If I was to say one of the most charming places in the whole Klang Valley is former leper colony, you could be forgiven for thinking I was a bit unhinged. But trust me on this one: what was once the Sungai Buloh Leprosy Settlement is not just a beautiful spot to wander round, it has an uplifting story to go with it.
The settlement dates back to the late 1920s, when the British colonial authorities decided to implement a radically different way of treating leprosy sufferers. Instead of confining lepers to virtual prison camps, a self-sustaining community was built in a lush valley, 25km to the north of Kuala Lumpur.
This humane policy owes much to a forward thinking British doctor, Ernest Travers, who proposed the plan in 1923, after seeing at first hand the dispiriting conditions at existing facilities. Sir George Maxwell, as Chief Secretary of the Federated Malay States, made the scheme a reality, with construction beginning in 1926, and finishing ten years later.
At its height, the settlement had more than 2,000 residents, its own school, police force, places of worship, library, theatre, and even currency. Inspired by the “garden city” movement of the 19th century, it came to be known as “The Valley of Hope”. So pleasant was it, that even when effective treatment became available, many former patients chose to stay.
Although a large proportion of the sufferers were ethnic Chinese, the settlement was also home to Indians, Malays, Javanese, Eurasians and indigenous people. Whatever their race, religion or class, they shared a common bond in being outcasts from society at large. The result was probably the most diverse yet harmonious community Malaysia has ever seen.
One of the most enlightened policies of the settlement was to encourage residents to grow their own plants for sale. Gradually, as leprosy became treatable, and the social stigma declined, more and more people came to Sungai Buloh to buy plants. Now the area is home to dozens of nurseries, and is acknowledged as Malaysia’s foremost horticultural centre.
Barely 200 elderly sufferers still live in the settlement, some in their own homes, others in hospital quarters. Development plans looked set to turf these remaining residents out, but thanks to a campaign by the Save the Valley of Hope pressure group, a temporary reprieve has been won. Seventy-eight hectares — or about a third of the former settlement — was gazetted as a heritage site in April 2011.
Whether this heritage status is worth the paper it is written on is far from certain though, as little stands in the way of development in modern Malaysia (which doesn’t stop some from fighting it). In a perfect world, the remaining residents would be allowed to live out the rest of their lives in peace and dignity, while the extraordinary story of the Sungai Buloh Leprosy Settlement would be celebrated with an informative visitor centre.
Visiting the settlement is possible by public transport, either by getting a Selangor Bus number 144A from Medan Pasar in Chinatown, and getting off at Sungai Buloh Hospital, or by getting the same bus from outside Sungai Buloh KTM Komuter station. Alternatively, get a cab from the KTM station.
By Pat Fama
Last updated on 23rd December, 2015.