NGOs push for Sungai Buloh leprosy settlement’s Unesco heritage listing

Soo Wern Jun
A view of the Sungai Buloh Leprosy Settlement, where leprosy patients were once segregated and isolated from the outside world. — Picture by Hari Anggara

SUNGAI BULOH, Aug 25 — Three years after the idea was first mooted to list the Sungai Buloh Leprosy Settlement as a Unesco World Heritage site, it is no nearer to achieving its objective.

The Sungai Buloh Settlement Heritage Committee is currently working with the National Heritage Department and the Selangor State Government to get the settlement nominated.

It was first in July 2016 when the National Heritage Department saw the need to protect this important piece of heritage from being devoured by surrounding development projects.

As it is, the settlement, officially known as the National Leprosy Control Centre (PKKN), has already lost a substantial portion of its land to the building of the Sungai Buloh Hospital and medical faculty of Universiti Teknologi Mara.

Heritage Committee chairman Lim Yong Long said efforts to list the settlement as a World Heritage site are being stymied by several obstacles.

“One of the most important things that we need to do is to put in place a Conservation Management Plan (CMP).

“We need to urgently finalise the CMP so that we can regulate the current condition of the leprosy settlement,” said Lim.

The CMP will help prevent further destruction of the leprosy centre and preserve dilapidated chalets whether abandoned or currently occupied by leprosy patients.

“Once there is a CMP, revitalisation works on the leprosy settlement can commence.

“This too will support efforts to list the settlement as a Unesco World Heritage site. The leprosy centre made it to the Tentative Unesco Heritage list earlier in February,” said Lim.

The leprosy centre, built in 1930 by the British, was meant to provide a more conducive environment for leprosy patients to recuperate while they were undergoing treatment.

It once hosted 2,440 patients. Today, the number has reduced to less than a hundred comprising former patients.

The settlement, more affectionately known as the Valley of Hope, was the second largest leprosarium in the world; this contributed to the discovery of a cure for leprosy in the region.

However, to realise the CMP, Lim said they require a substantial amount of funds. When asked how much was needed, Lim declined to go into specifics.

“We are trying to speed things up and are hopeful of being able to raise enough funds. We hope that the government can contribute,” said Lim, a senior lecturer in architecture at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia.

The money will be used for the hiring of various experts such as architects, building surveyors, quantity surveyors, engineers, scientists and conservators.

Apart from this, Lim expressed concern with the uncontrolled expansion of nurseries and horticultural businesses which can affect the landscape of the settlement.

The nurseries were initially started by leprosy patients living in the settlement back in the 1960s.

They were taught to do simple gardening as a form of exercise and later utilised these skills to earn some pocket money by selling the plants they cultivated.  

“The horticultural business is expanding, but there is a need for certain guidelines to be followed to prevent uncontrolled land clearing.

“Did you know that some of the chalets are sinking due to soil erosion caused by land clearing for horticultural activities?” he asked.

This is not all as over the years, nursery owners started to hire foreign workers to help run their nurseries as most of them were quite old and had certain physical handicaps as a result of leprosy.

Valley of Hope is popular for gardening supplies among Kuala Lumpur ‘green thumbs’. —Hari Anggara

Reports in the past alleged that this triggered the influx of illegal immigrants who occupied the abandoned chalets within the settlement, treating it as their permanent homes.

A 2016 raid by the authorities saw several chalets being demolished to prevent further occupation by these migrants.

“The illegal immigrants were not only occupying the chalets, but they were also clearing land to expand their businesses.

“They no longer stay in the abandoned chalets but have built their own makeshift houses.

“We have identified these areas in order to address these illegal structures.

“When the CMP kicks in, we will know which chalets can be restored and which to preserve as ruins (beyond repair),” he said.

When asked how many makeshift houses had been identified, he said the inventory is confidential for now.

These reports about illegal immigrants have recently resurfaced with claims that the presence of these immigrants will hamper the settlement’s chance of being listed as a Unesco World Heritage site.

Responding to the reports, the Immigration Department conducted a raid last Thursday at the settlement and arrested 32 illegal immigrants.

The arrests were, however, deemed as inhumane by nursery owners and locals. They also saw these arrests as temporary measures which do not offer a permanent solution.

Universiti Sains Malaysia academic Por Heong Hong, who has written extensively on the leprosarium, while agreeing to the preservation of the settlement said the government needed to engage with the illegal immigrants.

“I feel that the government needs to engage with the immigrants and try to understand their plight.

“Conducting raids do not address the issue. They are merely looking for jobs to sustain a living. There has to be a better way to address this,” she said.

A sundry shop operator who witnessed the raid said the recent crackdown was terrifying.  
“The leprosy centre has always been known for its peaceful and tranquil setting.

“What the media wrote about the immigrants was uncalled for. It was inaccurate and has painted a negative picture of this settlement,” said the sundry shop owner who only wanted to be known as Chan.

He said that immigrants did not deserve such inhumane treatment.

“They were chasing the immigrants as though they were hunting down ‘wild dogs’,” he said.

Meanwhile, nursery owners are concerned about the future of their horticulture business.

“We depend on our businesses just to make ends meet. From what I understand, not all the areas will be listed as a World Heritage site. There is a possibility that some of our nurseries will be demolished,” said the owner who requested anonymity.

Nursery owners also urged the government to come up with a better solution in addressing illegal immigrants.

“We’re very unhappy with the recent raid. Even workers who have work permits were arrested. That’s wrong and unfair. I don’t feel that the immigrants have committed any crime. They came here looking for jobs in order to support their families back home.  

“They have no place to stay and they bathe using river water. Nobody deserves that kind of life,” said the nursery owner who also requested anonymity.

Migrant workers are pictured working at a nursey around the Sungai Buloh settlement area. — Picture by Hari Anggara

Leprosy patients who still live in some of the houses conduct their own activities, such as planting seedlings and selling the resulting crops, to supplement their daily expenses. — Picture by Hari Anggara

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