Published in Malay Mail Online
By now, most of — if not all — the nine Australian men who stripped down to their Malaysian flag-swimming briefs at the Sepang Grand Prix are back in Sydney. After a close call in local court.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has since told Adelaide-based 5AA radio channel that he thought Malaysian authorities were “very lenient.”
For most of the Western media, the background to Malaysia’s outrage is its image as a conservative Muslim-majority country, where public indecency is frowned upon. Which, interestingly, is how the international media chooses to see Malaysia despite the government’s attempt to paint the country as a moderate one.
Writing in an analysis for The West Australian, foreign editor Alan Kirk claimed that the nine — dubbed “Budgie Nine” by its media — were caught in the middle as Malaysia shifts into a “more fundamentalist and a lot less tolerant” Islamic country.
According to Kirk, the Australians were an “easy target” for a government that is imposing a strict Sunni doctrine and harnessing the rise of radical Islam, pointing to the global spread of the ultra-conservative Wahhabi teachings.
Kirk pointed to the existence of the federal Islamic authority under the Prime Minister’s Department that dictates Muslims’ daily lives, and produces sermons. Where Muslims are segregated by sex in Kelantan. And where schools teach an intolerant version of Islam.
“Against this background, demands for harsh punishment of the Aussies found a ready audience,” he said.
On their own, none of these accusations are particularly inaccurate. It is undeniable that Malaysia is undergoing an Islamisation process.
But pointing to Islam as the reason behind the outrage of the nine stripping into their Budgy Smuggler swimwear, is perhaps woefully out of context.
In reality, the reaction against the Budgie Nine — either on the ground, on social media, or even in media headlines — was less pronounced that what it could have been.
It can be argued that there was a bigger fuss when pop star Selena Gomez came to Malaysia as part of her Revival tour in late July.
To Islamist group PAS, Gomez’s “sexiness” would taint the celebratory Islamic month of Syawal… and her mere appearance would erode the faith and morals of Muslims who attended the concert.
Even the Korean auntie who was caught wearing a dress with Quranic verses she bought in India created a bigger uproar back in July 2014.
In comparison, the Budgie Nine were let off easy by the more conservative Muslims. And this was for the most part because their stunt had little to no religious element to it.
Curiously, the incident happened on Awal Muharram, the Muslim New Year, but somehow that did not offend Muslims much compared to other holier months such as Ramadan, Syawal, or even Dzulhijjah.
If anything, the outrage against the stunt had more to do with the fact that the nine chose to pattern their briefs with the Malaysian flag — as Sessions Court Judge Harith Sham Mohamed Yasin said, it represents “the sovereignty of our country and culture.”
But it is not as if Malaysians themselves have much problem with using the flag as attire. The Jalur Gemilang regularly appears in lurid and extravagant fashion especially when it comes to the patriotic months of August and September.
The late 1980s pop giant Sudirman even draped himself in costumes with the national stripes, cementing his iconic look in the minds of Malaysians.
The national flag is used by Malaysians to cover windows on buildings, draped over cars, in a show of patriotism — like it was no more than a tablecloth.
Nobody bats their eyes when Malaysians do it. And in the end, it was a simple show of jingoism. Covering your crotch with the flag certainly did not help.
Rather than religious values, the source of Malaysian outrage might more accurately be its yearning for sovereignty — that feeling of being tiny, when squeezed between the superpowers of China that aims to conquer the South China Sea, and the United States with its soft-power colonialisation.
For the past few years, many Malaysians have been spooked by the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement that opponents claim would make them puppets — losing their jobs, having the markets flooded with foreign goods, more expensive healthcare, and an influx of all bad things from all over the world.
As of late, Malaysians have been warned of a so-called intervention by foreign powers seeking to topple its elected government, through the purported machinations of the Western media. Is it any wonder that Malaysians are feeling xenophobic now, especially towards Mat Sallehs?
Ultimately, pointing to Islam as the crux of the outrage is a colossal denial of the immense white privilege that these nine Australians wield, which is perhaps a bigger issue that the country and its citizens must deal with.
Malaysians certainly have had enough, especially after four British tourists, stripped naked atop Mount Kinabalu in May last year — a place considered sacred by natives.
Australians, especially their man-children, should check their egos and sense of privilege the moment they step inside other countries. It is not enough to simply be aware of cultural differences and sensitivities, not when you refuse to recognise Malaysian culture in the first place.
Instead, we have conservative tabloid Daily Telegraph dumbing down the Budgie Nine stunt as mere “larrikinism” by “party-loving, high-achieving” youngsters — an Australian English term for mischief by young and rowdy men, who are ultimately good-hearted.
Even local lawyer Shafee Abdullah, who defended the nine, used the argument that it comes easy for the nine to strip down since they were lifeguards, and Australian flags are commonly found on bikinis and swimming trunks.
Coloured people, especially brown South-east Asians, would have a harder time justifying similar antics in white countries.
Culture may be relative. What is harmless may be lewd elsewhere. But respect certainly is not.