How do we learn to love a tree?

SO now we have a tree added to our collection of national symbols. This is the merbau, a tall tree that is a much sought after timber species.

In announcing its elevation on Friday, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad said he believed all Malaysians could take the merbau as a symbol of national pride because of its hardy nature.

Water, Land and Natural Resources Minister Dr Xavier Jayakumar explained that the hardwood, which is also known as the Malacca teak, “was selected as a symbol of the integrity of the nation’s forest as a result of sustainable management and biodiversity conservation.”

Not only that, it is “a symbol of the importance of the forest to the country’s industries and the economy.”

When I got wind of this new national icon, it reminded me of a column I wrote entitled, Empower our symbols of unity, published on Aug 26,2015. (You can read it on my blog

Back then, I raised the question on how well-known and cherished these symbols were and how had they been used in promoting national pride, identity and unity.

Four years and two days later, I still haven’t gotten any answers. Instead, as a citizen, I now have another national symbol, a tree.

Hmmm, what am I to make of it? All nations have such symbols, some more than others. The most important and visible is the flag. That’s normally followed by the national anthem, the coat of arms and the national motto.

Popular additions to the list are national flowers, animals, birds, fish and fruits.

We have all of that, except for fish, but there seems to be quite a lot of confusion over what is our national fruit. Most people assume it is the durian, Some think it’s the rambutan. But as far as I could ascertain, it is the papaya, as I stated in my 2015 article and this was never disputed.

A symbol that is undisputed is our flower, the bunga raya. Its scientific name is hibiscus rosa sinensis. The interesting fact about the bunga raya is that, unlike the indigenous merbau, it is not native to our land.

As I wrote in 2015, quoting Muzium Negara as my source, the flower originated from China and was brought to our shores by traders in the 12th century. What’s more, sinensis means “Chinese” and is colloquially known as “China rose”.

I went on to say, “Well, this ‘immigrant’ bright red flower truly bloomed on Malayan soil. It grew abundantly everywhere, which was the very reason it was chosen as the national flower in 1960 by our first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman.

“I like to think Tunku and other leaders also wanted the hibiscus rosa sinensis because it represented the many Malayans who came as immigrants, took root and prospered on this soil. We had that kind of inclusive leadership then.”

Today I pose again the same question from four years ago: “But if we were choosing a national flower in today’s racially bigoted political climate, would a species with a name like China rose have a ghost of a chance to be adopted?”

I think we all know the answer. Yet, ironically, it is this immigrant flower that is the most well-known national symbol, after the flag and anthem, even though it is no longer the shrub of choice in many neighbourhoods.

Instead, it is telling that Malaysians are still unclear as to what is their national fruit. For that matter, how many can name the national animal? Is it the Malayan tiger or the orang utan?

Very little has been done over the last 60 years of nationhood to really promote these symbols, which was why I made the appeal to “empower” them.

If the Pakatan Harapan government feels it needs to add a tree to our national symbols, then they must matter or why bother otherwise? And the merbau has been chosen because, as Dr Mahathir says, its toughness can be a symbol of national pride and because Dr Jayakumar says it represents the integrity of the nation’s forest.

Oh boy. All that doesn’t exactly fire up the imagination and patriotic stirrings in our hearts, does it? So what else will be done to make the merbau matter to the masses? How will it be empowered to move us to love it and take pride in it?

If nothing is done, the merbau will join the tiger, hornbill, bunga raya and papaya as paper national symbols that are not particularly loved nor revered.

The tiger, powerful and majestic as it is, has stayed stiffly on the national coat of arms. Even though it is the nickname of the national football team, Harimau Malaya, Malaysians are not passionate about it, nor do they immediately associate it with our nationhood.

Maybe we should switch to the durian since that is something Malaysians are passionate about.

When I was researching on this topic in 2015 and now in 2019, I couldn’t find an official site where all our national symbols are listed with explanations on their origins and why they were selected. Singapore’s National Heritage Board does that.

At a time when our nation is in dire need of much greater mutual trust, goodwill and unity among the races, empowering our national symbols can perhaps make a difference.

As Jake Townsend, adjunct professor in the University of Southern California’s School of Public Diplomacy, writes in his article, “Metaphors Made Real: On the Power of National Symbols”, it is these symbols that citizens turn to, “to define what we are” in tumultuous times.

He reasons that a nation, at its foundation, is a metaphoric construct that “is reinforced, in part, by those national symbols that together form the visual representation of who and what a nation aspires to be.”

He adds, “These symbols are so ingrained in the fabric of our daily lives as to be rendered ubiquitous, sometimes clichéd, and often,

utterly invisible – that is, until revolution and protest bring them to the fore.”

Which is what happened to the Jalur Gemilang. It gained enormous visibility as a powerful and emotional tool that united Malaysians during the Bersih and anti-Najib protests. The Negaraku too was used by the citizens as a unifying clarion call.

But none of the other symbols surfaced because they are not ingrained in our daily lives. Protesters didn’t roar with the tiger nor wear the bunga raya in their hair.

Townsend further opines: “... national symbols serve a vital role in our lives, and the lives of our countries. These physically realised representations of who we are, and what we hope to be, help to reinforce the important national qualities that (in the best cases) serve to make our nations better places for us all.”

Cynthia Miller-Idriss, associate professor of education and sociology at American University in Washington DC, in her article for the New York Times on “The emotional attachment of national symbols”, has this to add: “National symbols deserve respect not because they are static representations of unchanging ideals, but because they offer a focal point for diverse societies to express and navigate what it is that unites and represents them. It is precisely because they carry meaning, values and ideals that national symbols are important spaces for debate and transformation.”

So let us not just name a national tree and leave it standing in the forest, unnoticed, unrecognisable and irrelevant to our sense of belonging and togetherness. The merbau and we the people deserve better.

Aunty thinks a possible starting point for us to get to know the merbau is the ‘Hutan Kita – Journey through our Rainforest’ exhibition held at the Kuala Lumpur Tower until Sept 22. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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