Coins for Australia and the Bali Nine

I’m always surprised at how politicised travelling can be. When you arrive in another country and start talking to people, a number of topics come up: where are you from, where are you going, where’s good to eat, sport, culture, movies, Australian animals and cricket players; fairly innocuous stuff. But there are times when you are reminded that just because you’re not keeping up with the news doesn’t mean the news doesn’t exist.

We were having a chat with the manager of our hostel. He’d seen we lived in Singapore, “But where are you from?”

Australia, we told him.

“So you are defying Julia Bishop?” he asked, grinning.

I was taken aback. A man in a hostel down an alleyway in Jakarta (almost) knew the name of Australia’s foreign minister: it was impressive. A lot of Australians couldn’t tell you this much. Unfortunately, in context, his joking statement was also pretty embarrassing. News of Australia’s misguided foreign policy and stance on Indonesia had reached the backstreets of Jakarta, and was colouring people’s opinions of us. There was some awkward laughter and I proclaimed, too loudly, that I hadn’t voted for her.

This encounter stuck in my mind as the trip continued. We were treated to amazing scenery, chaotic traffic, incredible food, and, best of all, the friendly, wonderful people we met along the way who were so very patient with our bungling attempts at speaking Indonesian. Yet the implications of the actions of the Australian government hung over us, and the two Bali Nine on death row were never far from the top of minds.

I don’t agree with the death penalty. People should pay for their crimes but they should also have the opportunity to rehabilitate and better their situations. This becomes impossible if we kill them. This post is not about debating the death penalty, or the implicated guilt of drug smugglers in drug-related incidents. This is about the role of the Australian government in potentially signing the death warrant of these two men.

It has been almost 10 years since the Bali Nine were arrested. 10 years. That’s a lot of time for tactful diplomacy and negotiations. But instead, it has all blown up at the last minute, in the month leading up to the executions of the alleged ringleaders, Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan.

I’m not hiding of my left-leaning politics but successive governments, Labor and Liberal, have had the opportunities to make things better for Mr Sukumaran, Mr Chan and, frankly, bilateral relations. If respectful negotiations were ongoing rather ebbing and flowing based on newspaper headlines, the issue would have been resolved. No doubt the Bali Nine would still be serving a hefty prison sentence, but they would be safe in the knowledge that there’s no firing squad waiting for them at the end of that sentence.

Hindsight is, of course, 20/20 vision. We turn to what’s happening now, and the disgraceful handling of the situation by the Abbott government. First, calls to boycott Indonesia, and second Abbott’s tactless mentions of tsunami aid.

Boycotts of countries are always problematic as they tend to hurt the average citizens rather than influence the powers that be. Just imagine: if Australians suddenly stopped going to Bali. The government of Indonesia would eventually take notice and potentially support airlines and hotels to encourage more visitors from elsewhere to the region, but that would all take time. The first victims of this boycott would be the aunties and uncles selling drinks on the beach, the family-run restaurants who rely on a steady stream of Bintan-swilling Australians hungry for mie goreng, the guesthouses and the small souvenir stalls. It would be devastating at the lowest level of the local economy. It would be hurting the local people, not influencing government policy or laws.

A secondary aspect to this call for a boycott is whether Australians would actually do it. I wouldn’t for the above-mentioned reason, but I’m not the target demographic. This boycott is aimed at those Australians who regularly make the pilgrimage to Kuta for cheap drinks and hair braids. Triple J conducted an SMS poll over the Australia Day long weekend that revealed 52 percent of people surveyed believed that Australians convicted of drug trafficking overseas should be executed. So assuming this poll is reflective of general opinion, there’s more than half of the country that would not be fussed if the executions went ahead and would continue to go to Indonesia anyway. A boycott is a simplistic answer to a complex situation and one that is more focussed on placating the unsettled Australian public than actually influencing the fate of Mr Chan and Mr Sukumaran. Australians who don’t support the death penalty can sip their lattes guilt-free as they read of the boycott in the weekend paper, smug in the knowledge that by simply not going to Indonesia they are “making a difference”.

