Fate of Pulau Jerejak lies in Penangites’ hands

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An old jetty on Pula Jerejak - Photograph: Rexy Chacko Prakash

What is our collective decision on what to do with this island steeped in history? Eric Thoo looks at what is at stake.

The Public Forum – Pulau Jerejak

Year: 2018

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

Lim Boon Nya was only seven when she was diagnosed with leprosy, a somewhat contagious disease that affects the skin, mucous membranes and nerves, which was found in Malaya in the early 20th Century.

Lim Boon Nya – PhotographL Rexy Prakash Chacko

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

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

Lim was one of them. “When I saw a boat passing by (Jerejak Island), I ran to the beach. I could see my father leaving 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.

Goh Sooi Seong – Photograph: Rexy Prakash Chacko

At the age of 17, when life was unfolding and offering infinite possibilities to others, Goh was left with no option but to be sent away to Jerejak Island

The Jerejak journeys narrated by Lim and Goh share a similar pattern: the initial grievances or confusion over the loss of their previous life, followed by a sense of rejection and abandonment on Pulau Jerejak, to eventual acceptance of their new reality.

Later, they even managed to have a somewhat good time on the island, from participating in community activities such as movie-screenings and festival celebrations, to carrying out simple chore such as raising poultry 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 accounts on Pulau Jerejak. In reality, however, it was a presentation by Mike Gibby, a historian who has the ability to take his audiences backwards in time.

The forgotten prime of Jerejak Island

Year: 1969

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

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

It was then Mike directed our attention to a Chinese tombstone sitting quietly near 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 – Photograph: Rexy Prakash Chacko

Although this type of Chinese tombstone was not an uncommon sight – it is still widely available in Malaysian Chinese cemeteries 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 continued. “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 had the answer just added another layer to the veil of mystery shrouding this largely forgotten island in Penang today.

We were still pondering the question when the Penang Heritage Trust secretary Ben Wismen took the stage and zapped us into the future.

The future we chose to be in

Year: 2030

Our sensory receptors were instantly sent into overdrive.

The scenery of 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 was replaced by the noise of agitated car honks and an excited chattering crowd of people.

Perhaps worst of all, the fragrance of a combination of fruits and flowers was replaced by thick exhaust fumes.

Block upon block of buildings filled the flat land on the island. Modern restaurants, souvenir shops, and shopping outlets were packed with people. Perhaps the most puzzling part was the endless stream of traffic 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 scorching tarred road.

Ben then revealed that back in 2007, much of Pulau Jerejak was approved by the Penang State Assembly to be permanent forest reserve. But plans for massive development on the island were 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 life and replaced it with lifeless concrete. That explained the traffic we witnessed earlier. Once an essential green lung of Penang that absorbed carbon dioxide, Pulau Jerejak was turned into one of the sites that emit heat-trapping pollutants into the air. On the ground, over 130 species of plants and 24 species of land animals were also under threat and at risk of extinction.

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

Crossroads where Past, Present and Future meet

Year: 2018

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

The public forum was part of a project helmed by Rexy Prakash. The aim was simple (but not easy) – to raise awareness among Penangites of the 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 be decided by an elite few? Or do we play an 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.

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

Immediate action:

  • Preserve present heritage assets (ie church building, graves, barracks).
  • Commission a masterplan for the development of Pulau Jerejak, placing special emphasis on its historical, social, cultural and environmental significance.
  • Restore access to the 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 masterplan 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 a state heritage site, under the Penang State Heritage Enactment.
  • Propose that Pulau Jerejak be made a national heritage site, under the National Heritage Act.
  • Work towards a 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).
  • Promote sustained engagement between developers, other stakeholders and civil society to best develop Pulau Jerejak based on the accepted masterplan.

If you are a Penangite, 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 [email protected]

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.

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Eric Thoo
Eric Thoo, an Aliran member, is an aspiring environmental writer, avid reader and pluviophile (lover of rain). Climate change and the doomsday scenario beyond 2050 may be unnerving, he says. “In the eyes of modern environmentalism, however, this also means we have been presented the opportunity of our time – and I have decided to be part of it through writing!” Eric participated in Aliran's Young Writers Workshop on Elections and Change in March 2018.

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Steve Leong
Steve Leong

How did we start from talking about planned developments on 15% of Pulau Jerejak jump to worries about the future of Penang?