Bid to save old CDC in Moulmein from wrecking ball

An aerial view of the sprawling compound of the Communicable Disease Centre, which is dotted with long, standalone, one-storey pavilion buildings that were spread out to control the spread of infectious diseases. The site has been earmarked by the URA for residential development.ST FILE PHOTO

The famous “or sai” (black lion in Hokkien) emblem at the main entrance of the Communicable Disease Centre (CDC), located in Moulmein Road.ST FILE PHOTO

Duo hope to retain key historical buildings at Moulmein site where public health crises were fought

Towering apartment blocks could replace the country’s last sprawling low-rise medical complex in Moulmein Road – the former Communicable Disease Centre (CDC) where public health crises were battled for more than a century.

The site has been earmarked by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) for residential development, and previous news reports note plans to demolish it.

Vacated last December, the site resembles both a pastoral scene and a developer’s dream.

The only relics saved so far are the black lion emblem which was at the front entrance, a cholera bed, old photos and a historical timeline of the CDC.

Infectious diseases specialist Hsu Li Yang and historian Loh Kah Seng are now urgently hoping to save at least five key historical buildings there.

There are 23 wards in an area that can easily accommodate 12 football fields.

The duo, who recently completed a National Heritage Board-supported research project on the site’s history, have sent their proposal to the URA for evaluation.

The URA said there are no immediate plans for the complex and it will take the site’s history and heritage into consideration in its planning.

The Straits Times understands that Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH), which used to run the CDC, is also putting forward a conservation proposal that will include the retention of the Administrative Block.

The 1913 compound is dotted with long, standalone, one-storey pavilion buildings.

They were erected at considerable distances apart to control the spread of infectious diseases. From smallpox, chicken pox and polio to tuberculosis and the Nipah virus and severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreaks, the CDC has been through them all.

The site was designed in the style of 19th-century hospitals popularised by British medical practitioners such as Florence Nightingale, with roots in the 18th-century French hospital system. Previous iterations of the Singapore General Hospital and TTSH were once designed along these lines.

Beds within these “Nightingale pavilion wards” were also spread out.

The duo believe Block 876 is a key ward worthy of being saved. Among other things, it was where HIV/Aids patients were tended to when the virus first surfaced in Singapore in 1985. Many died in this ward as there was no effective treatment back then.

Also of note, said Dr Loh, is Block 811. It served as the doctors’ quarters and as a day centre for Aids patients after 1996. Former staff and patients told the duo that the layout and natural surroundings catered for patients’ privacy and their psychological well-being.

The third building on their radar is the oldest one – the Administrative Block, or the nerve centre of the complex, where important medical decisions were debated, said Dr Hsu.

Wards and expansions which were added over time to Middleton Hospital – as it was once known – are also worth conserving, said Dr Hsu.

He added: “The pavilion wards and other buildings of the CDC are vested with Singapore’s rich medical heritage, having been the place of treatment, isolation and care for patients afflicted with various infectious diseases as a consequence of outbreaks at different junctures in Singapore’s history.”

Take Block 871 – a 30-bed cubicle ward added in 1956. There, a glass partition was installed to give nurses a view of patients in other rooms and reduce their exposure to diseases. It was the first such glass panel in a hospital in all of Malaya.

The fifth block of note is the two-room Block 803, where European and Asian patients were separated from each other during the first half of the hospital’s existence.

Dr Loh said retaining it can serve as a reminder that race-based policies are problematic.

Other post-1965 additions to the CDC include cabin wards built in response to the 2003 Sars outbreak, and Block 870, which was constructed in response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak.

The CDC has been replaced by the 330-bed National Centre for Infectious Diseases in Novena.

Summing up the site’s value, Dr Hsu said the CDC is central in Singapore’s medical story. “Among other things, it represents the debate among administrators and policymakers throughout Singapore’s past and present who have not always agreed on whether an infectious disease centre is necessary – a debate likely to recur in future.”

URA’s spokesman said the authority recognises the heritage significance of the medical institutions in the Moulmein Road area at large and has conserved three buildings there – two of which were once living quarters for TTSH’s medical staff.

The third is a bungalow at 144 Moulmein Road which was once the CDC’s Tuberculosis Control Unit.

Dr Loh hopes some of the wards and buildings they proposed for conservation will be brought back to life creatively.

He suggested that parts of the site could serve as Singapore’s first comprehensive medical museum, where visitors can walk through over a century of medical history in one space.

“Source:[Bid to save old CDC in Moulmein from wrecking ball] © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Permission required for reproduction”

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