I am yet again embarked on the trip to Malaysia. As is my habit as soon as I reach the airline lounges, I start to scan recent issues of local newspapers….
… to get a passing familiarity with the issues dominating the news in the region.
This time I pick up the usual political tittle tattle about sparring between Pas (Party Islam) and the ruling UMNO (United Malay National Organisation). We get a sensational coverage of the fact that a large number of Chinese (said to over 75,000) visitors to Malaysia over the last three years have just vanished into the country. Malaysia has had a farcical history of cracking down on immigrants. Badly needed to supplement the workforce, these pool souls also become the punching bags for all crimes of ills in society from crime to drugs to prostitution. The last time I was in Malaysia there was a mass campaign to expel Indonesian workers and replace then with upto 200,000 Pakistanis! Soon, the absurdity of the proposal became obvious. The Indonesians shared the same culture and spoke the same language. The Pakistanis were completely alien to the local set up in Malaysia. As this campaign degenerated into a farce, some of the slack seems to have been taken up by Chinese ‘visitors’. I await to pick up further vibes on this intriguing development during my stay in Malaysia.
Another issues which always features in the region is the uneasy tension between Australian attempts to occupy the moral high ground and pretend to be guardians of western morality in the region. Countries in the region from Malaysia to Singapore to Indonesia resent this intensely. Now that since 09/11 the Australians have turned to be more neocon than their US mentors, the tensions have intensified.
A news item about the Australian model-cum-actress, Michelle Leslie catches my eye. Michelle, arrested back in August for passion of drugs, appears to have spiritually mugged a gullible Indonesian populace.
Drug possession ad trafficking is a very serious offence in the region. Western and Australian ideas that drug crimes are of minor consequence have often caused tension and agro when culprits are apprehended. All the prejudices about the ‘barbaric’ justice of the region are routinely wheeled out in defence of western criminals.
Michelle’s case was no different. At the time of her arrest, Australian media were scathing about Indonesian justice and argued for her to be freed despite clear evidence of criminality. The Indonesians did not yield. Ironically, at the same time Australian and US media were arguing for cooking up more charges of terrorism against the respected cleric, Abu Baker Baysir, and imprisoning him for life. The irony was not lost on the Indonesians either. Abu Bakr Baysir’s prison term has been reduced further.
When this crude blackmailing attempt did not yield results Michelle Leslie seems to have adopted a novel approach. She started to come to court adorned in very Muslim attire and let rumours flourish that she had converted to Islam. ìDuring her court appearances in Bali, Leslie wore conservative Muslim dress including headcarves and even a head-to-toe burqa covering on one occasion. Her supporters said the Muslim ‘convert’ donned the modest clothing as a Muslim to find solace with God, not for any other purposeíî.
The trick worked, she was let off lightly. ‘Leslie who sipped wine as she flew first class from Indonesia to Singapore, celebrated her release from jail by purchasing a pair of stilettos, left Bali dressed in a skimpy black tank top and tight jeans’according to the Star of Malaysia.
As the spiritual mugging generated fury amongst Indonesian Muslims, the founder of the Islamic Friendship Association of Australia, Keysar Trad, called for tolerance, saying many Muslims were models or belly dancers.
The jury is out. Muslims in the Far East are very reluctant to brand anybody who claims to be a Muslim as an unbeliever. Lelie’s spokesman Sean Mulcahy said, ‘She has her own firm belief of her own religion and she practices it as she sees fit.’ Mulcahy also said that the convicted criminal was hoping to cash in on her new found celebrity before returning to a modelling career.
Australians need the Far East for business, holidays, markets and a host of other key requirements. However, with time, instead of respecting their partners in the region, they are bent upon trying to assert a moral high ground based on a curious version of Anglo-Christian morality This is recipe for further turmoil in relations.