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WHO Goodwill Ambassador's Newsletter For The Elimination Of Leprosy

BOOK REVIEW: Making and Unmaking the Asylum

How a "high modernist" approach to leprosy control was subtly subverted.


Alongside modern diseases such as AIDS and SARS or the H1N1 strain of influenza that is currently in the headlines, leprosy does not attract as much attention or the same level of research. Often, too, the voices of those affected by leprosy have been neglected or simply ignored.

Providing a corrective is Making and Unmaking the Asylum. At the center of Dr. Loh Kah Seng's study are men, women and children from different ethnic groupings in Singapore and Malaysia who, as a result of being diagnosed with leprosy, ended up in sanatoriums such as Singapore's Silra Home and the Sungai Buloh leprosarium north of Kuala Lumpur.

The book examines how a "high modernist" development ethos impacted on the history of leprosy in colonial and postcolonial Singapore and Malaysia. As defined by social scientist James Scott, cited by the author, this is "a selfconfidence about scientific and technological progress."

The ideology and practices that grew from this have had, according to Dr. Loh, paradoxical outcomes upon the management of leprosy in the two countries. On the one hand, the high modernist state's will to clean up social 'messiness' -- combined with the coercive powers to do so -- led to the segregation of people affected by leprosy and near-total control over them by the state, which sought to protect society from an imagined social danger.

On the other hand, the author documents how the high modernist logic was subverted, or at least resisted, by the very people it sought to dominate. The majority for whom the asylums became their permanent home devised strategies to salvage their 'bad' lives. They formed friendships, married, practiced their religion and put on cultural performances. Some joined secret societies, gambled, smoked opium, trafficked in contraband items, and partook in riots and strikes. In so doing, they sought to contest and remake the terms of their confinement.

What this thoughtful and discerning study underscores is the need to be mindful of how people are treated, or mistreated, in the campaign against infection. Leprosy may be an old disease compared with modern pandemics, but the lessons it teaches are no less relevant for it.

Making and Unmaking the Asylum: Leprosy and Modernity in Singapore and Malaysia by Loh Kah Seng (SIRD, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, 2009).

AUTHOR: Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied

Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied is a lecturer in the Malay Studies Department of the National University of Singapore.