Jerejak Island has long been known among the locals as a “prison island” or the “leprosy island”. Long ago, it was used as the main leper asylum for the Straits Settlements (1868), a Quarantine Station (1875) and a penal colony (1969). It is located a short, 10-minute ferry/boat ride away from near the south-eastern tip of Penang Island.
In 1797, Colonel Arthur Wellesley had submitted a proposal that Jerejak Island should be the possible site for Fort Cornwallis, therefore establishing a military base in a new township (Jamestown) that is to be set up there. However, due to an earlier outbreak of malaria that resulted from clearing the jungle to establish Georgetown, which Francis Light eventually succumbed to, Wellesley was not in favour of establishing Fort Cornwallis in Penang Island. It was all a moot point, however, as Georgetown was flourishing as a highly profitable port city, rendering it irrelevant to establish Jamestown or a military facility in that particular location.
During Francis Light’s ruling and beyond, it was established that immigrants were allowed to lay claim to any piece of land they have cleared; and as a result, immigrants flooded Penang in hopes of claiming a bit of land for their own. As a measure of preventing spreading diseases brought in from other countries, these immigrants were first quarantined in Jerejak Island before being allowed to proceed to Penang Island.
During the outbreak of leprosy in the late 1880s, a leprosarium was established on Jerejak Island, where all those who were afflicted with the disease from all over the Straits Settlement were housed at until the 1930s, after which those afflicted were transferred to the Sungai Buloh Leper Settlement/Leprosarium, and closed down in the 1960s. The aftermath of World War II saw the increase of tuberculosis patients, and a sanatorium for them was set up on the island.
Penang folk, particularly parents in the 1990s usually threatened their misbehaving children by saying that they will send them to Jerejak Island if they don’t stop misbehaving. Usually this threat elicits the desired response as children in Penang were drilled with the fact that Jerejak Island is the place where criminals go. Indeed, such was the infamy the island earned that it was dubbed the Alcatraz of Malaysia. Being surrounded by deceptively calm waters, it is an excellent place to set up a prison because there was no way to escape except by boat, and those were highly regulated and the prison well-guarded. Those who make a bid to escape Jerejak Island may die in the attempt as it is a kilometre swim through jellyfish infested waters with strong undercurrents. It was set up as a maximum-security prison on 12th June 1969 and remained functioning as such until it closed down in August 1993. To this day, people who grew up in Penang in the 90s still shudder when they think about Jerejak Island.
More recently, in the year 2000, plans were put into action to redevelop Jerejak Island into a resort, and eventually, in 2004, the Jerejak Resort & Spa was opened for business. This was quite a controversial move, as a lot of the buildings that gave Jerejak Island its character and history were bulldozed to the ground. The spa itself is built over the area where the leprosarium once stood. The prison was also bulldozed and left barren, which begs the question why it was destroyed if there was not any development taking place there.
Many Malaysians are superstitious when it comes to places like Jerejak Island. One can almost feel the pain and suffering that went on there once upon a time. Redeveloping the place as a resort right on top of the ruins of a place where many suffered seems to be counterintuitive as most Malaysians would definitely feel too creeped out to stay in such a place. It would have been a better decision to build at a more neutral location and leave the original buildings intact as a part of Penang’s heritage and history. The prison and the hospital were indeed a part of history which were erased in the name of development, and to add to that, the fragile ecosystem in Jerejak Island was further stressed when these developments took place.
Promoting Jerejak Island as a teambuilding site which can be found in almost every corner of the Peninsula seems to be directly thumbing our noses to the sad, but significant past of Jerejak Island that contributed so much to Penang’s rich, colourful history.