The Daily Chrenk helpful travel hint: don’t rub your genitals and ass on a foreign flag

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Why oh why did I have to come back to Australia only to find out that the number one item on every news bulletin today is the story of the arrest in Malaysia of Christopher Pyne’s adviser over group inebriation while wearing Malaysian flag swimmers at a Formula One event?

As an ex staffer and adviser, whenever I read stories like this one I feel like someone walked over my grave (or drove; this morning I went to clean my mother’s grave and realised I have been all along parking on someone’s grave. Damn the lawn cemeteries). As a staff member for a politician you never want to appear in the media for the wrong reasons – there are actually preciously few good reasons for a staffer to appear in the media – embarrassing yourself, your boss and your government (or the opposition). Us staffers let our bosses do that; it’s one of the perks of their job seniority and a superior pay packet. To intrude ourselves would disrupt the natural order of the universe and disturb the Force.

Jack Walker, one of the nine arrested young Aussie men, is now probably an ex-adviser, all because a brief (no pun intended) moment of exuberant silliness that would not raise eyebrows in Australia, but clearly riled the Malaysian authorities. I’m not going to say “it could have happened to anyone”, because it’s mainly young Westerners who have the tendency to drink too much and strip while travelling to exotic locations. Moreover, this wasn’t quite an unfortunate accident, since it appears that all the (not so) gentlemen in questions have purchased their Malaysian flag swimming trunks in Australia with a stunt like that in mind. Men in mid-to-late 20s should have known better, or at least have known how to Google some basic information about what’s on and not on when travelling in Malaysia.

Malaysia might be a reasonably moderate Muslim country, certainly by comparison with Saudi Arabia, but it’s still a Muslim country, and as such has different standards of acceptable public behaviour; more serious, conservative and uptight than, say, Australia. Even at a major tourist event like Formula One, and even celebrating Australia’s Daniel Ricciardo’s victory, Malaysians frown on stripping down to under/swimwear, but arguably even more when you disrespect their national flag by rubbing your genitals and ass on it. In Australia and the United States, we are so used to our flags getting burned or being used commercially (clothes, beach towels, footwear) that we tend to forget that most other countries around the world have a far less relaxed attitude to their national colours and symbols.

Which, having just come back from a four-week overseas jaunt, brings me to the main point: I’m not a cultural relativist but I try to be sensible and polite. While I don’t appreciate others telling me what I can and can’t do in my own country and how I should change my culture so as not to offend them, when I travel overseas I’m mindful of local laws and mores. This is why, for example, when I went around some historical mosques in Cairo I wore long trousers and long-sleeved shirt and took off my shoes. You might or might not think much of local rules of behaviour but you are a guest and should behave with respect, not just because you are a mindful individual but also because wherever you go you are an ambassador for your own country and your own culture. This does not mean you have to pro-actively go overboard in order to fit in – I wouldn’t throw my gay travelling companion off a roof in Syria or subject my female travel buddy to genital mutilation in Somalia – but just be sensible and considerate.

Obeying local laws is generally a good idea overseas. Of course you don’t have to – you might want to go to Malaysia and stage a kiss-in protest against the criminalisation of homosexual behaviour, or go to China and perform Falun Gong exercises – as long as you accept the legal consequences. I might even think it’s a good cause and you’re a hero, but that won’t change the fact that you will be subject to local laws, no matter how ridiculous or unjust they are. Most of us are not activists or heroes and we travel mainly for business or pleasure, so when you’re overseas please remember: keep it in your pants. And keep your pants on.

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