Lepers and May 13 victims: Shared space, taboos, memories in Sungai Buloh Leprosy Settlement

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One of the tombstones clearly indicates that these tombs were erected by the Malaysian government. It also shows that the family of another victim has put up a new tombstone. Photo taken in 2007.

Preserving the May 13 cemetery in SBLS and reconstructing the history of the May 13 riots could perhaps be a necessary beginning of a much needed therapeutic journey, writes Por Heong Hong.

A few weeks ago, I took an excursion to visit Mr Lee Chor Seng, an old friend, leprosy-recovered patient and five-decade resident at the Sungai Buloh Leprosy Settlement (SBLS).

Despite his leprosy-induced disfigurement and immobility, Chor Seng has always been a keen observer of current affairs inside and outside the settlement and thus a good interlocutor. We talked about almost anything, from politics to history, from economy to heritage.

Our conversation naturally turned to the urgency of preserving the mass graves of May 13 victims in the settlement as we talked about heritage preservation.

As a recovered leper who once suffered from severe discrimination in the past, Chor Seng knew the importance of rewriting history and preserving heritage as an act of restoring justice. He reminded me to do something to preempt the monster of development from destroying the site and the land-hungry nurseries from damaging the tombstones.

Admitted to SBLS since the 1950s, Chor Seng is one of the few remaining old SBLS folk who had witnessed how the bodies of over a hundred victims were processed and buried in the settlement in the aftermath of the May 13 riots. Many outsiders are conscious about the medical purpose of SBLS as a quarantine and therapeutic space and the flourishing nurseries in the settlement, but probably few are aware of the presence of the May 13 mass grave in the SBLS.

May 13 victims' tombstone at the Sungai Buloh Leprosy Settlement. Photograph take in 2007.
May 13 victims’ tombstones at the Sungai Buloh Leprosy Settlement. Photograph take in 2007.

I had visited the burial site many times during the past few years, while engaging in a community movement which aimed to preserve the settlement as a heritage and a memorial space of the suffering of lepers. This time I was not able to revisit the burial site after visiting Chor Seng as I was in a rush.

By writing this article, I wish to use SBLS as a case to illustrate the relations between space, social taboos and memory, and to reflect on the challenges in reconstructing the history of the May 13 riots.

Sungai Buloh Leprosy Settlement: A spatial metaphor

The burial site is located at the back of the SBLS mosque, which is named after Ibn Sina or Avicenna (c. 970-1037), the famous Persian philosoher and writer of the medical encyclopedia The Canon of Medicine and of The Book of Healing. Ibn Sina was a much sought after and revisted thinker during the Renaissance.

I was oblivious to the name of the mosque until the recent visit, thanks to the newly erected road sign that guides the road user to where the mosque is located. Obviously, naming the mosque after Ibn Sina is not an outcome of contingency. It must have been a well thought about decision to give the mosque the double meanings of “medicine” and “healing” so that the building can merge well with the history and background of SBLS as a therapeutic space.

Space tells stories. The notion that space can be read like a palimpsest with layered writings is not new. But how do we read a space like the Sungai Buloh Leprosy Settlement? What are the links between leprosy” and the May Thirteen victims in such a space? How do we make sense of their co-presence at SBLS? Perhaps the resemblances between the lepers and the May 13 victims might offer us some clues.

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Indeed the lepers and the victims of political violence resemble each other in many ways. Not only are the bodily remains of these two groups of people co-present at SBLS, the inscriptions on their tombstones also share some features: only date of death and the name of the deceased are indicated (the tombstones of many dead lepers only have pseudonyms); no information about family members.

An unidentified May 13 victim's tombstone: No information about family members. Photograph taken in 2007.
An unidentified May 13 victim’s tombstone: No information about family members. Photograph taken in 2007.

It is common sense that different cultures use gravestone inscriptions for varying purposes, e.g. displaying the relations between the deceased and the living family members, and exhibiting the living one’s love for and memory of their loved ones who have passed away. What does the obliteration of information about family members tell us about the links between lepers and the victims of the May 13 violence?

