Former Leper Colony And Prison To Become Luxury Island Resort In Malaysia

The mysterious Jerejak Island in MalaysiaShutterstock

The tiny island of Jerejak located off the coast of Penang in Malaysia is filled with some of the most dramatic events in history. From first glance, the island is lush and empty with old crumbling buildings and dense forests, but when you take a closer look, you see how the island contains more history than any other location in Malaysia. Long used as a leper colony, sanitarium and Alcatraz style prison, the island is about to experience a dramatic change.

View of Jerejak Island in MalaysiaZainudin Ahad

Located on the northwest side of the Malaysian peninsula, the area of Penang historically played an important role for merchants and pirates. With the majority of the inhabitants being Chinese, it has become one of the most popular tourist destinations within Malaysia.

The surrounding area is known as ‘The Pearl of the Orient,’ and the island of Penang has turned into the Asian version of Silicon Valley. Surrounding Jerejak there are hundreds of beautiful islands but not all offer overnight accommodations. The islands of Malaysia are divided in the islands at the western peninsula, the eastern peninsula and the islands around Borneo with the most popular islands being Langkawi, Penang, Perhentian, Redang, and Tioman.

Historical photo of the first leprosy hospital in Pulau Jerejak opened in 1871National Heritage Department

Recently a group of powerful developers has announced their plans to build a luxurious Rainforest Resort & Spa along with a theme park, marina, residences and more on the small island overlooking Penang. UDA Holdings and Ideal Property in Penang announced that it had entered a joint-venture agreement with another company to redevelop a portion of Jerejak which will include 1,200 residential units, a theme park, a marina, hotels, and a cycling track.

Earlier this year, the Penang Island City Council approved the plans to demolish the existing buildings to make way for the resort, with the condition that development does not destroy the island’s forest reserves. In 2004, a resort was previously built where the leprosarium once stood, but the resort went out of business in 2016. The subject of development on Pulau Jerejak created a divide between conservationists and the state government, but ultimately in 2015, the state government approved the sale of an 80-acre lot on the island to private developers.

Roman Catholic Church ruins on Jerejak islandHeritage

According to Penang Chief Minister Cho Kon Yeow, the development agreement also includes “a bridge from Penang to Jerejak which would allow for electronic cars only since the island does not have the capacity for normal vehicles.” Concerns have been raised over the fate of an 1896 Roman Catholic church, a Russian memorial and quarantine barracks located in the island, but the structures were not part of the project on the island which consists of dense jungle and hills, and only 15% flat land.

The leper colony on Jerejak was established in 1868, and at one time hosted more than 7,000 lepers. Before its independence, tuberculosis hit Penang and patients were rounded up and sent to Jerejak together with the lepers. The Sanitorium was located on the opposite side of the island and in 1875 part of the island was converted into a health quarantine center for immigrants at the eastern and northern parts of the island. At some point, every immigrant entering Penang and Singapore had to be processed and screened for diseases on Jerejak, and every Muslim who went to Mecca for haj were required to be quarantined there.

The capital city of Georgetown on Penang Island (Shutterstock)

In 1969, the lepers were transferred to Sungai Buloh, and Jerejak became the Alcatraz Island of Malaysia with a maximum security prison for political prisoners and dangerous drug dealers, which ultimately closed in 1993.

The new development comes with mixed blessings for the community and for the economy with new tourism dollars and enhanced infrastructure on the tiny island. The country is very aware of the conservation and preservation needs as part of this deal and are working directly with the developers.

Jerejak IslandShutterstock

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