Approaching Life and Death: History and Memory in Interviews With Individuals Formerly Suffering from Leprosy in Singapore

Loh Kah Seng

In the interviews I did in 2005 at the Singapore Leprosy Relief Association (Silra) Home with individuals who formerly suffered from leprosy is a statement which keeps returning to me, reminding me of the complex relationship between history and memory. The words came from two of the Home’s residents, good friends Lim Ah Hin, 70, and Chia Puay Song, 80. They told me, individually, in Mandarin, ‘我们命坏,运好’, and in Hokkien, ‘wun nang mia pai, gun ho’ [‘our lives are bad but our luck is good’].[1] At the time, I had felt inspired at the apparent optimism of Ah Hin and Puay Song, two of the more sprightly, forthcoming residents. I later discussed the statement with Kay Yamaguchi, Director of International Programmes for Sasakawa Foundation, which had funded my interviews. ‘It is positive in a superficial way’, Kay pondered, ‘But one layer beneath this, I feel a deep sense of “resignation” almost to the extent of being “painful”’. She went on to say:

Two different actions/reactions by different groups of people: first one by the sympathetic and often dedicated leprosy workers, medical or non-medical. They want to make an utopia for leprosy affected because the prejudice outside is unbearable. The second one by those who have suffered, to come to terms with what they have. It is often difficult for them to ‘imagine’ otherwise, but these are not the true ‘positive’ thoughts.[2]

This paper argues that an appreciation of how the traumatic memory of former leprosy sufferers is continually shaped by life experiences enhances our understanding of the torturous history of the disease. I began speaking to residents of Silra Home at the tail end of my archival research on leprosy in Singapore and Malaysia. At that point in time, several salient themes in the social history of leprosy which I was attempting had become clear to me: 1) European fears of leprosy, cloaked in modern scientific theory, had precipitated the compulsory segregation of persons with leprosy in Singapore in 1897, 2) the trauma of being interned for long periods in a leprosarium drove many to commit suicide, escape, resist authority, or reject treatment and occupational therapy, 3) the advent of a cure after World War Two turned the tide in the war against the disease, and 4) the social stigma against persons with leprosy, who are not merely diagnosed as ill but also ‘accused’ of being a grave danger to public health – persisted long after they had been cured.[3]

Site of segregation: the front of the former Trafalgar Home at Lorong Buangkok, 2005. Presently a home for psychiatric patients. Photograph by author.
Site of segregation: the front of the former Trafalgar Home at Lorong Buangkok, 2005. Presently a home for psychiatric patients. Photograph by author.

But I knew that, to obtain a complete picture of the social history, I would have to speak to those who had suffered from the institutionalisation and stigma. And the hours of interview spent with Ah Hin, Puay Song and others at Silra Home and Sungei Buloh Hospital in Malaysia helped fill the gaps in the official record and drew out the voices from the unwritten side of the history. Thanks to those willing to share their poignant and painful stories, I came to know of the ‘arts of resistance’[4] utilised by the leprosariums’ inmates against the establishment. These involved both the overt and subtle ways of making life bearable in unbearable circumstances: the secret societies which provided a sense of brotherhood, the strikes by long-underpaid patient-workers for better working conditions, and more importantly in the long run, forms of social, economic and cultural life which emerged to make life tenable: the social gambling, opium smoking, the formation of song and harmonica troupes, and the continued practice of traditional religion and customs. A successful, if not terribly original, bit of oral history work on my part? In my academic writing, I analysed ‘our lives are bad but our luck is good’ as a philosophy of life which ‘combines a resilience towards adversity and a resignation to their social marginalisation’.[5] I compromised – both Kay and myself were right, after all.

Still visible: the high walls and barbed wire of Trafalgar Home, 2005. Photograph by author.
Still visible: the high walls and barbed wire of Trafalgar Home, 2005. Photograph by author.