Next, Abbott’s mention of tsunami aid and his transparent attempt to hold it over the head of the Indonesian people. How disgusting. 286,000 people died. Most of them Indonesians. Yes, Australia provided $1 billion in aid but how could we not? How could we stand by as our closest neighbour reeled from the effects of a cataclysmic natural disaster that affected many Australians as well? The fact that Abbott though it appropriate to use the tsunami aid as a political weapon less than eight weeks after the 10 year anniversary is deeply disturbing. Scars from events such as that do not heal quickly or easily. The anger that rises like bile in my throat is nothing when compared to what Indonesians must be feeling. The outrage that lead to the #coinsforAustralia, #coinsforAbbott, #KoinuntukAustralia campaign should not be surprising and is completely justified. For those unfamiliar with the campaign, as a sign of protest against Abbott’s lack of humanity, Indonesian’s are collecting coins to pay back Australia for the aid.

I was in Jakarta and paying more attention to street food than the news when Abbott made these comments. It’s a testament to the Indonesian people that we, as Australians, were not treated differently because of the ignorance and tactlessness of our ‘leader’. Not once did we experience any vitriol or even a mean look because we were Australians. In the same way, Australians need to rise above the misguided advice spewing from Parliament House and treat Indonesians the way we would like to be treated, regardless of their government policy and laws.

Unfortunately, government bungling has been a major distraction from the sad focus of the story. It’s looking as though Mr Sukumaran and Mr Chan will be moved for execution at some stage this week. We can only hope for an 11th hour reprieve, and the only way this can happen is through urgent diplomacy. Abbott must apologise for his tsunami comments. He must dispel any illusions for a government-supported boycott of Indonesia. He must forget, for once in his entire reign as Prime Minister, about opinion polls and what’s on the front page of the Daily Telegraph. There are two men about to be killed. That is the perspective we need. Two men, whose fate will reverberate through their families, friends and communities. Two men who made a mistake, and who may never be given the chance to atone for it. Mercy and compassion are the true tests of strength. It will take a lot of strength for Indonesia to show leniency in the light of the Australia’s political chest thumping. But for the sake of those two men, I hope they do. I stand for mercy.

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The Sydney siege

They say no news is good news and that is absolutely the case in my house. A good day is speckled with opinion pieces and social media, with just a dash of current affairs and events. A bad day is one where the news rolls all day long.

Today was one of those days. When the TV is on all day. A day when Twitter is constantly refreshed and news sites are minimised, not closed.

I thought long and hard about what to write about the Sydney siege. I wanted to write something. There’s a lot that can be said about the media’s handling of this, about the dangers of social media and speculation during police manoeuvres, about how the Australian public will react to these events, about what effects this will have on the Muslim community, about terrorism in the Western world, and if this means Australia is no longer safe.

The journalist in me considers these angles and implications, potential sources of comment and analysis, but it’s not the right time. There will be time for these discussions but it’s not now. Not while the situation is still unresolved. Not while there are still people whose average Monday morning became a waking nightmare. Not while lives are still in danger.

There will be time to figure out what went wrong, there will be time for explanations, but first everyone needs to get home safely.

Stay strong, Sydney.

Homeward bound

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I’ve been suffering from some fairly irritating writers’ block lately. Everything I jot down is scribbled out or deleted or filed away in a bottomless ‘Drafts’ folder. I’ve found that if I can’t write a post straight away, in one go, the idea tends to languish and rot away. I lose interest and… yeah… You’ve seen the results, or more accurately, the lack thereof.

I’m hoping this evening though will provide some relief from my block. It obviously has already and it’s not even here yet. This evening I’m heading to the airport to fly home. A situation fraught with emotions and writing material!

For some unknown reason, I expected a triumphant homecoming. I’d sweep off the plan clad in designer sunglasses and smart-casual leisurewear, full of stories about the exotic Orient (is Singapore the Orient?) where I now call home, and suddenly be worldly and erudite beyond measure. I’d sneer at Australia, land of uncultured convicts, and bemoan the fact there’s no authentic satay in Brisbane.

Where do I get these notions from? Honestly, I think I watch too much TV. Instead, I’m going home to catch up with friends and family. To eat whatever is on the dinner table. To roll my eyes when my Mum fusses about how much protein I’m eating and if I’m making friends. To go to the beach. To maybe wear a jumper to survive the paltry high-20s temperatures and low humidity. To see whether the place has changed or stayed the same. To see if I’ve changed or stayed the same.

