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The jungle in our midst

Updated: Sep 28, 2023

by Lye Tuck-Po
posted on 1 September 2023

I wrote the following in 2008. Some of it disappeared into my book. Here it is in full again:

Forest. 1. n. large area of land covered chiefly with trees and undergrowth: trees in this; fig. dense concentration (of things). 2. v.t. plant with trees, make into forest.
Jungle. n. land overgrown with tangled vegetation, esp. in tropics; area of such land; tangled mass; place of bewildering complexity or confusion or ruthless struggle.

Next to the house where I spent my early years was a field. We children were warned never to play there: it was a veritable jungle with tall grass and high bushes that concealed danger. Once a cousin of mine was waylaid and robbed of his necklace there. The unpredictable nature of that environment would reveal itself in other ways: like a large snake crossing the road, an image forever imprinted in my memory. For all my childhood that was my view of the jungle. I feared the jungle and associated it with dangerous wildlife and dangerous people.
My grandparents had in the ‘50s been among the first settlers on that road. Land and property were cheaper then. New families turned up in the ‘60s and ‘70s. No longer did the houses bespeak “comfort” and “space.” Used as I was to a master bedroom that could house five beds with room to spare, these new developments were amazingly tiny.
The years passed, and the bulldozers came. They flattened the vegetation and leveled the ground. Pretty soon, the two halves of the road were connected for the first time in its history. Rapidly the jungle receded from our view. A rich family took up the land diagonally across from ours; as their bungalow took shape, so did the shortcut to my maternal grandparents’ village disappear.
I visited my grandparents frequently. There I played with the village children in little overgrown lots collecting dragonflies and grasshoppers. Or I climbed into the drains to explore the “wildlife” there, and brought home a yield of mosquito bites that aroused the consternation of my other grandmother. But this landscape too was destined to change. As the families in the village became more affluent, the physical differences between the dwellings on our street and the village faded too.
We sold up, moved to the centre of town, and left the “jungle” behind. I didn’t return to these settings until the 1990s. It was hard to recall the ambience of my childhood. Almost all the old bungalows were torn down and replaced with semi-detached houses. As a five-year-old in the early 1970s, I was allowed to walk to school without adult supervision. Every morning I crossed the road, picked up my playmate, and we took a little path through the shrubbery behind her house then crossed the main road, and walked a short distance to our kindergarten. Driving down that main road 20 years later, I couldn’t imagine anyone allowing small children to wander freely as we had done. The road was widened, and vehicles zipped up and down without end.
Yet the jungles have persisted everywhere I travel in the Peninsula. The landscape has changed, but not completely. Sometimes these changes are dramatic and remarkable. Some call these changes destructive—an uncle of mine used the phrase “environmental vandalism”—and others call them “development.” New super-everything highways now connect the major towns and cities on the west coast. As they connect, so do they reveal.
Traveling out of Ipoh on the North-South highway to Kuala Lumpur, for example, the scenery is littered with vistas of indigenous people’s villages pressed into cramped spaces while the concrete spreads towards them like a virus. On mountain roads overlooking the capital city, it is easy to spot the indigenous people’s orchards and sometimes the people themselves, shouldering rattan loads on the edges of the tarmac.
Past and present come together in the forest, and many Malaysian families will have anecdotes and memories of encounters with the forest, its wildlife, and its spiritual forces. Here is one family memory from 1912 or thereabouts, when my great-grandfather took a position in a rubber plantation estate. The whole family was uprooted from town and lived there with him. My grandmother was just a baby. Family equilibrium was upset by news that a tiger was prowling around the estate. My great-grandfather grabbed a gun and ordered his son to dispense of the menace. The young man was not unwilling. But he was not destined to step out the door.
His mother was furious: how dare her husband send her beloved only son out into the night after a tiger? With one hand she cradled the baby (my grandmother), with the other she collared her son, and with whatever limb was still available, she gave her husband a sound beating for this lapse of judgment and good sense. The story was passed down from one of the adolescent daughters to my grandmother who in turn passed it on to me the year before she died.
History does not record what happened to the tiger.
This anecdote is delicious to me for giving a glimpse of what my great-grandparents were like, but it also suggests what it’s like to live in those conditions. The dilemma is between living with the forest and having to deal with its “wildness”—its tigers, elephants, snakes, its very essence—and cutting down the forest and not having to deal with them. Yet even when we cut down the forest, we don’t lose its traces completely.
Life in plantation estates right down to the present day can be risky. Throughout the first year of my dissertation fieldwork (1995–1996), while I was safely ensconced in forest camps with the Batek, newspapers were rife with reports that pythons were swallowing up peri-urbanites around the country. I had the ironic pleasure of assuring anxious friends that such terrible things do not happen in the forest itself (fingers crossed). When settlers move to forest frontiers, their clearings attract the increasingly circumscribed animals inside the forest. So the animals come out to feed. For those who regularly traverse the forest, however, there is a healthy respect for what it is and can do; they have learnt to be extremely cautious about its dangers.

Batek man climbing a tree @ Lye Tuck-Po

For people like my great-grandparents and grandparents, I have little sense that they ever thought about the aesthetic pleasures of the forest. The forest was the jungle thickly populated with evil spirits and dangerous animals. The forest was a site of “ruthless struggle,” as the dictionary definition in the epigraph tells us. Moving into the jungle was fraught with peril and indeed few people welcomed it. Some time in the early decades of their marriage, my grandfather, a general practitioner, got posted to the now-defunct leper colony at Pulau Jerejak. My grandmother well remembered the privation and dangers (they were issued with and trained to use firearms). Ultimately she pressured her husband to give up the job and return them to the well-ordered environment of town.
My family stories about our interactions with the landscape are not extraordinary; so long as the forest remains, we will continue to be reminded of these stories and to pass them on. I had only to mention to my enfeebled grandmother that I expected to encounter tigers in my fieldwork (optimistically, as it turned out) for her to remember the story of her parents’ one-time “struggle” with the animal. My point is: the forest has a way of taking us back to our past. It is the site of social memory [1, 2].
The attentive reader may notice that I’ve used the words “jungle” or “forest” interchangeably and not in their scientific or literal senses, to refer to a defined stand of trees with certain biophysical characteristics. Rather, I’ve been playing with the “idea” of the jungle—the jungles of the collective imagination—and by “collective” I’m really talking about a privileged subset of society. Mine, that is. Untutored urbanites, us: everything beyond the concrete is a jungle—of sorts.
In a world that is so exercised by the need for development, rural landscapes and beyond them the forest proper represent not just ways of living or modes of production. They symbolize our past. If you accept this premise, “development of the forest” is not just an economic, ecological, or political process; it promises the de-linking of the future from the past. Yet so long as the forest exists and there are people who live within it, I suspect this bold experiment will not work.


[1] Connerton, P. 1989. How societies remember. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Schama, S. 1990. Landscape and memory. New York: Knopf.

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