I recall though Gyanendra Pandey’s troubling comments about the difficulty of writing a ‘history of violence’, in his case, of Hindu-Muslim riots in Bhagalpur, India, in 1989. He observes that all purported studies of the riots in fact say nothing about the violence per se but write around it to uncover some generic cause. As Pandey argues, ‘the “history” of violence, therefore, is almost always about context – what happens around violence’.[6] If we liken the history of leprosy as akin to a study of trauma brought about by violence, albeit a violence not due to an event but ‘chronic’[7] in occurring over a great number of years, then the similar question arises of how to write about the traumatic memory of living with leprosy.

Another resident of Silra Home, Joseph Tan, 85, was admitted into the Singapore Leper Asylum (renamed Trafalgar Home in 1950) in 1933 at the age of eleven. In what is a universal indicator of the trauma of institutionalisation among persons with leprosy, he remembers distinctly the date of the event, 22 October 1933 and that

No visitors were allowed to come in. It was surrounded by walls. I was just like a prisoner. I felt very sad, and I thought that there is no medicine to cure for us. I think of myself as a ‘living death’, surrounded by walls and kept in inside, with no medicine.[8]

The former Silra Home at 18 Lorong Buangkok, 2005. Photograph by author.
The former Silra Home at 18 Lorong Buangkok, 2005. Photograph by author.

Can the historian speak meaningfully of ‘living death’? It would be difficult to find for Joseph’s reminiscences a place in a progressivist account of modern science triumphing over illness and the perceived irrationality of the sick. But even a social history of resistance as I have attempted, which examines the power relations underlying the policy of compulsory segregation and empowers the weak with an agency in defining these relations, may struggle to find for it a proper place.

An orthodox historian is likely to deem memory unreliable, having been and will continue to be distorted by one’s reflections on the past.[9] If we look at Joseph’s life as a whole, this seems to have been the case. After his painful entry into Trafalgar Home, he spent long, good years there as an adult, taking pride in his work as one of the few English-educated senior nursing aides. A few years ago, however, he lost his sight to diabetes and had one, then both of his legs amputated. To make things worse, the Silra Home residents were relocated in September 2005 from familiar living quarters to a modern but physically-discomforting hospital in Buangkok Green Medical Park, where they have to cope with living in communal wards and navigating through a multi-storey building. About half of the residents are amputees or have some other form of disability which handicaps their movement.

Living quarters and laundry area at the former Home, 2005. Photograph by author.
Living quarters and laundry area at the former Home, 2005. Photograph by author.

Wheelchair-bound, dependent on a helper and being pressed to remove his remaining leg, Joseph became more painfully aware of his disabilities in the new environment. It was in this context when I first spoke to him; he was trying to go to the toilet and yelling for someone to take him. After I helped him, he told me his life story, and by way of ending, said, ‘In Trafalgar, I was happiest at that time. I never think I will suffer like this….Never mind, I’m a Christian, I leave it to the Lord’.[10] There are, then, different layers in Joseph’s memory. His impression of his early years at Trafalgar has more or less remained unaltered: it is, as it was from the beginning, ‘living death’. His adult years were positively remembered in a contrasting hue which, when he suffered further disabilities and an overwhelming physical relocation in his old age, he has since adjusted. Joseph’s memory is not simply reproduced but constructed in response to changing circumstances.[11]

Hospital: the new premises at 80 Buangkok Green, 2005. Photograph by author.
Hospital: the new premises at 80 Buangkok Green, 2005. Photograph by author.

The relayering of memory which comes about due to new life experiences requires the oral historian to be cautious when asking such questions as, ‘How was life at Trafalgar?’ But Joseph’s recollections are useful for understanding the social history of leprosy in another way. If we accept that memory is constantly reshaped by life experiences, it becomes clear that it is not simply a bunch of personal statements about ‘what really happened’ but also a set of signposts for an individual’s ongoing negotiation with their life experiences, where what one remembers is continually adjusted to what one experiences and then becomes the frame for interpreting subsequent experiences. In this, memory encounters history at the junction where personal life and historical developments meet. To understand history, then, is also to understand the shifts in memory. We might approach the layers of memory as a resource, rather than a problem, for history.[12]

New beds and sleeping partners at the new Home, 2005. Photograph by author.
New beds and sleeping partners at the new Home, 2005. Photograph by author.

