Wednesday 19 November 2014

Explorer finds remains of 1887 lunatic asylum

By Lee Gui Ping Amanda, TODAY, 18 Nov 2014

For more than a century, the remains of a lunatic asylum, the island’s third-oldest psychiatric hospital, lay forgotten in the heart of Singapore General Hospital (SGH).

Their existence came to light only in September, when urban explorer Charles Goh discovered one of the perimeter walls of the New Lunatic Asylum at the side of a hill near Macalister Road while exploring the forested area around SGH.

The discovery prompted the National Heritage Board (NHB), along with SGH, to carry out a research on the historical significance of the asylum, which was built in 1887.

Mr Goh, a co-founder of the Asia Paranormal Investigators, said this time, his discovery was related to his interest in exploring Singapore and had nothing to do with his paranormal work.

The 46-year-old construction safety manager said in August, he started studying the Tiong Bahru area as it was previously a cemetery.

He compared the old map from the national archives with Google maps and Onemap.Sg and noticed there were several forested areas. This prompted him to consider whether there could be some relics there.

So, he decided to take a look around the area and found a 3m-high, 75m-long wall made of old, thick bricks.

“When I first saw it, I was very curious. So when I looked at the map (from the national archives), I realised it coincides with the wall of the lunatic asylum”, he added. The 127-year-old perimeter wall used to be part of a 300-bed facility for 250 male patients and 50 female patients.

NHB’s group director (policy) Alvin Tan said the wall is possibly the oldest asylum structure still standing in Singapore. “It also serves as a tangible marker of the site of the New Lunatic Asylum,” he added.

Singapore’s first psychiatric facility was built in 1841 at the junction of Bras Basah Road and Bencoolen Street, but moved to near Kandang Kerbau Maternity Hospital in 1861.

In 1887, mental patients were moved permanently to the site where the wall was discovered due to a second cholera outbreak, after having shifted there temporarily in 1873, when it was occupied by a military hospital.

Following the relocation, patients at the asylum were assigned accommodation according to their gender and later, based on their type of mental illness. After the asylum became overcrowded, some of the patients were transferred to another psychiatric ward set up in Pasir Panjang and Perak in the Malay peninsula.

The new asylum and the psychiatric ward at Pasir Panjang were eventually replaced by the Mental Hospital — the predecessor of the Institute of Mental Health — established in 1928 in Yio Chu Kang.

Associate Professor Ng Beng Yeong said the New Lunatic Asylum employed a more holistic approach towards mental patients. “Previously, they used a lot of straitjackets for violent and aggressive patients, but come to this place, they were more advanced, so they only restrained their wrists (using) lock gloves .... that’s certainly more humane”.

The NHB said it will be working closely with SGH to assess the condition of the perimeter wall and jointly explore potential preservation and commemorative efforts to showcase the site’s heritage.

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