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The Sungei Buloh Leper Settlement: Illness and the Technology of Acquiescence

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The Sungei Buloh Leper Settlement in British Malaya was established in 1930. It served the purposes of housing, controlling, and curing of leprosy patients. In this paper, Foucault's thesis of disciplinary power is employed to examine the settlement's techniques of leper control and to analyse the modus operandi of the leper settlement. The analysis of this paper points to a shift of emphasis in the mid-1920s in the administration of leper settlements in Malaya, from one that exercised predominantly coercive power of control of lepers to one that used primarily persuasive means. The central argument of the paper is that the changing technique of control of lepers was mainly due to the recognition of the leper settlement as being an establishment with an ambiguous identity, hovering between a total and health institution. While resembling a total institution, the leper settlement nevertheless was not a prison, and leprosy patients, like patients in hospitals, needed to be treated as ordinary citizens both on humanitarian and legal grounds. However, the need for mandatory segregation of lepers meant some degree of compulsion was necessary. The challenge to British colonial administrators was how to maintain hegemony over the lepers with minimum use of physical force and the least violation of lepers' civil rights. The investigation of the paper points to the application of a persuasive technique of social control that encouraged the voluntary enrolment and participation of lepers in the leper settlement. To promote the voluntary admission and stay of lepers, the settlement was organised in such a way that it provided a 'natural and fair atmosphere' that was akin to the external social environment. Inmates, as a result, felt comfortably at home in the settlement.

Affiliations: 1: Red Deer College


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