What were the experiences of Puay Song and Ah Hin behind ‘our lives are bad but our luck is good’? The meaning of the first half of the statement stems from effective attempts by persons afflicted with leprosy to come to terms with the challenges of life. Puay Song, whose fingers had been affected by leprosy, is able to weld two wooden sticks to strike precisely the strings of the dulcimer (扬琴), a Chinese musical instrument. Ah Hin, too, is a hearty singer and fine harmonica player. At the 2005 Community Chest TrueHearts charity show at Jurong Indoor Stadium, he held the stage with Taiwanese artiste, Chen Songling. Although he told me that when he was asked to perform, ‘I am old and have never been to a big occasion, and so I was afraid’, he vividly remembers the song he sang, ‘月亮湾湾照九州’ [‘the crescent moon shines over the nine provinces’, a Chinese classic], and the date, ‘21 November 2004’, both of which he repeated to me several times. This date, evidently, holds for Ah Hin the opposite meaning to the date of Joseph’s admission into the leprosarium.[13]

Day of the move: Ah Hin and Puay Song leave on wheelchairs. 10 September 2005. Photograph by author.
Day of the move: Ah Hin and Puay Song leave on wheelchairs. 10 September 2005. Photograph by author.

The memory of the individual who suffered from leprosy is also, however, unhappily affected by both historical forces and acts of volition. ‘Our lives are bad’ grew out of one’s long-term separation from family and friends, their continued rejection society even after being cured, and the commonplace detachment of self from ‘others’ – all of which were the social consequences of the policy of compulsory segregation. Ah Hin and Puay Song were both cured of leprosy in the 1950s. However compulsory segregation had so acutely reinforced the stigma against the disease – by powerfully representing persons with leprosy as contagious and consequently dangerous – that those who were cured had great difficulty finding acceptance from family and society. Puay Song, seeing himself as ‘a useless person’, chose to remain in the leprosarium, where he did manual work, and later became a foreman.[14] Ah Hin left Trafalgar and, avoiding his sister who wanted him to stay with her, laboured for years in Malaysia where he found acceptance among fellow workers. ‘I myself was suffering from this disease and felt bad about my self-esteem’, Ah Hin explained, ‘So I took my own initiative’.[15]

The balance between ‘our lives are bad’ and ‘our luck is good’ is fragile and shifting. September 2005, as it was for Joseph, was an important moment in time for Puay Song and Ah Hin: it was the immediate aftermath of Silra Home’s shift to the new hospital premises, which displeased many of the residents.[16] After the move, Puay Song took to practicing the dulcimer again, after not having touched it for a long time. When I asked him about the relocation, he said,

I consider that my life is bad but our luck at this last stage of our lives is good. You compare the flats outside to our place here. Because they own their properties, while here, we are renting. It’s different. Can we say it’s not good? We can’t. At this final stage of our lives, living like this, we should consider ourselves fortunate.[17]

Puay Song practices the dulcimer on a Sunday morning. His favourite tune: ‘夜落乌啼’, 2005. Photograph by author.
Puay Song practices the dulcimer on a Sunday morning. His favourite tune: ‘夜落乌啼’, 2005. Photograph by author.

‘Our lives are bad but our luck is good’ is, consequently, not a simple statement about the ‘here and now’ but what one’s past means to the individual in light of new life experiences and how, conversely, these experiences may lead to a re-evaluation of memory. It enables us to understand how individuals formerly afflicted with leprosy are continually coming to terms with the inner crises produced, in large part, by society’s attitude towards the disease, particularly in the way which compulsory segregation intensified the stigma against leprosy. This is not to suggest that memory is worthless as historical content but at certain levels its meaning is more significant.

