Fate of Pulau Jerejak lies in Penangites’ hands

The Public Forum – Pulau Jerejak

Year: 2018

“Father told me that he would visit me once a week.”

Lim Boon Nya was only 7 when she was diagnosed for leprosy. A contagious disease that affects the skin, mucous membranes and nerves, leprosy rampaged Malaya in the early 20th century.

Back in the old days in Penang, leprosy patients were often segregated in quarantine camps on Pulau Jerejak.

Lim was one of them.

“When I saw a boat pass by (Jerejak Island), I ran to the beach. I could see my father left in that boat and he didn’t bring me along to go home… Every day I cried“

Also sharing the same fate with Lim was Goh Sooi Seong. Unlike Lim, however, Goh was a teenager when she was forced to leave the only life she knew behind.

At the age of 17 when life was full of infinite possibilities to others, Goh was left with no option but sent away to Jerejak Island.

The Jerejak journey told by Lim and Goh resembles similar pattern: the initial grievances or confusion over the loss of their previous life, followed by rejection of life on Pulau Jerejak, to eventual acceptance of their new reality. They even managed to have good time on the island, from community activities such as movie screening and festival celebration, to simple chore such as raising chicken and growing vegetables for money.

In the public forum hosted by Penang’s Think City, it felt as though Lim and Goh were there themselves in UAB Building, Level 1 to share their life account on Pulau Jerejak. In reality, however, it was a presentation by Mike Gibby.

And the historian has the ability to transform his audiences backward in time.

The Forgotten Prime of Jerejak Island

Year: 1969

Mike introduced us to Camp A on Pulau Jerejak in year 1969. With faculties such as the main leprosy camp, leprosy hospital and Catholic Church, the southeast part of the island was easily the busiest part of the island.

Further south from the camp, we saw two young men in khaki uniform on watch duty. Recalling earlier presentation by environmentalist and co-founder of Penang Hills Watch (PHW), Rexy Prakash, we concluded they were prison guards for a maximum security prison nearby that detained inmates from the Riot 1969.

It was then Mike directed our attention to a Chinese tombstone sitting quietly near to them.

It was – and is – the tradition for the Chinese to practise the order of “Man on the Left, Woman on the Right”. Upon close inspection, sure enough the left ‘hill’ of the stone read “Mr. Lee You Fu” and on the right was “Madam Chen Jin”.

A mysterious Chinese tombstone that, according to its vague carvings, belonged to a couple from the Fujian Province of China.

Although this type of Chinese tombstone was not an uncommon sight – it is still widely available in Malaysian Chinese cemetery today – there was something odd about this particular tombstone.

“The date of death is missing”, remarked Mike, as if reading our minds.

He was right.

“So what happened here?” Mike led on, “Who were they? Did they die without proper burial? Or did they flee from an unknown danger on the island?”

The fact that none of us has the answer just added another layer of veil to the mystery of this forgotten island.

We were still pondering the question when the Secretary of the Penang Heritage Trust (PHT), Ben Wismen, took the stage and brought us fast forward into the future.

The Future We Chose To Be In

Year: 2030

Our sensory receptors were instantly sent overdrive.

The lush greenery with sunlight filtering through the tree canopy was replaced by bright neon lights with sharp colours. The music of birds chirping and wind gusting through the branches of trees were replaced by noise of agitated car honks and excited chattering crowd of people. Worst of all, the fragrance of a combination of fruits and flowers was replaced by thick exhaust fume deprived of oxygen.

Blocks upon blocks of buildings lined up the streets where the main leprosy camp used to be. Modern restaurants, souvenir shops, and shopping outlets. All of them packed with people. Perhaps the most puzzling part was the endless stream of traffics on the small island, leading to what looked like a commercial theme park ahead.

We were drenched in sweat under the unfiltered sunlight as we paced aimlessly on the melting tar road. It was then Ben revealed that back in 2007 the State Assembly approved Pulau Jerejak to be permanent forest reserve. However, that plan was overturned and massive development on the island was suddenly announced in 2016.

“The development includes a theme park, hotels, 1,200 residential units, and a mega bridge that would connect Pulau Jerejak with Penang Island.

In this future that we were in, the bridge construction had successfully wiped out the rich marine lives and replaced them with lifeless concretes. That explained the high influx of traffic we witnessed earlier. Once an essential green lung of Penang that absorbs carbon dioxide, we have managed to turn Pulau Jerejak into one of the sites that emits heat-trapping pollutants into the air. On the ground, over 130 species of plants and 24 species of land animals were also under threat to be endangered and extinction.

The historical site of leprosy hospitals, maximum security prisons, and many more will not be spared from the urbanization either. “This is because,” Ben explained, “Although the development only involves 15% of the island, that little land was exactly where the historically significant sites are located.”

The Crossroad Where Past, Present and Future Meets

Year: 2018

We were back to the public forum, at the time when our action (and inaction) will decide the future of Penang.

The public forum was part of the project helmed by Rexy Prakash. The aim was simple (but not easy) – to raise awareness about Penangites’ forgotten history of Pulau jerejak.

The crucial part, however, is what followed next.

What is our collective decision on what to do with Pulau Jerejak?

Do we watch by idly and let the future of our state decided by a selective ‘elite’ few? Or do we take active role in holding our government accountable to ensure we are developing towards a sustainable state?

Our decision is immensely important, not just for Pulau Jerejak, but because whatever it is, it speaks greatly of who we Penangites are.

Since You’re here…

In the public talk, Ben Wismen has outlined the action plans to preserve Jerejak Island.

Immediate action:

  • Preservation of present heritage assets (i.e. church building, graves, barracks).
  • Commission a master plan of development of Pulau Jerejak, placing special emphasis on its historical, social, cultural and environmental significance.
  • Restore access for public into Pulau Jerejak, and the hiking trails on the island.
  • Gazette the Pulau Jerejak Forest Reserve.
  • The State Government to engage the developer/investor, in collaboration with stakeholders and civil society, to design a development plan that is holistic and respects the significance of the island.

Mid-term action:

  • Review the proposed development plans, and ensure that it adheres to the master plan and respects the significance of the island.
  • Designate Pulau Jerejak as a Penang State Park, as proposed in the Penang Structure Plan (Item DS 55 L 6).
  • Commission a full biodiversity survey of Pulau Jerejak.

Long Term Action:

  • Declare Pulau Jerejak as a State Heritage Site, under the Penang State Heritage Enactment.
  • Propose for Pulau Jerejak as National Heritage Site, under the National Heritage Act.
  • Work towards joint inscription of Pulau Jerejak and Sungai Buloh as World Heritage Sites (in recognition of the function of these sites as leper colonies for Malaysia)
  • Sustained engagement between developers, other stakeholders and civil society to best develop Pulau Jerejak based on the accepted master plan.

If you are a Penangites, your stand will determine the direction Jerejak is steering to. So make sure your voice is heard. To know how, or for other enquiries, contact Rexy via rexyprakash@gmail.com.

This article would not be possible without input from Rexy Prakash. I would like to offer my most sincere gratitude to Rexy and his team for their effort to make Penang, and Malaysia, a better place for all of us.

This article was first published on ericthoo.com and Aliran.

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