A Sense of Place in the Landscape

The new Visitors' Centre of Kuala Selangor Nature Park

The new Visitors’ Centre of Kuala Selangor Nature Park

The new facilities at Kuala Selangor Nature Park were opened with some fanfare last month, complete with the attendance of the Minister for Housing and Local Government, Dato Dr. Ting Chew Peh. The function also served to launch Hari Landskep, and a selection of native trees were duly planted. Hopefully this choice of indigenous plants heralds a new approach by the National Landscape Department. A 1997 booklet distributed on the occasion illustrates the projects they commended in fulfilling “the Government’s vision to transform Malaysia into a garden nation by the year 2005.” Judging by the photos of severely clipped multi coloured plantings, neat edges and exotic species, we are to effect a transformation from the natural to the wholly artificial.

Landscaping competitions organised by the department covered all categories, from condo to kampong, and the winners all presented versions of the potted and de/formed interpretation of a for ceful control over nature. The towering grandeur of our natural landscape has provided no inspiration to the designers, despite the fact that we have inherited a country with the greatest biodiversity of plant material in the world. By choosing to ignore this wealth in favour of the imported and exotic, the designers are definitely experiencing the throes of some post colonial “cultural cringe.”

To develop a national concept for landscaping is more complex than merely taking elements of what designers have seen overseas and recreating it here. To recognise what is unique and beautiful in our own landscape is the beginning of the process and you build on that, assuming that the landscape one creates is intended to reinforce Malaysia’s unique sense of place, because we do have nationalistic objectives at stake.

The beautiful Saracca, definitely a candidate for the national flower.

The beautiful Saracca, definitely a candidate for the national flower.

Unfortunately, we have used foreign symbols in the past and no one has questioned those choices and in the process we have lost opportunities to present Malaysia as unique. Nationalism should be b ased on a solid understanding of where and who we are, and the place we occupy should be our source of inspiration for the symbols and images that represent us. Two examples of inappropriate and unimaginative choices should suffice.

Firstly, the hibiscus, the honored Bunga Raya, is not indigenous to Malaysia, but to southern China. When we have in our forests such magnificent botanical wonders as Rafflesia (although the name may not be politically correct) why would we select for our national flower s omething that is so pan-tropic it evokes no sense of place at all?

The flag may have got it wrong, but the crest didn't.

The flag may have got it wrong, but the crest didn’t.

My second example definitely locates our sense of place in the wider world. The new crescent moon in Malaysia is a slightly skewed smile on the horizon as it sets in the west immediately after sunset at the beginning of each new lunar month. Why, then, does Malaysia’s flag tilt the moon as if it were being viewed from Saudi Arabia? Being Australian, I can relate to this dilemma, as the British Union Jack still graces the top left corner of that flag, but hopefully not for much longer. I accept that the crescent moon is the symbol of Islam; I acknowledge that Mecca should be venerated but I see no reason why the angle of the moon should not be on the flag as we see it in Malaysia, slipping over the horizon every month, reminding us all of the passage of time and exactly where we are. And what a great gesture it would be to salute all Malaysians by realigning the sabit bulan, in acknowledgment of that special place we all occupy.

Malaysia is a tropical country, Kuala Lumpur is just three degrees north of the equator. Our sense of belonging is reflected in how we recognise where we are. To me, trees are the first indicator of location. Australia is perfumed by eucalyptus, Malaysia by durian when you are lucky and motorbike fumes when you are not, but identifying the trees that belong to this place alone confers a precise sense of place and belonging, something that our national landscaping policy should certainly address. With the relent less pressure to globalise, we surely wish to retain some uniqueness that other places do not have and landscaping with native species must enhance this.

Indigenous people have always identified location with the prevailing flora, by naming the places after the plants. Ipoh is a tree with toxic bark, used to tip hunting arrows. The Pinang palm provides the mildly narcotic fruit that has been used for centuries in South East Asia for a multitude of medicinal purposes. The feathery Melaka tree is believed to have provided the place name for river and town. The name is from Sanskrit, possibly given by visitors from the subcontinent centuries ago. Just as names keep our language and history alive, so does a knowledge of our own unique plants.

A very significant book has just been reprinted by the Malaysian Nature Society that will provide hours of fascinating browsing for anyone interested in indigenous species and their relevance on a daily and historic basis. Professor E.J.H. Corner compiled a remarkable survey of Malaya’s trees that was first printed in 1940, ‘The Wayside Trees of Malaya’, in two volumes. Its importance has not diminished over half a century and there has never been anything else close to replacing it. The contents cover a broad selection of plants encountered in the peninsula, illustrated by old but excellent photographs and line drawings that make identification easy for the amateur. Precise botanical information is mixed with interesting anecdote and opinion, and one can easily dip in and out of its masses of information. The sections on the characteristics of each of the plant families provide an easy introduction to botany, and simple keys help in identification. Particular trees are noted with an ironic eye, like this Sindora wallichii: “The tall tree at Changi that, as a feature on pre-war charts for over a century, marked the eastern approach to the Straits of Johore was felled early in 1942 to prevent Japanese forces ranging on the useless guns of the fortress of Singapore. Sic transit gloria mundi.” Corner’s immense knowledge and forthright opinions should be included on every Malaysian book shelf.

Trees and the natural surroundings mark the uniqueness of place and deserve to be noted in our man-made landscapes as they bear witness to our history and who we are. By learning about local plants and recognising them we become more aware of ourselves and our singular identity. Malaysia is unique and the propagandists would do well to draw our nationalist symbols (and our landscaping styles) from those elements that make this place so special.

 

The Malaysian Naturalist
vol. 51 no. 3&4