Penang’s Pulau Jerejak: A storied history beyond a high-security detention centre

Pulau Jerejak was once a leper colony and holding area for newly-arrived immigrants. ― Picture by KE Ooi
Pulau Jerejak was once a leper colony and holding area for newly-arrived immigrants. ― Picture by KE Ooi

GEORGE TOWN, June 26 — The small island off the east coast of Penang island, known as Pulau Jerejak, has a long eventful past; through the decades, it has been home to a cluster of Malay villages, a leprosy colony, a quarantine station, a high-security detention centre and now a resort island.

In fact, Pulau Jerejak is so rich in history that author and retired teacher, Mike Gibby, decided to do extensive research on it and wrote a 250-page book on the island — Pulau Jerejak, Penang’s Untold Story.

This is not the 71-year-old’s first book as he previously wrote one on Penang Hill and before that, Street Art Penang Style, Islands of Malaysia and Crowned with the Stars.

The recent calls by Penang Heritage Trust (PHT) for Pulau Jerejak to be listed together with Sungai Buloh leprosarium as a Unesco World Heritage Site is timely as plans to develop the island are already underway.

According to Gibby, the island’s name itself is a testament to its past as it means “grill” which refers to a place of confinement.

“Jerejak has provided a home for many varied lives; it has been a base for rural fishing communities, a shipyard, leprosy colony, quarantine station, displaced persons and refugee camp, tuberculosis sanatorium, rehabilitation and detention centre, prison, granite quarry and a holiday resort,” he wrote in the beginning of the book.

“Certainly, the island’s epithet ‘Malaysia’s Alcatraz’ is a misnomer; the island is and has been far more,” he added.

In the book, he started laying out the beginnings of the island when it was identified as early as 1797 as a possible location for both a hospital and a shipyard.

The Jerejak book by Mike Gibby is full of fascinating facts about the island. ― Picture by KE Ooi
The Jerejak book by Mike Gibby is full of fascinating facts about the island. ― Picture by KE Ooi

Before the leprosy camps were set up, the island was home to several villages known as Kampong Panchor, Kampong Hilir, Kampong Tengah and Kampung Labuhan Dagang, but these were vacated in 1900.

Interestingly, even during that era, there were efforts to protect the island’s forests as an estimated area of 1,000 acres were declared a forest reserve in 1889 by the British.

The first leprosy patients — there were only 25 — were brought to the island in 1871 and the number grew to almost 900 by 1927.

The island was also used as a quarantine station in 1877 for newly arrived immigrants.

By 1911, a total of 134,957 persons were quarantined on the island; a majority were immigrants from southern India, and a number were also sent to the leprosy camps.

The island also became a landing site for pilgrims coming back from Mecca.

Those quarantined and found healthy were then released, while many died on the island due to sickness contracted on the ships or from diseases brought from their home country.

The quarantine station was later moved to another location as the small island could no longer accommodate the increasing numbers of immigrants.

A look inside the book on Pulau Jerejak. ― Picture by KE Ooi
A look inside the book on Pulau Jerejak. ― Picture by KE Ooi

When World War II broke out, there were 1,200 lepers on the island.

However, the number dwindled to 69 during the war as many left, while some died due to lack of care and the poor condition of the leprosy colony during the war.

In 1946, the leprosy hospital on the island was repurposed for tuberculosis (TB) patients and by the 1950s, the TB colony grew to 400 beds.

It was another 23 years, in 1969, before the remaining leprosy and TB patients on the island were relocated when there was a decision to turn Pulau Jerejak into a high-security detention centre.

A total 320 leprosy patients were transferred to Sungai Buloh, while 80 TB patients were transferred to Seremban in 1969.

Pulau Jerejak was declared a prohibited area and turned into a rehabilitation centre for secret society members and other offenders on June 27, 1969.

Gibby noted that the rehabilitation centre on the island was known as a place for hardcore criminals and it was often used to threaten government employees and recalcitrant estate workers.

The prison was finally closed in August 1993, sparking discussions of its development into a holiday destination.

Gibby’s research shows that the proposal to turn Pulau Jerejak into a holiday destination was not really something new as this idea first came about in 1948.

There were more proposals following that: A holiday resort (1964), a resort and casino (1968), a free trade zone and tourist destination (1991) and an eco-friendly tourism island (2000).

The announcement of the development of the Jerejak Rainforest Resort and Sun Yi Spa was made in 2003.

The book has many old pictures offering a glimpse into the island's past. ― Picture by KE Ooi
The book has many old pictures offering a glimpse into the island's past. ― Picture by KE Ooi

The island’s significance was not lost on the government as in late 2017, the National Heritage Department proposed to nominate the island as a national heritage site.

“We should be very clear about the purpose of any conservation process; it is not simply to preserve the identity of the island as it is, for some undefined purpose,” Gibby wrote.

He suggested the preservation of the island should be based on several objectives that recognise the multiple roles of the island in the last 150 years.

Today, though most of the buildings are gone, the ruins of a Roman Catholic Church (built in 1896) and some of the iconic barrack buildings of the quarantine station still remain.

“One further important aspect of this part of the island is the multiracial cemetery, sometimes known as the Muhibbah Cemetery, a few minutes’ walk from the jetty,” Gibby wrote.

He believed thousands — between 6,000 to 7,000 leprosy patients — may have died on the island, but there are only about 100 marked graves of those with different ethnicities and religions found on the island.

In recent years, there were plans for a mixed development with luxurious homes, a resort and a theme park.

It was reported that the developer had submitted an environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the whole project on Jerejak last year and it was approved.

Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow said the masterplan for the island only involved development of part of the small island’s coasts and will not encroach onto hill land above 76 metres.

To read more about the history of Jerejak, the book can be purchased at all major bookstores or at entrepotpublishing.com.

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