A Sense of Place in the Landscape

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

Transitional Landscapes

Transitional Landscapes

As an enthusiast of indigenous gardening, I am always interested in what everyone else plants. Tropical gardens range from the pseudo-jungle of the ‘Balinese’ style (masses of spectacular sub-tropical species) to the ‘Bandaraya’ style of intricate baroque detail, with elaborate parterres of clipped and coloured bushes tortured into anthropomorphic decorations of draped bunting and logos.

Malaysians are generally attracted to lavish detail, in enormous contrast to the natural wood and fibres wrought into the fine traditional crafts of old. From the home-made wedding decorations that used all the plants of the kampung garden to the plastic colours and glitter of today there has been a major aesthetic shift. Natural artistic judgement has been disjointed by rapid changes over recent decades and we are unsure how to see the new industrial materials.

What was carved wood yesterday is suddenly plastic today. The first reaction is to maximise this opportunity: the more colour and decoration the better. Embellishing ikat and songket fabrics used to be laborious, and yesterday’s subtle variation of natural dyes pales against today’s aniline magic. Colour and gilt can be had for almost nothing, and it will take time for the novelty to wear off, for people to conclude that, in an environment filled with so many material objects, less is more where decoration is concerned.

What is obvious in wedding paraphernalia is equally evident in garden design. The colourful and intricate landscaping along Jalan Parlimen is symptomatic of the transient state, and I await the day when Dewan Bandaraya concludes that the maintenance is too labour-intensive and opts instead for tall shady trees and a more generous habitat than miniature clipped hedges. The main objective of these baroque wedding cakes is presumably to impress the masses driving past in their air conditioned cars. The landscape was certainly not intended for pedestrians-despite the pretty pathways, there is little protection and no one likes to go out in the sun!

Garden styles are also influenced by the experiences of our parents. If they struggled to control the natural environment to survive then you can’t expect them to have much fondness for it. My father had a ‘bush block’ in Australia after the Second World War, and thought nothing of grubbing up acres to create pasture for sheep. Now Australia endeavours to repair damage to fragile marginal land that was inflicted by thousands of resettled veterans, and it took my father another twenty years to appreciate the beauty of the Australian indigenous species that now, in the PC nineties, constitute ‘forest’ rather than ‘bush’.

Similarly, Malaysian children are taught to sweep the compound every day for fear of snakes, centipedes and scorpions; the jungle must be kept at bay because neglect means rapid entombment. Hence the preference for small plants, preferably in pots, especially if they respond well to a good hard pruning to diminish and miniaturise them. A small plant is no threat, unlike the amorphous jungle that once waited at the fence. Now that the forest is long gone, I wonder how long it will take before we choose tall strong trees instead of the stunted specimens that serve to demonstrate our power over nature.

On a recent trip to West Sumatra I found a vivid example of this cultural dislocation. I visit nurseries to see what people are planting and perhaps find new varieties of local gingers. Somewhere between Bukit Tinggi and Padang, one nursery featured an intricate concrete tree stump planted with heliconia. To my eyes it was incongruous: the tree was reduced to an industrial celebration of human dominion and was planted with the latest novelty from overseas that, by definition, must be better than anything local. A garden of concrete tree stumps planted with heliconia is now my worst nightmare.

There is no beauty in the natural world unless we are trained to see it, but development is changing the face of our country so fast that the necessary cultural adjustment may take too long. By the time we appreciate our heritage it may be history.

Kuala Lumpur has some magnificent stands of older trees, and some attempts are made to preserve them. The bank of Eugenia grandis in Jalan Tun Razak was not cut down, but nothing was done either to protect the roots from construction damage so they could survive the enormous disturbance. Are we so insensitive as to believe that merely not cutting ensures survival.* The power of the jungle, I think, is overrated against the tools at our disposal.

The concept of sharing our environment with other life forms has not yet taken hold. As city dwellers we prefer our gardens to be sanitised, affirming our control and keeping the natural world at bay. A certain amount of sweeping and fogging, I agree, has to be done, but we can compensate by offering the spaces we do not need to other species. Rather than the stunted miniaturisations that we whizz past on the highways, why not trees, real trees with tall trunks, flowers and fruit for the insects, birds and tupai.

Corridors of natural planting can enrich our urban experience and help compensate for the enormous moral debt we owe to the natural world. The huge areas dedicated to traffic interchanges on our ever-growing highway system can be put to good use: plant the waste land beside the tarmac, as densely a possible, with a wide variety of indigenous species. Insect and bird life will flourish, the urban climate will be cooled a little, air quality improved and there would be an opportunity to gaze at trees instead of Toyota ads while stuck in a traffic jam.

