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HERE are some points to ponder about Malaysian culture: it’s funny how many housing estates have the name “Taman” or “Garden”, but all you see are houses with extended cement porches with no gardens. For the homes that do have gardens, either because the owner doesn’t want to splurge on cement or, uncommonly, he actually likes the green patch, you’ll probably see rows of potted plants along the drain with one fruit tree or a red palm in the middle.A foreigner who visited our shores once commented casually that Malaysians seem to like living in neat rows of boxes.Having just celebrated our 47th Merdeka Day, I wonder, what kind of identity do we really have? Do we express it only in the form of mega structures and with superlatives or are we still searching for our place in this world?For that matter, why is having a cultural identity so important? In this article, we explore how cultural and national identity figure in creating an outdoor living space and ways you can have your own Malaysian garden.

Our identity

According to psychology, a person’s identity begins forming during adolescence. Just imagine (since recalling is impossible), when we were babies, there was no “me” or “you”. The world was one big blur. When we waved our arms involuntarily, it was as if the world was waving its arm. But gradually, we begin to see that we had control over moving our arm, but not the rest of the things around us. Therefore, our arm is part of “me”, and soon, with other parts of our anatomy, we begin to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the world. Of course, this is only the fundamental part of identity forming. Throughout childhood, our identity encompassed our immediate family, our ethnic origins, and having a distinct personality, style, and behaviour.The complexities of an identity begin to manifest itself strongly throughout our teenage years, as we fought to find our place against the rules and control set by our parents. Perhaps the rebelling of youth is a way of exploring the boundaries of our identity, to test both extreme ends of the identity spectrum before settling down somewhere in the middle.Without a distinct identity, we might as well all be robots in an assembly line.

Pride as Malaysians

Our cultural identity as Malaysians is an important gauge of how we relate to the world at large. In other words, how matured are we as a people.  In this respect, how we regard the symbols of our identity – language, traditions and beliefs, art and craft, architecture and landscape – is directly linked to how we regard ourselves. Are we ashamed or proud, or secure in being ourselves? Or are we pretenders to other cultures we deem more sophisticated?I believe culturally, we are still as teenagers, unsure of who we really are.Consider the paradox: If we were to encounter a Proton car in the streets of London or overhear a dialogue in Bahasa Malaysia in Moscow, we’d feel a strong sense of belonging as Malaysians. When we spot the Petronas Twin Towers in a Hollywood movie, or when our Prime Minister boldly stands up for what we believe in and hits out at injustices of the West, we feel proud and rightly so.But in so many other instances, especially in product design and lifestyle, we seem bent on the notion that anything imported is infinitely superior to locally made or designed products. After we have fought hard to gain our independence and cultivate our own identity instead of imitating the colonial ways, it appals me no end how many Malaysians still ape western cultural mores, believing it to be superior to our own. The worst are those that spend time abroad only to return here and criticize our way of doing things. 

An imitation culture?

While not all countries have its own distinct architecture and landscape, if you notice, only those countries with deep-rooted cultural histories have expressed their uniqueness as advanced civilizations in their building designs and gardens. They have their own “style” that is copied all over the globe.The question that begs an answer is: why are we so quick to embrace these foreign styles instead of developing our own identity? From the façade of our home to the interior furnishings, to the clothes we wear, we feel a false sense of pride at brandishing foreign brands. We prefer expensive Italian-designed furniture over locally made ones, or we show off our Japanese Koi garden as if it symbolised how refined our tastes are.  Is it really a matter of taste or an identity crisis? Design is a visual language and it can take on an air of superficiality when it is blatantly foreign. Of course, I am not against imported products, only against our pervasive attitude of mindlessly choosing foreign cultures over our own.  It’s like wearing an imitation Rolex watch bought at a bargain – it’s so much simpler to take on a ready albeit alien identity than to strive at creating what is truly representative of us. 

A garden of our culture

So, how does our cultural identity fit into designing an outdoor living space? Admittedly, landscape is but a part of the entire prism that makes up the identity of a people.And in my little way, through landscaping, I am contributing towards shaping the way we perceive ourselves. I have been, for several years now, developing and campaigning for a Malaysian-themed garden – for more people to come forward and design landscapes that reflect our rich multi-racial culture instead of adopting the garden designs of other countries. By combining government support, media endorsement and active participation of housing developers and landscapers, we can spur the related industries into creating a truly Malaysian style on par with the more famous counterparts in the world.Can you imagine a Malaysian garden in the snow-covered suburbs of Europe? Or foreign universities discussing landscape in the Malaysian style? Or perhaps to the point where other people think it’s cool to “adopt” Malaysian landscape trends.  To a certain extent, the landscape industry has been awaken and begun marketing products with a distinctive Malaysian feel. But it may be a hollow victory as most of them are merely jumping on the bandwagon of a surging popular concept and copying what I have created. But amongst these copycat landscapers, there are a group of entrepreneurs and passionate landscape artists who believe in the intrinsic value of our culture, not just as a potentially huge marketable commodity but simply because it is a part of who we are. Although I refuse to believe that the idea of a Malaysian garden is a lawn of carpet grass with one fruit tree, but there isn’t really a right or wrong when it comes to interpreting our culture in a garden. A Malaysian garden must reflect a tropical theme and ideally demonstrate the harmonious fusion of various cultures – Malay, Chinese and Indian. Apart from that, it is all up to you.Perhaps you think a Malaysian garden is based on our local folklore like Puteri Gunung Ledang or Mahsuri, thus incorporating design features reflecting the beauty and innocence of the fair maidens. Or it should reflect our cultural history by fusing artistic elements of each race like the intricate Malay carvings and Chinese bonsai plants with Indian tea lights. My point is, whatever the design, it must contain a fair amount of “Malaysianness”. Our culture is chock full of artistic history, legends, fables, customs, and much more – why do we need a Victorian garden to beautify a Malaysian hotel? Or a Balinese-style pond in a Malaysian public park? So let’s start creating and supporting products and designs imbued with our country’s individuality. Only then will we create a matured society, comfortable with ourselves, fiercely loyal to our culture and proud to be Malaysian.