Such an approach towards oral history, in a way, preserves its value. In this mediation between life and memory, however – much like the interplay between sea and beach – the oral historian typically plays a humble, passing role. Paul Thompson has argued that oral history, in affirming the individual’s memory, can also ‘give history back to the people in their own words’.[18] In light of such advocacy of oral history as ‘the voice of the past’, we have to frankly consider if remembering – in itself an event and an act – helps the individual to cope with past trauma. History as therapy? Whether an engagement with memory through oral history is as empowering for the participant as it is for the researcher is questionable. It is my experience that conversing with those who were marginalised induces the interviewer to project their own kindled feelings of hope and optimism onto the interviewees. I initially found myself lifted by the interviews, and then I caught myself. Did Joseph feel more inspired about his 24/7 plight after speaking to me? Did Ah Hin and Puay Song become more upbeat about life and luck? For the researcher to feel inspired is not necessarily a bad thing but to project one’s feelings onto another is dangerously so. It makes one wonder if the representation of memory by people writing ‘from outside’ or ‘from above’ completely disempowers those for whom they are writing.[19] Indeed the mostly lowly-educated former leprosy sufferers possess a keen sense, developed from painful experience, of who are sincere about understanding them. Kuang Wee Kee, 77, said in his emphatic way of certain journalists and volunteers:

They always made shows for television last time, to show people, to frighten people. This is not necessary. It is no good, understand? They are not researchers. They are only doing it to show off….This type of thing is not like the World Cup. This will affect people in society….Just print a bit in the papers, that’s enough. Don’t need to say that you are a charitable person. Charity, you can put in your heart, don’t need to show outside.[20]

Ah Hin plays me Chinese and English tunes on his harmonica, including ‘天上人间’ and ‘Rose, Rose, I Love You’, 2005. Photograph by author.
Ah Hin plays me Chinese and English tunes on his harmonica, including ‘天上人间’ and ‘Rose, Rose, I Love You’, 2005. Photograph by author.

I remember Ah Hin more for his wiry frame, his harmonica tunes, and his charming colloquial Hokkien than for any positive impression my interview made on him.[21] Near the end of our talk, he told me that he was just ‘dan si’ [‘等死’ or ‘waiting to die’ in Hokkien]. When I protested that he looked healthy, he laughed, ‘Eventually, we have to die….Those who don’t die and suffer slowly, they are very pitiful. I get afraid when I think about that, you know. I believe in Christianity, I hope to get a blessing to die soon, finish it’.[22] So maybe Kay is closer to the psychology than I am.

To ponder the personal and social meanings of memory, rather than simply to use the content, is an important endeavour in Singapore. Here, leprosy is a disease of the past but the relationship between historical trauma and present-day anxieties and ambivalence towards the future which it underlines is highly relevant to our society. For a relatively stable and successful nation-state, we tend to see a great deal of trauma in our history. We fixate on episodes of violence – invasion and conquest, labour and student riots, race and religious riots, even a ‘moment of anguish’[23] at the point of birth of our fledging nation-state. Up to now, the elderly men and women who experienced these events, both the political elites and ordinary people, have vigorously projected what they remember as ‘lessons’ for how young Singaporeans born after independence should behave and organise our modern, multi-racial society. And many young Singaporeans are tempted to embrace or ignore/reject these admonishments as, respectively, the love or tyranny of the aged and powerful. A teenager, stating recently that he would choose the latest Harry Potter book over the new Goh Keng Swee biography, explained:

So please, teach us about our leaders. We want to know. But we want to add him as a friend on Facebook. We want to be seduced with a sexy quote. Build us a statue of him in the Jurong he built so we can gawk and take many pictures with our handphones. Just don’t hit us on the head with another book.[24]

Memory, as the youth’s final sentence illustrates, is a contested realm. Oftentimes in Singapore, those who are young are told that they in possessing no memory should learn from those who do. We can all do better. Elderly persons can begin to ask themselves how their memories crystallised and why they are projected. Young persons can seek to understand how those who have known trauma are coming to terms with it. For the former, it is a challenge to attain a degree of self-awareness; for the latter, empathy towards those removed from them in time and experience. It is timely for both groups to look at the personal histories behind the ‘lessons of history’.

