A small but committed NPO is engaged in an ongoing struggle to ensure that what remains of the former Sungai Buloh Leprosy Settlement in Malaysia is preserved as a heritage site. As the remaining population of people affected by leprosy declines, part of the site is already under redevelopment and the general public appears largely indifferent to its fate.
"The government has promised to preserve the place, but so far no official announcement has been made," says Lim Yong Long, a core member of the Save Valley of Hope Solidarity Group who is currently working on a PhD at the University of Tokyo. Valley of Hope was the name given to what became one of the world's biggest leprosy settlements when it was built in 1930 in Malaya, then part of the British Empire.
In 2002, some 50 hectares were cleared to erect a hospital in the south of the settlement. More recently, in 2007, demolition work began in the eastern section of Sungai Buloh to make way for the medicine and dentistry faculties of Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM). The university buildings will include a number of high-rises. At the same time, residents from the western section are being relocated to wards adjacent to the construction site. "We are concerned about patients having to live next to such a high-density, highrise environment," says Lim. "It is not healthy for them."
Some of the key research into leprosy in the 20th century took place at Sungai Buloh. It was also a model of enlightened social control, with the leprosarium envisioned as a self-sustaining -- albeit segregated -- community.
Save Valley of Hope has held events to underline why it believes Valley of Hope is too important to be bulldozed and built on. Any chance of World Heritage status has been dashed, however, as the integrity of the site has been compromised by redevelopment
"Malaysians don't care much about heritage. They are utilitarian," says Lim. But he hopes that Sungai Buloh will be preserved so that people now and in the future will be able to reflect on how their fellow human beings were treated in the name of disease control.