On June 13th I was asked to appear just after 7 am on LBC to discuss the case of Eleanor Hawkins, who stripped off on Malaysia’s Mount Kinabalu , in Sabah, Borneo. LBC were particularly keen to talk to me when they learned that I had spent several years living in Malaysia. Ms. Hawkins was part of a group of backpackers who reportedly stripped off (fully or partially) on the mountain, against their Malaysian guide’s strong representations. According to some reports, they also urinated on the mountain, which is held to be sacred by local people.
Malaysia is a (fairly relaxed) Muslim country, but public nudity would have been an affront to most Malaysians. To local people in Sabah, many of whom relate to their animist past, it was also an affront to the spirits of the Holy Mountain. A few days later, there was an earthquake causing a number of fatalities. Inevitably, some local people made a link and blamed the earthquake and the deaths on the antics of the backpackers.
My comment on LBC was straightforward. Of course no serious person would accept the link with the earthquake, and these days very few people in the West would be worried about nudity. After all, we live in a society where images of bare breasts are common enough (I have a rather tasteful Modigliani nude – sadly only a copy – in my Brussels apartment). But we must recognise that other societies and other countries may take a different view, and are entitled to do so.
Both the Islamic and animist strains of faith in Malaysia seem to be opposed to nudity, and the deliberate and flagrant display on what is revered as a Holy Mountain clearly caused considerable offence.
I take the view that if a Brit is in someone else’s country, she should respect local customs (without necessarily agreeing with them). Just as if you visit someone else’s home, you would respect their customs. If they don’t smoke, you don’t either. If they remove their shoes before walking on the carpet, so should you. If you find those customs unacceptable, you just don’t go – either to the home or to the country.
So I thought that the decision of the Malaysian Court with regard to Eleanor Hawkins – to find her guilty and then release her, having sentenced her only to the three days she’d already spent in custody – was a Judgement of Solomon. It was sufficient to mollify local opinion, yet lenient enough to avoid outrage in the West (and to avoid damage to Malaysia’s important tourist trade).
But this was not the view of the other interviewee on LBC. Steve Berry seems to be a bit of a pundit, and has appeared on Top Gear. He was very strident in his views. The Malaysians had “Stone Age attitudes”. As visitors, we Brits had not only a right but a duty to disregard local sensibilities and drag the locals, kicking and screaming, into the 21st Century.
Of course if we followed this advice, a great number of British tourists would end up behind bars in some pretty dodgy prisons. But regardless of the punishment, Steve’s advice is just down-right boorish, discourteous and indefensible. It is also (as I pointed out to him) a Neo-Colonialist attitude – never mind a Stone Age attitude. I paraphrase his position: “We’re right. They’re wrong. Those backward native people should do what we say, without argument”. This attitude might have played well in 1800, but it’s out-of-place in modern times. There is little hope for humanity unless we are prepared to live and let live.
Come to think of it, Steve’s attitude is very similar to that of ISIL, who are also convinced that they are right, and that they can impose their rectitude on others.
Steve was big on dodging and weaving. First he suggested that no one had seen the alleged nudity. No one, that is, but the local guide (who according to reports was treated by the back-packers with great discourtesy) — and of course the millions around the world who saw the pictures in social media, on television and in the press. Then he said that it was “Her word (Ms. Hawkins) against his (the guide)”. Nice try, Steve, but she admitted the offence.
Then he suggested sarcastically that perhaps I agreed that the earthquake was caused by the nudity. For the avoidance of doubt, I don’t. So he went on to the attempted banning of Elton John’s concert in Malaysia in 2012: In fact, the concert went ahead – and had absolutely nothing to do with the issue in hand anyway.
Finally, he berated me for mentioning the urination aspect (I had asked him if he’d go to Australia and pee on Ayers Rock). Why raise the issue, he asked? Because it was widely reported that peeing on the mountain was part of the offence.
I’ve spent many years abroad, and my experience is that if you treat people with courtesy, generally speaking they treat you the same way. If you adopt Steve’s Neo-Colonial attitude, things don’t go so well.