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WHO Goodwill Ambassador's Newsletter For The Elimination Of Leprosy

BOOK: Rallying Round the Valley of Hope

A stirring tale of a solidarity group that grew into a social movement.

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One of nine oral histories presented in the book, which is a bilingual Chinese- and English-language publication

Established during the British colonial period in Malaysia, the Sungai Buloh Leprosy Settlement* was conceived as an enlightened response to the harsher aspects of the segregation policy then in place for dealing with the disease.

Situated in a tranquil natural environment some 25 kilometers from Kuala Lumpur, Sungai Buloh was a meticulously planned and executed community where people could receive treatment and recuperate, as much as possible while leading a normal life. It also became a world-renowned center for leprosy research.

Lim Yong Long, a researcher on modern architecture in Southeast Asia, came to know of the settlement in 2007. To his dismay, he also learned of plans to bulldoze a 40-acre section to make way for a university medical faculty. Alarmed that a place of such unique cultural heritage was under threat, he initiated a series of actions that led to the formation, the same year, of the Save Valley of Hope Solidarity Group.

Consisting of academics, students, artists, reporters, and more, the group grew into a social movement. Heritage preservation was one motivation, but so was concern for the rights of the remaining 300 residents as members came to know them and their stories. The group's efforts, and some of those stories, are recounted in A Valley Where Birds and Insects Sing for Hope.

"The inmates' ways of life and social networks are the intangible cultural heritage."

Under the guidance of Chou Wen Loong, the methods of oral history were used to ensure that the history and cultural values of the settlement were systematically compiled in proper records to be passed on to future generations. "If buildings are seen as tangible cultural relics," the book notes, "then the inmates' ways of life and their social networks are the intangible cultural heritage."**

GOOD RAPPORT

Both sides appreciated the interaction and a rapport developed between them. The elderly residents, many by now living alone, were very happy to hear the student interviewers addressing them as "Ah Gong" (Grandpa) or "Ah Ma" (Grandma) and looked upon them as their own kith and kin. As for the students, they hoped that by recording the experiences of the elderly inmates "this could inspire us to reexamine the value and meaning of life" while also helping the former to understand and appreciate their unique existence in a positive way.

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A Valley Where Birds and Insects Sing for Hope: Stories of Sungai Buloh Leprosy Settlement
Compiled by Chou Wen Loong & Loh Choy Mun Save Valley of Hope Solidarity Group (March 2012)

The book is important because it provides very clear justifications for preserving Sungai Buloh's heritage - among others, its place in the history of leprosy research and as an example of the earliest design of a modern living environment in Malaysia. It also proposes future uses for the site, such as developing it into a museum or an oral history center and using the natural surroundings as inspiration for creative artists.

If those arguments remain too esoteric for some, then Loh Choy Mun, one of book's compilers, puts it a different way. "If another infectious disease similar to leprosy emerges with no cure, how should we handle it? Should we repeat the mistake in history and accept the policy of segregation that is now bombarded with criticisms? Or do we have better choices? This may eventually boil down to our reflection of history and our respect for patients as living individuals."

In April 2011, 78 acres of Sungai Buloh were gazetted as a national heritage site. For this, the members of the Save Valley of Hope Solidarity Group must take credit. In championing the cause of Sungai Buloh, they are to be congratulated for underlining the importance of preserving not just historical buildings but also the human dignity of an isolated and largely overlooked community.

FOOTNOTES

* Now known as the Sungai Buloh National Leprosy Control Centre, the settlement quickly came to be called the Valley of Hope.

** Support for the oral history research and for the publication of the book was provided by Sasakawa Memorial Health Foundation.