I was looking through a book called An Illustrated Guide to the Federated Malay States. This book was published at least three times (in 1910, 1911 and 1920), and is a kind of guidebook/travel guide for the Malay Peninsula at that time.
This book provides a lot of interesting information, such as the following comments about the main mental institution in Malaya (in a chapter entitled “Notes for Travellers”):
“The Central Lunatic Asylum for the Federated Malay States is at Tanjong Rambutan, not far from Ipoh, in Perak. The most prevalent form of lunacy in Malaya is melancholia, a quiet form of insanity which permits the patients being kept together in association and employed in useful spade labour, either in or near the hospital, an occupation to which to which they have all been accustomed before their mental powers failed. Many a madman has had to thank this daily round and common task of digging for his recovery.”
I’m not sure why a traveler to Malaya in the early twentieth century would need to know about the local lunatic asylum. . . but it is amazing to see how successful it apparently was, and to learn how simple the key to that success was – getting prisoners to spend their days shoveling.
I would be interested to learn what exactly it is that the inmates at the lunatic asylum were shoveling. Were they digging dirt in order to complete some building project? Or were they just sent off somewhere and told to “Start digging!”?
Unfortunately, the author of this work does not provide any more details, so I decided to look around in other sources of information to see what I could learn about the Central Lunatic Asylum at Tanjong Rambutan.
As luck would have it, I found some information in the Singaporean newspaper, The Straits Times, but some of the information that I found indicated that the “shovel treatment” at the Central Lunatic Asylum was apparently not always successful.
On 26 November 1939, The Straits Times carried an article entitled “Madman Kills Host: Thought He Was A Goat” that was about a Malay man who escaped from the asylum and killed an Indian man named Peeee.
The Malay “madman” claimed that Peeee had turned into a goat, so he had killed him, and when a rubber tapper passed by Peeee’s house the next morning, the Malay man offered the man some of the meat. . .
When the police later arrived, they found Peeee buried in a shallow grave, with his leg protruding from the earth.
The murder of an innocent person is of course nothing to laugh about, but I do find the naïveté (or the colonial condescension) in the passage in An Illustrated Guide to the Federated Malay States to be funny (to the degree to which it is ridiculous).
So in response to the lunacy of the colonial past, I created a soundscape of “Shoveling Lunatics.” May Peeee rest in peace, and may lunatics no longer have to be treated by the “shovel treatment”. . . unless of course they enjoy doing it.