national boundaries.
The Valley of Hope is a peaceful community with residents from multiple ethnics and backgrounds, and a settlement where places of worship of major religions are present, such as a Buddhist temple, Taoist temple, Hindu temple, mosque, and churches. The inmates have their own beliefs but also show respect for other religions; they even believe in some of the miracles proclaimed by religions other than their own. So against the current backdrop of racial and religious conflicts, happening both locally and globally, the Sungai Buloh Settlement paints a perfect picture of religious coexistence and can serve as an important inspiration to all of us.
Tang said that various religious premises were established in the settlement to cater to inmates with different religious requirements. If we take a tour of the settlement’s cemetery, we will notice that the late inmates’ funerary and burial arrangements were made with the help of charitable bodies and religious organisations because the patients had no one else to depend on. That demonstrates the close relationship between religion and the lives and social development of the inmates.
“I think the Sungai Buloh Settlement, as a multiracial and multicultural community, can serve as an inspiration for Malaysians and the rest of the world. That is, when religions are seen as just different set of beliefs of different individuals and nothing more, they can be compatible with one another and coexist in a peaceful, diverse and open manner. At least, the settlement has brought out the beauty of such a setting,” said Tang.