Categorised | Letters to the Editor

What’s shady about the tree?

ON 3 March, Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said ridiculed the idea of meeting for serious deliberation beneath a tree.

Yesterday, on 4 March, Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar followed in her dubious footsteps. The Perak representatives’ decision to hold an emergency assembly sitting under a tree on 3 March, he said, had made the country a “laughing stock“.

“There has never been anything like it in the world, lawmakers holding their meeting under the tree,” said Syed Hamid at a meeting in Kota Baru.

Who, he implied, had ever heard of such a silly idea?

Yet meeting for such serious deliberative purposes beneath a banyan tree is a venerable idea or motif in many Asian cultures.

In the Gujarati language, for example, “banyan” means “merchant”, not “tree”. The Portuguese picked up the word to refer specifically to Hindu merchants. They passed it along to the English as early as 1599, with the same meaning.

Soon English writers began to speak of the banyan tree as a place where Hindu merchants would conduct their business. The tree provided, more generally, a shaded place for a village meeting.

Banyan tree (Source:

The idea of a connection, or similarity, between the consideration of public business, on one hand, and the banyan tree’s great encompassing shade and the underlying unity of its complex, intertwining roots, on the other, has long been a pervasive, and widely persuasive, metaphor throughout Asia.

One significant and recent instance of the idea is to be found in the book by the noted commentator and correspondent on Southeast Asian affairs Michael Vatikiotis, titled Political Change in Southeast Asia: Trimming the Banyan Tree (1996).

“The banyan tree,” Vatikiotis observes, “is a sturdy tree with long hanging branches offering ample shade. In many parts of Southeast Asia the tree is considered sacred … Its political significance stems from the ancient practice of using its protective shade as a place of teaching and supplication … In the Javanese tradition petitioners with a grievance would sit under the banyan tree to signal a desire for an audience with the ruler.” (p. 19)

Perhaps those who, on 3 March, chose to convene under a large tree had a very subtle appreciation of time-honoured “Asian values”.

Clive S Kessler
Sydney, Australia
5 March 2009

Clive S Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the School of Social Sciences and International Studies at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.

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3 Responses to “What’s shady about the tree?”

  1. ilann says:

    The original Kadazan / Dusun community, as part of the Kadazan / Dusun creation story, lived in the shade of the “Nunuk Ragang” (banyan) tree.

  2. Ho Yew Khet says:

    Well written. I totally agree. After all, the democratic process is much more important than a building. Two situations compared, I would have more respect for a third world country/society (with no infrastructure) with solid democratic practices versus a first world one (with all the fancy buildings) that only preaches democracy but does nothing to prove it to the people.

  3. nurulhuda says:

    We are like trees…. we must create new leaves, new directions in order to grow.

    We are like trees…. where others too will come and seek shelter under the trees from the rain and the sun. As such the trees must remain strong and viable, but again the direction of the trees and the leaves depend on the branches…. how far can the branches stretch itself.

    The branches are like us too, how far we can stretch ourselves…and then when the leaves begin to fall, in the evening against the solitude of the night sky you can see the outline of the branches, you begin to appreciate the beauty… and it gives you an idea of a once beautiful tree that provided shelter for many.

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