The Life of a Park (November 2018)

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As an expat living in Johor Bahru, I have learnt to expect the unexpected. For my first year here, I would drive past Taman Merdeka (Independence Park on Jalan Datin Halimah) around midday and wonder why such a huge green space was empty of people? Was the parked closed? Well, it turned out that I was simply looking at the park at the wrong time of day. If you can get up early, it is positively heaving with bodies because this is where locals come to exercise before it gets too hot.

The mock boulders and other park furniture are a bit run down and rough around the edges, but the walk/jog/run around the central lake is quite pleasant. Usually the morning after a good rain storm produces beautiful soft golden light, as loved by photographers.

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My neighbours introduced me to a group of ladies (the Garden Ladies) who regularly perform exercises and tai chi in the park. Most of the ladies are Chinese, but there are Indian and Malay ladies as well. It is a very fluid group, so anyone, including men, can join in at any time. There is another tai chi group in the park but they start around 6:30 am which is far too early for me. There are also groups performing yoga, and individuals doing their own thing. The photo on the left shows the view I have when exercising, and it is always distracting. There are people to watch, there are squirrels gathering bedding from the palm trees which surround us, and a huge variety of noisy birds. In the far distance, on the Sultan’s property across the stream, are large white egrets and a striking blue kingfisher.

But what I enjoy most about this park is the welcome I get from the people there; the simple human exchange of a “Good morning” greeting and the conversations with the curious wondering what I am doing in Johor Bahru? If you come to live in Johor, and you want to interact with the people who have always lived here, then coming to such a park is a good way to start.

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In the photo on the right, you can see a curved stage. The very early morning tai chi group often perfom on here, but at 8 - 9 am on Thursdays - Saturdays, the stage and the area in front become the domain of large-scale public physical exercise. This is where you will find Syed Abd Rahman bin Syed Jaafar, a 67-year old youngster who has been running physical exercise programs in the park for over 27 years. Pak Habib, as he is known, or one of his sons, will take you through your paces with exercises to get you moving, accompanied by music to free your soul! Pak Habib is funded by the Johor Bahru City Council (MBJB) and various Johor corporations to encourage physical activity in the local population. You can easily find a couple of hundred people doing his unique combination of tai chi and aerobics (tai-aerobics), designed to suit the multi-ethnic nature of his audience.  

Taman Merdeka is a lovely space for exercise. The pathways are bordered by flowering shrubs and the seasons are told by the different fragrances wafting down from the trees. My particular favourite are the cotton trees which produce huge pods that burst open after the rain and release their cotton fibres which rest on the ground looking like snow!

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The wildlife in the park can sometimes be a bit surprising. The other year we came across an enormous turtle/tortoise which seemed to have stranded itself far from the water. So, a rescue operation was put into play but I do not know if the creature survived this experience.

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I have seen smaller turtles in the main lake, and people throwing bread in for the fish. I think the restarting of the small central fountain last year probably helps oxygenate the water. I understand that the larger fountain dances to lights at night time, but I have not ventured out yet to see that.

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Until recently, there was a rich forest bordering the park, and I regularly watched monkeys eating fruit on the trees or scampering along the overhead telegraph wires. Then, almost overnight, huge swathes of the forest had been destroyed and the orange sandy land was laid bare as the diggers matched through. It is a sight which has distressed many in the park, because being surrounded by forest was one of the main charms of Taman Merdeka, and can we really afford to lose more forest? It looks like the forest was destroyed to make way for an extension of the Royal Johor Golf Club, and of course this has meant that the monkeys were now homeless. We saw many family groups looking dazed and confused.

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And now it feels like the larger monkeys (i.e., the humans) are also being removed from the park. The principal carpark is now part of the redevelopment area, and the roadside parking area is also blocked off, so it is getting harder and harder to find somewhere to park and many are likely to give up on their exercise regime. There is a small notice saying that the carpark will be out of action until July 2019, but I have lived here long enough to know that that date is rather optimistic!

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The charming lily-filled stream behind the carpark is now being eroded and clogged with sandy soil washed away by the rains. I used to be able to watch fishermen here optimistically dangling a line into the stream, but that may be a thing of the past.

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So, the life of a park is a many varied thing! It changes from hour to hour and from day to day. Taman Merdeka is just one of the many parks dotted around Johor Bahru, so please go and investigate your local park and see what it has to offer.

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