The Famous Ipoh Rain Tree

There is a famous tree in Ipoh. Some call it as a democracy tree while others say it is a tree of treason. But thanks to the gadfly Speaker of Perak State Assembly, Sivakumar, the hitherto little known rain tree outside his office in Ipoh is now the state’s latest tourist attraction.

This is probably the first time in the world that a legislative assembly was convened under a rain tree. Or any tree for that matter. What is more remarkable is that rain tree is not even a native of the land. It was brought here from South America over a century or two ago.

On 3 March 2009, the tree became known as the “Rain Tree Under Which The Perak State Assembly Sat” or simply as “The Famous Rain Tree.”

We are already familiar with the story. It was a little while ago that the Perak Sultan appointed a new Mentri Besar, Zambry from Umno, to replace the incumbent, Nizar, who belongs to Sivakumar’s ruling coalition–Pakatan Rakyat.

Sivakumar then convened an emergency sitting of the legislative assembly to undo the situation but the other side quickly sealed off the legislative building, thus forcing the Speaker to convene the meeting under the rain tree 200 metres away.

Zambry quickly ran to the High Court, a stone’s throw away, to get an order to stop the sitting under the rain tree but they were five minutes too late as the Speaker had by then adjourned the emergency sitting after passing two resolutions; the first was to affirm that deposed Mentri Besar still has the confidence of the house and the other was to call for a dissolution of the house to make way for fresh elections to resolve the constitutional crisis.

To celebrate their disputed victory, Pakatan Rakyat named the rain tree as a Tree of Democracy. Underneath the ‘Tree of Democracy’ is a commemorative plaque describing the series of events that lead to the state assembly holding its sitting there.

After the tree planting ceremony, Nizar said, “This tree is a symbolic reminder of the emergency meeting we had to convene according to the doctrine of necessity after we were barred from the state building.”

Zambry was fuming mad and said the tree might be “a tree of democracy” for Pakatan Rakyat, but he considered it a symbol of treason and contempt for royalty.

Now back the rain tree. The majestic tree which is really like a multi-storey tall umbrella providing shade and comfort to all and sundry who gather underneath it. It a common road side tree in Malaysia. According to botanical accounts, the rain tree is a native of South America but this is hotly disputed. The claim is as controversial as who exactly is the real Mentri Besar of Perak.

One of the earliest recorded accounts of the rain tree has it that the Singapore Botanical Garden introduced the Rain tree from South America during the year 1876. This was probably the Golden or Yellow Rain Tree but we will come to that later.

Although the rain trees in Malaysia are not more than 200 years old, the ones in Thailand are reputed to be older. I saw one recently in Chiang Mai along the Ping River where the old French school used to be. The one is massive and reputed to be 300 years old and the tallest in Thailand (according to the tourism guys). I didn’t take a picture of it as I couldn’t imagine doing a story on a rain tree!

My friend Keat Peng wrote on his blog: “Coming from Taiping, my favourite tree is the rain tree, tall and sprawling. At the Taiping Lake Gardens, the branches of the rain tree majestically bend down towards the water forming a magnificent canopy of green archways over the road. You haven’t really been to Taiping without cycling or driving under those archways, a singular sublime experience to cherish for a very long time.

My wife comes from Taiping and we worked there for three years till 2000 before coming back to Petaling Jaya. The rain trees at the Lake Garden are majestic, awesome and inspirational. Simply looking at them calms one’s soul.

Imagine the uproar if someone treats these treasures with disrespect. A few years ago a century-old rain tree in the King Edward VII primary school was chopped on orders from its new headmaster. Following an outburst from locals, the Taiping Municipal Council president quickly stepped in to prevent the remaining rain trees from the same fate.

Its botanical name is Samanea saman and its common names include coco tamarind, saman, and monkey pod. The Malay name for it is hujan hujan (rain) or pukul lima (five o’clock).

Talking fondly of rain trees in his alma mater, Abu Bakar Ahmad, Class of 77, blogs, “Anyone who has been to the Sultan Abdul Hamid College (in Alor Setar) would not fail to notice, on arrival at the entrance, the old trees that lined up the avenue leading to the main building. These weathered sentinels are rain trees, or more popularly known by its local name, Pukul Lima.”

“The name Pukul Lima is somewhat odd for a tree but there is an interesting twist to it. Due to their sensitivity to light, the leaflets of this tree tend to fold up at dusk, thus giving the impression that they are retiring from duty for the day. The tree is also sometimes called Hujan-hujan on account of the leaves folding up due to the overcast sky bespeaking of an impending shower.”

Flowers of the rain tree are reddish pink to crimson in colour but the most beautiful golden form of the rain tree is called the golden or yellow rain tree. However, the colour comes not from its flowers but he leaves as the dfference in appearance is due to differences between young and old leaves. Young leaves are apple green in colour initially but as they mature their color initially but as they mature their colour changes first to yellow and then to golden. During hot weather and dry periods the golden colour appears to be more brilliant.

There is Golden Rain Tree just one outside the Sin Chew Daily office in Petaling Jaya where the old Philip’s factory used to be.

Meanwhile, the Pakatan Rakyat has gone on to plant five more rain trees to keep the lone Tree of Democracy in Ipoh company. They say the new trees are symbols of Justice, Integrity, Welfare, Transparency and Trustworthiness.

As if apprehensive that their adversaries may chop down the democracy tree plus its five new companions, Nizar said, “The Ipoh municipal council may prune the big trees, but not damage them.”

When asked whether instructions had been given to remove the plaque and uproot the trees, Zamry said, “I don’t want to answer your question.”

However, he said the trees were planted on road reserve, which was under the Ipoh City Council’s jurisdiction. Rain trees are road side trees in Malaysia and are invariably planted on road reserves ever since they were brought here from south America.

The tree’s commemorative plaque has since been smashed to smithereens by the Ipoh Municipality. Well, they can chop down the Famous Ipoh Rain Tree too but the real democracy tree still lives in the hearts of Perakians.

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