With so much to gain, a cultural transition cannot come too soon. Malaysians need to feel comfortable with their natural heritage rather than using every opportunity to dominate it. When we substitute the word ‘forest’ for ‘jungle’, we may be on the road to recovery.

by Angela Hijjas
Malaysian Naturalist, Vol. 50 no. 3, April 1997

* Since this article was published the trees have been destroyed and a highway put in their place.


Bandaraya: Kuala Lumpur City Hall
Kampong: village
Ikat: an elaborate tie-dying process that is performed before weaving
Songket: a hand woven gilded brocade traditionally worn at weddings
Tupai: Malaysian squirrels

The Gardening Lifeline

The Gardening Lifeline

Some of us share a compulsion to garden and find great tranquility as we perform the apparently mindless tasks of watering and weeding. Gardening fulfills a desire to beautify our surroundings by rearranging things but there is more to it than that. Our connection to a particular place is shown by the marks we make on it: what we plant or build, or choose to weed out and destroy. Gardens reflect the world we want to see.

My personal view of the world is not particularly optimistic, and my need to focus on the positive is met by gardening. I would rather not see the natural environment diminish around me and so concentrate instead on the smaller delights of my own land: deciding were to plant a tree, finding the pigeon orchids, or catching sight of a rarely seen bird: all occupy my selective view.. Living in Kuala Lumpur, I have come to accept change as the norm, but since I started gardening in earnest I have begun to focus instead on the plants people choose and to wonder about the landscapes of their imaginations.

I know that gardening is my survival mode and I kid myself that I am developing the answer to sustainability, despite the facts that no one else I know has fourteen acres to plant and that after five years I am barely self-sufficient in anything but nutmegs! Perhaps my garden will provide sanctuary for a few plants and birds, as well.

The indigenous garden framed by coconut palms; Achasma megalocheilos has taken over the damp ground in the valley; the palm at the back is Oncosperma tigillarium, ribong, with its beautiful curtain-like pendulous leaflets. The palm on the right is Iguanura wallichiana.

The indigenous garden framed by coconut palms; Achasma megalocheilos has taken over the damp ground in the valley; the palm at the back is Oncosperma tigillarium, ribong, with its beautiful curtain-like pendulous leaflets. The palm on the right is Iguanura wallichiana.

In these articles I would also like to share this understanding of ‘occupying’ a place by gardening. What do you want your garden to say about yourself? Do you want to work in it or should it be low maintenance? Do you want fragrance or colour, or both? Are you content with just greenery? Are there any cultural icons you want to include: a shrine or a piece of sculpture? A garden gnome, perhaps? The results can be surprisingly revealing.

My own thoughts on gardening are strongly influenced by having come from Australia. In Australia, planting indigenous species has become common as people have acquired a sense of belonging to the country and their knowledge of its plants and animals has grown. I have chosen to plant and learn more about dipterocarps and dillenias, instead of the eucalypts and grevilleas of my birthplace. What I learned elsewhere, I want to apply here with local materials to create my version of a Malaysian garden.

The idea of planting indigenous species in Australia had wider implications that an emerging sense of belonging in a formerly foreign country: they are better suited to the environment, so maintenance and inorganic intervention are minimised. More important, local plants only need as much rain as they get naturally. Thus, in Australia, thirsty emerald lawns were replaced by bark chips and pebbles, simultaneously creating a sympathetic ‘canvas’ for the bluish greys of Australian bush species. Presto! A ‘new Australian’ aesthetic for landscape design!

By planting local species and pursuing organic techniques, I plan to enrich my local biomass and shape it into a Malaysian landscape of tall canopies under-planted with palms and ferns. I have compromised at times when choosing plants, particularly in the earlier years, and I constantly find myself justifying the entrance avenue of Madagascan travelers palms. The lush extravagance of the ‘pan tropic’ style was just too tempting and I was overwhelmed by such exotic choices, but as I find more suitable local species those early anomalies will be replaced.

This series of gardening articles was supposed to be packed with hands- on, practical advice and information. Sadly, I lack the qualifications to satisfy the techies who want hard data. For them, in fact for anyone interested in gardening, I would recommend the wonderful ‘Tropical Planting and Gardening’, first published in 1910 and still in print thanks to our own Malaysian Nature Society. All of its 767 pages are packed with information about plants and techniques guaranteed to be environmentally friendly, predating the age of chemicals as it does. It offers a wealth of facts and figures, a wonderful insight into a world long gone and all the how-to advice you are ever likely to need.

Unlike most MNS members, I have little desire to see the places we are trying to protect; just knowing they are intact would be enough. I have no recreational need to see them because I garden and what naturalist’s adventure could be as challenging as creating a Malaysian garden? It is an artificial construction but it is also my most important contact with the natural world. I am delighted to share the experience, but be prepared for opinionated tracts on the importance of the indigenous, the organic and the appropriate, because that is my quest.

By Angela Hijjas
Malayan Naturalist, vol. 50 no. 1, December 1996