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.