At first glance Sungai Buloh may seem unassuming, quiet, boring even, an area within the Klang Valley with greenery. But visitors to Sungai Buloh are in for a surprise when they learn of its colourful past.
The Sungai Buloh we know today is a place where gardening enthusiasts go to purchase plants, vegetable seedlings and fertilisers from the many nurseries located in and around this suburban town. It is also set to be a major transport hub as it has been marked as one of the main stations under the new Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) project, aimed at reducing congestion and improving public transportation.
But there’s more to Sungai Buloh than meets the eye.
Historic events shaped Sungai Buloh
Severe leprosy outbreaks took place in Malaysia in the 1800s which prompted community leaders and local authorities to find humane ways to help lepers by providing them places to recover and get treatment, as existing facilities were far from adequate.
Based on local laws at the time, patients had to be segregated from others, either under supervision of medical staff or be housed in a camp. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, there were four leprosy camps in Malaysia – Pulau Serimbun (Malacca), Pulau Jerejak (Penang), Setapak (Selangor) and Pangkor Island (off Perak).
But it took a few medical experts and policy makers to do away with existing camps, which were likened to barbed-wired prisons. In 1923, Dr E. A. O. Traverse proposed a policy to improve the living conditions for those suffering from leprosy, in an area where patients could live with dignity, while receiving necessary care.
With this push, Sir George Maxwell, the chief secretary of the Federated Malay States started to build a leprosy settlement in 1926, choosing Sungai Buloh for its lush valley and cool climate, much needed for leprosy patients who are sensitive to heat. Located near Bukit Lagong, by two rivers – the Sungai Buloh and Sungai Cemubung – it was a perfect place for the community.
The Sungai Buloh Leprosy settlement turned out to be one of the largest settlements under the British rule, and the second biggest one in the world, fondly also known as the Valley of Hope. The area, officially renamed National Leprosy Control Centre in 1969, was equipped with facilities and amenities to turn it into a garden city, allowing the community to become a self-supporting one. The idea of offering an opportunity to stem stigma was being realised in Sungai Buloh as lepers were able to grow their own plants for sale and earn an income, while living in a spacious and beautiful area.
Houses were built in clusters so people were encouraged to interact with another, on top of providing a sense of security. At each cluster, a food distribution area or market was built, again to encourage gathering of people to socialise while they visited these public areas. To further encourage community activities, a variety of clubs were set up. The Malay Club, various Chinese clan associations, the Indian Mutual Aid as well as drama clubs organised gatherings, dinners and performances. Similarly, religious institutions like temples, mosques and churches were built as a source of spiritual support for the community.
Over 2000 patients lived in Sungai Buloh, and the numbers were high enough to set up a separate administrative body. Simple civil functions such as birth, marriage and death registrations were supervised by a medical superintendent, who also monitored a divorce court in the area.
More importantly, Sungai Buloh was built for the leper community and it was run by the community. This gave a sense of purpose for leprosy sufferers as many became administrative workers, nurses, teachers and mechanics. Some were more entrepreneurial, setting up coffee shops, barber shops and small grocery stores.
Modernising Sungai Buloh
After the late 1960s, there were no more admissions to the centre, but plans to build an infectious disease control centre was laid out under the Ninth Malaysia Plan.
Some 200 elderly former leprosy patients still live in the area, either in their own homes or in hospital quarters. Conservationists did express concern over whether the lush green area would have to make way for development, but due to pressure from the Save the Valley of Hope group in a campaign to preserve Sungai Buloh, the authorities designated 78ha of the total 230ha area to be gazetted as national heritage.
Old buildings still dot the Sungai Buloh area, as they offer charm and quaintness of this once contained community. People visiting the area are encouraged to venture beyond the horticultural area to admire the old church, wet market and houses which are still standing in this settlement. The old wooden hospital is still functioning as a medical facility, while its newer sister hospital takes on the more complicated cases in a modern steel and glass designed building located at the entrance of Sungai Buloh.
People who want to visit this historic settlement can do so by public transport. Visitors can board the KTM Komuter Train to the Sungai Buloh station and take a Selangor bus number 144A from the station into the settlement. Alternatively, visitors can take the same bus from Medan Pasar in Chinatown and stop at Sungai Buloh Hospital.