Published in the Sunday Jakarta Post, 23 July 2006

One of the stunning entrants in the 2nd Malaysia International Landscape and Garden Festival
(Laman ‘Oasis of Beauty’ Competition)

Datin Pauline's Ikebana

The working title for this column was “Adoration of the Maggi”.
It was to be a satirical piece on Malaysian culture’s quaint Anglophilia – evident in its worship of Horlicks, Milo and Maggi noodles – and its connection to heroic kitsch garden design.
New feelings towards Malaysia somehow got in the way.
Over a thirty year relationshipwith Indonesia’s nearest relative I have grown allergic to people pointing with their thumbs, Putrajaya, the titles Datin and Dato’, and lady architects/government ministers in satin veils sporting fixed ethereal expressions of the Syariah “holier than thou” kind.
“They’re different from us” a Jakarta pandit once advised me, after my fiftieth unsuccessful attempt to create garden beauty in Kuala Lumpur.
On the other hand, Malaysian cartoonist Lat, legendary film maker/actor P. Ramlee and dancer Ramli Ibrahim are gods in my mini-pantheon of Malay greats. And Chinatown in Penang is almost my favourite place on the planet.  

Ng Sek San with a Sibu hammock

Three Strelitzia corms and two scindapsus leaves make an artistic statement (by Datin Pauline)

15 th July 2006: Lake Perdana Park, the ex-Prime Minister Mahathir’s horticultural equivalent to late Indonesia first lady Tien Soeharto’s Taman Mini Indonesia Indah Culture Park in East Jakarta.
I am a judge at the 2 nd Malaysia International Landscape and Garden Festival – Talk about putting a cat amongst the pigeons!
First cab off the rank I bump into Irish-born Datin Pauline in the official tent. She is looking a treat in a Dolly Partonesque version of the Malay national dress. She is with the daughter of the Sultan of Kelantan – the “past president of the Malaysian Ikebana Society” – and they are looking nervous, like the young princesses Margaret and Elizabeth at a Botswana bingo hall. A government official is explaining the days preceedings as he polishes off a container of Nasi Lemak, mouth open, prawn bits flying.
“How did you get on the panel?” Datin Pauline asks me, in an accusatory though warm tone.
“Well, I’m sort of a famous landscape designer,” I offer meekly.
“We’re famous too, we’re in all the magazines!! Aren’t we Tunku?” bubbles the buxom Datin.
I push out into the fierce mid-day heat.

• • •

The first garden we visit is about the size of a badminton court. It has a six metre high Dutch windmill artwork accent fountain; smoke billows from the wishing well-cum-mill-wheel on which it sits.
I am gob-smacked.
The next garden, done by Borneo’s Miri township, features polychromatic polystyrene goldfish ‘swimming’ amongst a ‘coral sea’ garden made from exotically-hued bromeliads and crotons (codeum).
“Exotically-hued” is definitely the predominate condition of most of the gardens on show.
Malacca State ’s exhibition features six large Portuguese cannonfountains spewing different coloured water into discreet puddles hedged by similarly coloured foliage. It is Munchkin town meets Mutiny on the Bounty!
Trengganu state’s entry is a fishing village ruinscape complete with boisterous blue turtle toddlers. In Malaysia even the turtles are “bullish about bouncing back!”
After my twentieth totally surreal, jaw-gapingly inventive garden I discard my prejudice for good garden taste – “Good taste is like a red light,” said designer Karl Lagerfeld recently. “I prefer tasty” …… and got into the mood of Malaysian aesthetic mayhem.
Stopping at one municipal marvel of Chelsea pensioner planting – the garden equivalent of a Malay fancy-fone (see photo left below) – I decide that “ the Malaysian design world has a colonial hang-up.”

A Malay fancy-fone
"No, we don’t,” countered my affable host, the dashing Dato Haji Ismail, the Director General of the National Landscape Department(motto: “Hibiscus – glorifying the nation”). “We have a colonial hangover.”
In one corner of the valley I discover my old buddy Ng Sek San, Malaysia’s most respected landscape designer and ninja-style hottie. For Sibu District, Sarawak he has created an outdoor loo: the festivals theme is “Oasis in the Garden” which, being of Chinese descent, he’d understood as “Asses in the Garden.”
It is a very clever installation featuring crisp hedges of the fragrant Eugenia aromatica bushes and a crisp white squat bog. The entrance portal is just a gap in a three foot thick wall of dried jungle leaves in a wire mesh boxes.
Eventually I come upon Datin Pauline and group’s ikebana displays, arrayed in a large air-conditioned hall full of floral dreams and nightmares. They are superb! Restrained and elegant arrangements not unlike the princesses themselves. Simple flowers and leaves are sculpted into striking forms.
At lunch on ‘ V.I.P. Island’ the Irish Datin looks flushed after her umpteenth curry puff but she still has the energy to spin the weapons-grade lazy Suzan. As the rendang rumpi curry slows to a halt in front of me I ponder: “ Malaysia Boleh!” What wonderful ambassadors these ladies are, with their gorgeous jewels and temperaments.

• • •

After dark we all huddle over egg curry finger sandwiches until well past midnight, to correlate the scores and award the 37 prizes.
Early in the proceedings the elaborate scoring charts are ditched. A prefect room-style consensus takes over.
Malaysians are incredibly good at this, I discover: the best-looking Dato’ in the crispest crumplene safari suit gets automatic power of veto, which is rarely invoked.
As the only garden designer on the judging panel I am allowed to scream and wail when good taste threatens to intervene.
In Indonesia, I ponder, this exercise would take three weeks!
All is resolved magnanimously. No-one votes for Singapore. We all head home with bloated tummies and tired feet.  

17 th July 2006 :
Heading home from Lake Toba in North Sumatra – see Toba Big Mama’s recipe for Mie Samosir in my next column – I read an article about the Badui aboriginal tribe of far West Java. It seems that they are complaining that the WWF are trying to relocate their sacred herd of single-horned rhinoceroses. (“Putri” (princess), they call them).
The WWF is concerned that a tsunami will wipe out the 500 or so of these rare animals still living, with the Badui, who live just east of Ujung Kulon National Park.
An hour later a three metre high tsunami slams into the self-same coast, killing over 500 people!
You wouldn’t read about it!!
The Stranger joins the rest of Indonesia in expressing condolences to the families of the victims of this tragic event.

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