Sungai Buloh’s Valley of Hope: From leprosy settlement to gardening hub

Soo Wern Jun
Valley of Hope is popular for gardening supplies among Kuala Lumpur ‘green thumbs’. — Picture by Hari Anggara

SUNGAI BULOH, Aug 18 — Places like Ikea may have become popular with younger KLites looking to green their homes, but many aspiring gardeners in the Klang Valley have been heading to the nurseries here on the city’s outskirts for better bargains and a much wider selection of potted plants.

The popularity of the nurseries that sit on a 586-acre piece of land these past 20 years can be attributed in part to the people once shunned by society after contracting a slow-growing bacteria, Mycobacterium leprae, which affects the nerves, skin, eyes and the lining of the nose and can result in blindness and other disabilities.

Lee Chor Seng, 81, was among the 2,440 patients of Hansen’s disease who once lived there, and has survived to become one of the pioneers that turned the Sungai Buloh Leprosy Settlement into the Valley of Hope.

“I started this nursery in 1988, after both my neighbours started theirs. But they have both passed away. Sungai Buloh is popular with nurseries today because of us you know,” he told Malay Mail when met at his home in the settlement. 

Former leprosy patient and vice-president of the Sungai Buloh Settlement Council, Lee Chor Seng, at his home in the settlement August 14, 2019. — Picture by Soo Wern Jun

Lee said it was Dr KM Reddy — an Indian national who was the director and head of the Sungai Buloh Leprosy Centre in 1957 — who introduced gardening to the patients in the 1960s.

“Back then, it was a way to keep patients active. It was only later that it became a means to earn pocket money,” the former leprosy patient said. 

Sadly, the origins of Sungai Buloh’s Valley of Hope are fading with time, along with the dwindling number of former patients in the settlement. Lee said there are only 59 of his contemporaries left.

“Some died due to old age, some committed suicide. I’m not sure why. It could be due to depression caused by rejection from their family and isolation from life outside of the settlement,” he said.

Lee said it was Dr KM Reddy — the director and head of the Sungai Buloh Leprosy Centre in 1957 — who introduced gardening to the patients in the 1960s. — Picture by Hari Anggara

Reminiscing about the past, Lee said Dr Reddy was determined to connect the secluded leprosy patients in the settlement and society at large who feared the bacterial disease, leading to prejudice and stigmatisation.

“I was told that the public were warned how this disease was highly contagious and that it was deadly. That’s not right,” Lee said, adding that proper treatment for leprosy was found in the 1950s.

In 1959, Dr Reddy organised an open day at the settlement for the first time, which included a tour. Lee said many people came. 

The origins of Sungai Buloh’s Valley of Hope are fading with time, along with the dwindling number of former patients in the settlement. — Picture by Hari Anggara

“This was when Dr Reddy saw how he could assist patients back to normal society life. He gave us flower seeds, so we could plant them and he said he’d bring people to come and buy from us. We started with roses, but they were hard to maintain.

“So we started planting fruits, including calamansi lime. We became so popular even the Singaporeans came to buy from us,” Lee recounted, a huge grin lighting up his face.

According to Lee, all the nurseries flanking the main road to Sungai Buloh Hospital are part of the settlement’s land and the potted plant businesses that have sprouted there were started by former leprosy patients.

A house trusted to foreign workers and caregivers in a nursery located in the Sungai Buloh settlement. — Picture by Hari Anggara

Development threat

But Lee remembers a time when the nurseries were being threatened by development plans for the settlement.

“The former government had plans to bring in HIV-positive patients to the settlement. They proposed to build a new centre.

“We rejected and said no! How can they mix patients of two different kinds of conditions in one area? The leprosy patients are very old and vulnerable to all kinds of sickness. They could be at risk of contracting the HIV virus,” said Lee who is vice-president of the Sungai Buloh Settlement Council.

Settlement residents depend on the sale of plants from their nurseries for their livelihood. — Picture by Hair Anggara

He said that the settlement residents depend on the sale of plants from their nurseries for their livelihood. They live in relative isolation, closed in for several kilometres around the Bukit Lagong Forest Reserve.

“But in order to continue running these nurseries, this entire settlement must be protected and maintained. Some of these chalets have been left abandoned for 20 years, but nothing has been done to preserve them,” he said.

He said a substantial portion of the settlement land has been appropriated to build the Sungai Buloh Hospital and the in-campus accommodation for Universiti Teknologi Mara.

Lee said the Sungai Buloh Leprosy Settlement is the second largest in the world after the settlement in the Philippines and strongly believes it should be preserved for its historical value. 

Residents are seen at their chalets on the settlement. — Picture by Hari Anggara

“We need to keep this piece of history intact to tell the story of what the patients went through, and how the cure was discovered through their sufferings,” he added.

Today, Lee said leprosy can be cured in six months. During his time, there was no definitive cure and patients survived on medication for 10 years.

“That’s how far we’ve come,” he said.

Lee said he was 18 when he was admitted to the Sungai Buloh Leprosy Centre in 1958 for treatment. 

“I was fortunate to have received early treatment. I felt lonely at times, but I wasn’t sad. Maybe I was young at the time, it didn’t affect me so much,” he recalled.

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

He was discharged after two months, but continued to stay in the settlement in one of the chalets built for patients by the British colonial government in the 1930s.

“I stayed in chalet 398. Every unit has a number. We weren’t allowed to leave the settlement due to the government’s lack of understanding about leprosy. They feared the disease could spread uncontrollably.

“My family could visit me at the chalets which were what we called home. I stayed only for 10 years before shifting into the British colonial bungalows,” said Lee who hails from Teluk Intan, Perak. 

These were previously home to the British administrative staff who worked in the settlement, and Lee was allowed to stay in these bungalows because he was working for the Welfare Department in the 1970s.

Patients who suspect they might have leprosy come to this clinic for an initial examination before being referred to a hospital. — Picture by Hari Anggara

Lee said the settlement today is peaceful despite the signs of neglect as evidenced from the abandoned chalets dotting the land.

“We could do better with more attention from the government,” he said, noting that the one clinic in the settlement catering to former leprosy patients is only open on certain days and has fewer staff.

“What if we fall sick on days they are not open? We also need more security presence to keep this place safe,” he said.

Despite all this, Lee said he is happy. 

“I’m happy to have lived up to this age. There is nothing more of a peaceful life that I want,” he said.

“Each day passed is a blessing for me, because at one point, I wasn’t sure if I would live to see what tomorrow holds.”

General view of the Sungai Buloh settlement centre. — Picture by Hari Anggara

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