Stigma, taboo and segregation

No doubt, the omission of information about family members from the tombstones of lepers is associated with the strong social stigma and discrimination against those afflicted with the disease. The removal of such information is as much a “protection” of the families of the lepers from the same social stigma and discrimination, as well as a complete rejection of those who suffer from the disease.

Tombstone of a deceased leper: No information about family members either. - Photograph: Tan Ean Nee
Tombstone of a deceased leper: No information about family members either. – Photograph: Tan Ean Nee

Does the selection of SBLS as a burial site for the May 13 victims thus signal shared metaphors between lepers and the political victims of May 13? Does it also indicate that the May 13 tragedy and its victims have been treated like a taboo, which should be subjected to segregation and ultimately, best forgotten?

Tombstones of deceased lepers: Like the May 13 victims, these lepers had their tombstones put up by a third party - Photograph: Tan Ean Nee
Tombstones of deceased lepers: Like the May 13 victims, these lepers had their tombstones put up by a third party – Photograph: Tan Ean Nee

There is another common feature between lepers and the May 13 victims. Their tombstones were erected by a third party and not by any family members. The tombstones of the lepers were built by the clubs or associations they were a member of before passing, while those of the May 13 victims were put up by the Malaysian government.

making_unmaking_asylum_leprosy_modernityThe fact that the gravestones for these two groups of people were built by a third party not only implies their exclusion from the families and the communities where they originated from. It also signifies their sharing of stigmatised bodies and segregated identities in a space designed for isolation. Perhaps it is also a prefiguration that their stories can only be represented by the voice of a “third party”.

Among the resemblances, there is, however, a difference between the two. The unmentionability of leprosy has improved over the years as a cure has been found for the disease, and the taboo attached to it fades bit by bit. The stories of lepers and the leprosy settlement have eventually been recovered. And the (deceased) lepers appear to have recovered their own voices too.

The same, however, cannot be said about the stories of the May 13 riot and its victims, which remains a taboo until today, due to the invisible hand of politics. The connections between the past and the present, the deceased and the living, continue to be brutally cut off and segregated.

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Memories, history and temptation of revising

If we are to preserve the graves of the May 13 victims, several questions are worth pondering over: What is the purpose of preserving the cemetery?

Is it to facilitate the seeking of truth, justice and reconciliation? Apart from this, what else can we derive from the act of preserving the site?

By merely seeking political recognition and reconciliation, we are likely to miss the broader meaning that a metaphorically rich space like SBLS has offered us: repression does not always assume a political form; there are many manifestations of unspeakable darkness as abjections and discriminations involve complicated deployment and subtle operations of power.

Hence, we need to further ask, how did the Malaysian government come to select SBLS as a burial site for the May 13 victims? Did SBLS get chosen because of its taboo and signification as a site of segregation? Isn’t the appropriation of social taboos always a significant form of the operation of power and of political repression too?

If SBLS was chosen because of its taboo and signification as a site of segregation, what was so taboo about the dead bodies of the May 13 victims then? What did the government try to segregate?

Another unidentified May 13 victim's tombstone: What was so taboo about the dead bodies of the May 13 victims then? Photograph taken in 2007.
Another unidentified May 13 victim’s tombstone: What was so taboo about the dead bodies of the May 13 victims then? Photograph taken in 2007.

Was the obliteration of the names of family members from the tombstones an act to preempt further investigation into the riots? How exactly has the spatial nature of SBLS shaped the history and memory of May 13? How can reading the space of SBLS help us understand and reconstruct the history of May 13?

One old SBLS resident, who passed away in 2008, earlier shared with me his eyewitness account of how the dead bodies of May 13 victims were “processed” at SBLS. According to him, all the victims’ bodies were covered in “black tar” (to hide skin colour?) when transferred to SBLS.

Uncritical acceptance of such “eyewitness accounts” could be problematic as memories are not always reliable. The late French scholar Maurice Halbwachs’ work on social memories has already informed us how memories are constantly revised and updated as they are always imbued and inflected with desires and emotions, longings and needs, fears and hopes.

