Transitional Landscapes

by Angela Hijjas

for The Malaysian Naturalist vol. 50 no. 3 April 1997

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