Five years ago, I was in Afghanistan to do news reporting and shoot a documentary on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. It was in Kabul and I was walking around the city trying to conduct a vox pop with the locals.
Not a single person would talk to me and their stares were scary and intimidating. They looked like they were genuinely angry with me for invading their space when I approached them. I thought I was already being very respectful.
I eventually found out (my local fixer told me) that I was being too jovial and energetic when I approached the locals on the street. I needed to calm down a little bit more and be slightly more humble when I speak to them.
So I did just that and they were more than happy to speak to me. It also helped tremendously that I gave them the Muslim ‘salam’ and said I was from Malaysia. The locals would immediately smile and some even invited me home for drinks.
So, understanding local culture works.
Being a journalist, I travel a lot for work. Not just within Malaysia, but also internationally. I have reported in the Middle East - Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon, Iran and Egypt - as well as European countries such as Sweden and the United Kingdom, and even Australia.
And every time I do go to foreign lands to report, I try to avoid being what is known as a ‘parachute journalist’. This is a journalist who enters an area and tries to explain to the people what is happening there without ever trying to understand the local context and culture.
I find this really irresponsible, disrespectful and condescending. And although I realise I can never truly understand a foreign culture, I try my very best and the least I would do is to consult another local journalist or fixer to be sure.
So I find it very perplexing when news broke about the nine Australian men who were arrested during the F1 party in Sepang for public indecency and disrespecting the Malaysian flag when they stripped down to their skimpy swimming trunks emblazoned with the Jalur Gemilang.
I am as liberal as any other liberal, and I am known to go topless during fun times by the beach and hot weather, too. So personally, I don’t really find what these men did to be very offensive. But I do understand Malaysian culture and Malaysian sensitivities.
I will not go topless when I am in the middle of Kuala Terengganu town, for example. And I would also avoid wearing shorts when I attend ‘doa selamats’, ‘tahlils’ and funerals in the kampung. Respect is as simple as that.
When these men came to Malaysia, they should have been responsible enough to find out at least a little bit about local sensitivities before thinking that their culture and practices reigns supreme no matter where they go.
These are adults who were between 25 and 29 years of age. One of them is even reported to be holding a respectable government job as an adviser to an Australian cabinet minister. Now, someone should have advised him (please forgive that lame pun) against doing such a stunt.
I think it is fair that the Malaysian authorities made the decision to detain the nine Australian men. I also think that is fair that the Australian government said that, although they would provide consular assistance, these men have to face the consequences.
The Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop has even stated they will not bail out the men because they do not want to interfere in the laws of another country. She advised Australians to always respect the law of the land wherever they are (and this is good advice for all).
Personally, I still think that what took place was really just a minor incident. Of course, whether premeditated or not, these men have to be taught a lesson. But I wouldn’t think it would be fair to sentence them to actual prison. A hefty fine and a stern warning would probably suffice. But that’s just me.
My two daughters are still young. The eldest is five years old and the youngest is one. I try to bring them with me to travel around the world as often as I can to teach them about the different people, cultures, beliefs and practices.
They have been to Hindu temples, Buddhist temples, mosques, big cities and small villages. My wife and I always try to explain to them that different people do things differently and that no culture can ever be regarded as wrong, no matter how different it is from ours.
I hope they understand and I think they will. Little kids absorb a lot of things that we would be surprised. And I think I can be pretty confident that my two girls won’t be making the kind of mistake the nine ignorant Australian men made last weekend.
ZAN AZLEE is a writer, documentary filmmaker, journalist and academic. He is afraid of ending up in jail in a foreign land (or in Malaysia for that matter!). Visit FATBIDIN.COM to view his work.