If a complete reconstruction of the May 13 riots seems difficult to achieve due to the passing of eyewitnesses, the damage or absence of historical documents and the unreliability of memories, we need to at least ask, how did a racialised narrative like the “black tar” account come about?

Foreshadowed by grand binary narratives

Over the past decades, the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) has often appropriated a racialised version of the May 13 riots as elections approach. “Voting for the opposition parties will cause another racial riot like May 13” has been used to threaten Malaysian voters.

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Driven by the longing to achieve a two-coalition system and by the dynamics of political democratisation, an anti-racialised narratives has re-emerged to counter the rulling BN’s intimidation tactics.

May-13-book-by-Kua-Kia-SoongThe publication in 2007 of Kua Kia Soong’s May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969 further popularises the anti-racialised narrative. In his book, Kua retold the May 13 riots and its aftermath as a tale of a “palace coup within Umno”.

Two seemingly antithetical narratives: the BN’s “May 13 a racial riot” plot and the “513 an outcome of palace coup within Umno” account that aims to counter the BN, paradoxically centre around the Umno-BN political party, and are presented within a binary frame of (anti-)racialising. May 13 has been reduced to a signifier of racial riots and a trope of Umno’s intra-party feuding, respectively.

How exactly has such a binary frame shaped our understanding of the May 13 incident? What narratives does such a binary frame open up? And what narratives does it foreclose?

Without ignoring the wider context of party politics, do we have other perspectives and approaches to revisit when reconstructing 513? What would these perspectives and approaches be?

What would the stories look like if we were to revisit May 13 from the perspectives of the family members of victims? Aren’t the stories about how their lives have been affected by the sudden and permanent disappearance of a family member as important as those of party politics?

What are the relations between the grand narratives of democratisation and the personal narratives of the victims’ families? How would personal narratives that decenter party politics alter or enrich our understanding of democratisation?

The urgency to reconstruct May 13 is undeniable as the society and politics of Malaysia have been greatly influenced and shaped by the event.

Yet, reconstructing history is as tricky as memory, as it constantly faces the same temptation of revising or rewriting. Taking place in a network of entangled conflicting interests and ideologies, reconstructing history requires as much the capability to discern facts from falsehood.

It further requires humility to acknowledge the perpetual discrepancy between reconstructed truth and truth. Afterall, truth can only be approached through reconstructed truth.

A failure to recognise the temptation to revise, and the presence of conflicting interests/ideologies might lead to mistaking reconstructed truth as the only acceptable real truth – which would foreclose and deny other alternative explorations, narratives and approaches of that episode of history.

Like a bodily wound, historical trauma needs healing too. Preserving the May 13 cemetery in SBLS and reconstructing the history of the May 13 riots could perhaps be the necessary beginning of a much needed therapeutic journey.

This article is dedicated to the known and unknown residents of SBLS, the May 13 victims and those who have experienced various forms of discrimination, stigmatisation, marginalisation and abjection.

Dr Por Heong Hong earned her PhD from the School of Social Sciences, USM. Her research interests lie at the convergence of cultural studies and postcolonial inquiry of issues regarding health, illness, medicine, gender and modernity.

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Por Heong Hong
Por Heong Hong

Just received a kind message from an activist who has been engaging in removing stigmas of “leprosy” and “leprosy patients”. She sent a message to remind me that the usage of “leper” is insensitive. What follows is my reply to her:

“Actually I am not unaware of the wider debate regarding the differences between “leper”, “leprosy patient” and “Hansen’s disease patient”. The reason for using “leper” is to put the public perception of the disease in historical and social context, whereby “leper” is a term saturated with religious and social taboos. On the contrary, “leprosy patient” refers to medical comprehension of those afflicted by the disease. “Hansen’s disease” is perhaps the most politically correct term, which aims to remove the stigmas associated with the disease by giving it a new identity freed from social/religious taboos, while simultaneously devoiding the histocial/social context of the disease. I even wrote an article about it, which was published in Malaysiakini in 2009.”

I am thankful to readers who not only take time to read the piece, but also bother to critique and comment. Thank you.

best,
Por Heong Hong
14 May 2015