When Rajindar Singh worked as a medical assistant* in charge of the treatment room of Camp 1 in Pulau Jerejak in the mid-1960s, he spotted a solitary full-grown coconut tree growing in the premises and wondered who had planted it there and why.
He enquired about the origins of the tree from the older staff who had worked in the camp during the Japanese Occupation and who were now in their fifties (in the 1960s) and about to retire.
They narrated a chilling tale:
During the Japanese Occupation, patients with leprosy were supplied food rations. Unfortunately, at one stage, the rations ran short, and the patients were going hungry.
They staged a protest or rampage, surrounding the bungalow of the medical officer, Metha, in Camp 1. The camp was ringed by an iron railing fence and located on the eastern side of the island (where the present shipyard is).
As the situation worsened, about eight to 10 Sikh auxiliary police in Camp 2 on the slopes above the beach nearby found themselves unable to control the situation. So they informed police headquarters in Penang, then headed by Japanese officers.
The officers ordered a motorboat with Japanese soldiers on board and a machine gun to speed towards Pulau Jerejak.
When the patients saw the Japanese arriving, they bolted into the jungle, leaving behind a number of stragglers who were unable to move as fast.
The soldiers moved into Camp 1, set up their machine gun inside the premises where the wards were located, and then fired at whoever was left behind.
It is not clear how many patients were mowed down, perhaps as many as four or five dozen.
In memory of the those who perished, other patients planted a solitary coconut tree inside the fence of Camp 1.
After the war, the remaining leprosy patients in Camps 1 and 3 were transferred to the Sungai Buluh settlement, and the two camps were then used for tuberculosis patients, while patients with leprosy continued to be housed in Camps 4 and 5 on the western side.
Rajindar believes that the figure of 5,000-plus graves in Pulau Jerejak is an understatement. While researching old press reports, he found that an average of 20 patients a day were succumbing to cholera during an outbreak in August 1908. The quarantine station at the time was receiving large numbers of immigrants from India, resulting in overcrowding. The staff were overwhelmed by the numbers arriving at a time when there was a cholera outbreak in south India. An average of 1,500 immigrants arrived in a week, with 700 landing in Penang and the rest going to (then) Port Swettenham.
In the 1960s, Ranjindar and his colleagues had to oversee the burials of quite a number of tuberculosis patients who had no known relatives to claim their bodies.
In 1969, when the last of the leprosy patients were moved out of the island, a number of those who had been fully cured were resettled in small homes in Teluk Kumbar.
Today, Rajindar feels that Pulau Jerejak is steeped in history and the island, along with the memories associated with it, deserves to be preserved for future generations.
* Four others on duty at Camp 1 were the supervisor and medical assistants in charge of the kitchen, lab, and the pharmacy. Camp 3 further south had only one medical assistant who handled everything.