Making friends: author with Chan Mun Tuck, 2006. Photograph by author.
Making friends: author with Chan Mun Tuck, 2006. Photograph by author.


[1] Author’s interviews with Lim Ah Hin, 2 Oct 2005, and Chia Puay Song, 10 Oct 2005.

[2] Email correspondence with Kay Yamaguchi, 29 Mar 2006.

[3] Mary Douglas, ‘Witchcraft and Leprosy: Two Strategies of Exclusion’, Man, New Series, 26 (4), Dec 1991, pp. 725-26.

[4] James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990).

[5] Loh Kah Seng, ‘Our lives are bad but our luck is good’: The Everyday Life of Leprosy Sufferers in Singapore’, paper submitted to Social History of Medicine, July 2007.

[6] Gyanendra Pandey, ‘In Defense of the Fragment: Writing about Hindu-Muslim Riots in India Today’, Representations, 37, Special Issue, Winter 1992, p. 27.

[7] Kai T. Erikson, Everything in Its Path: Destruction of Community in the Buffalo Creek Flood (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976).

[8] Author’s interview with Joseph Tan, 17 Sep 2005.

[9] James H. Morrison, ‘A Global Perspective of Oral History in Southeast Asia’, in Oral History in Southeast Asia: Theory and Method, P. Lim Pui Huen, James H. Morrison and Kwa Chong Guan, eds (Singapore: National Archives of Singapore and Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1998), p. 6.

[10] Author’s interview with Joseph Tan, 17 Sep 2005.

[11] David Thelen, ‘Memory and American History’, The Journal of American History, 75 (4), Mar 1989, pp. 1120-1121.

[12] Alistair Thomson, ‘Fifty Year On: An International Perspective on Oral History’, The Journal of American History, 85 (2), Sep 1998, p. 585.

[13] Author’s interview with Lim Ah Hin, 2 Oct 2005.

[14] Author’s interview with Chia Puay Song, 10 Oct 2005.

[15] Author’s interview with Lim Ah Hin, 2 Oct 2005.

[16] Loh Kah Seng, ‘The Ambivalence of Relocation: The Experiences of Individuals Affected by Leprosy in Singapore’, The STAR, 64 (2), Jul-Dec 2005, and ‘Silra Home Revisited’, WHO Goodwill Ambassador’s Newsletter for the Elimination of Leprosy, 22 Oct 2006.

[17] Author’s interview with Chia Puay Song, 10 Oct 2005.

[18] Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past: Oral History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 265.

[19] Thomson, ‘Fifty Years On: An International Perspective on Oral History’, p. 591.

[20] Author’s interview with Kuang Wee Kee, 7 Nov 2005.

[21] Extracts of the interview, translated into English, can be found at the Oral History Project of the ILA Global Project on the History of Leprosy.

[22] Author’s interview with Lim Ah Hin, 2 Oct 2005.

[23] From a press conference by the then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew at the occasion of Singapore’s departure from Malaysia on 9 August 1965.

[24] The New Paper, 24 July 2007. The latest Harry Potter book is of course the final in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The Goh Keng Swee biography is by his daughter-in-law, Tan Siok Sun, Goh Keng Swee: A Portrait (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 2007).

Loh Kah Seng is a PhD candidate at Murdoch University, working on a social history of the 1961 Kampong Bukit Ho Swee Fire. He has a keen research interest in Singapore history, particularly the official use of history, the Great Depression, leprosy, the student movement, and oral history and memory.