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: plantatreelovetheplanet.com)
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
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.