In true Australian fashion, I’ll be picked up by my Dad and his cattle dog. My togs are at the top of my backpack, ready for an airport bathroom costume change. We’ll go straight to the beach. I can feel the hot sand under my feet already. I can feel the gasp in my throat, ready for the shock of plunging into cool, clear salt water.

In case it’s not painfully obvious, I’m a little excited. So I’ll see you on the other side! Of the equator, that is. Hopefully I’ll have something more compelling to write about than airports and sand.

Meandering in Malacca

“It’s nice… just for the weekend though.”

That was the general consensus when others learned of our trip to Malacca, Malaysia. The former Portuguese/Dutch/British outpost had the most beautiful blend of architecture, from the thick-walled Dutch buildings to the intricacies of the traditional Malay terrace houses. I’d be interested to know the rate of museums per capita because there seemed to be one on every corner documenting everything from stamps to Chinese jewellery. Despite this rich deposti of touristy goodness, we seemed to spend more time eating than doing anything else. Malay coffee, Nyonya cendol, satay, Taiwanese cakes, ice cream eggs, Portuguese curry, mee and nasi in all forms, and one incredible mint chocolate milkshake. Malacca was definitely nice, but yes, just for the weekend. If only for the sake of my waistline…

Christmas cake

IMAG0310
The cake!

I made my first Christmas cake last year. It was a bit of a production. I foraged far and wide for the ingredients: dried fruit, slivered almonds, brandy, gluten-free flour. The fruit soaked in the brandy for a week and gave out head spins to those foolish enough to open the container. For some reason or another, the baking itself was to take place at my parents’ house. It went without a hitch. A beautiful, gluten-free Christmas cake, heaving with fruit and glazed to shining perfection. My work was done. The cake was left with my parents and I went home. I hate Christmas cake.

A week or so later, stopping by for coffee, I asked for a review.

“How was it?”

It was good, they assured me. Lovely with a cup of coffee for morning tea.

“The taxi driver really enjoyed it too.”

“What?”

An unexpected review. They invited a taxi driver inside for a cup of tea and a piece of cake. Rolling my eyes at this old-fashioned behaviour, I chastised them. Inviting a stranger into your house? After you’ve come from a Christmas function where alcohol was most likely consumed with vigour? And a taxi driver? Collectively they’re not known as the most trustworthy bunch of people, at least in Brisbane anyway. My long-suffering parents let me finish and then exchanged a look. A look with a long history and, most likely, a long future of making me feel like a child who’s been told they’ll understand when they’re older. But I want to know now!

“We had a chat with him…” my mother explained. He was a young man, probably no older than my younger brother. He spoke with an accent and came from Afghanistan. They asked him how long he had been here, if he liked it, if his family and friends were here too. The young man started to get upset, though he tried to hide it. He was a refugee, his family, his parents, were still in Afghanistan. They had turned into my parents’ street by this stage and the young man had fallen into a stoic silence, his voice raspy when he asked for the house number. I can just picture my parents exchanging another one of their looks, and my mother leaning forward in her seat, straining against her seat belt:

“Why don’t you come in for a cup of tea and some Christmas cake?”

The young man refused, out of politeness and embarrassment, plus he was working.

“Take a break,” my Dad offered.

The poor man didn’t stand a chance. To say no to my parents you need to weave a delicate web of distractions, alternative suggestions, procrastination and, finally, shifting the blame on to external factors like boyfriends, work or the alignment of the stars.

So he parked at the end of the driveway and came in for a much-needed cup of tea, piece of cake and two pairs of sympathetic ears. He didn’t stay long, but I’m sure Mum tried to convince him to stay longer. And that’s how my Christmas cake got its review.

“There’s only one slice left, just enough for Dad’s morning tea tomorrow.”

I was taken aback by the whole story, and vaguely responded with something about making another cake and charging per slice.

It’s strange how something simple, like a cake, in the hands of the right people can be something so much more. I’m sure it was to the taxi driver and it certainly is to me. But, in what also is a testament to my parents, they have probably forgotten about it entirely. It was a small and habitual encounter, something they’d do for anyone at any time. It’s probably sad that a simple act like this sticks in my mind so firmly, and that my initial reaction was one of cynicism. It’s just kindness. Something we definitely need more of. I hope my parents don’t mind me sharing this but there needs to be a place in this hard, suspicious world for tea and cake with someone who needs it.

Rant: ISIS/ISIL/Daesh and the Australian public

Image from the wonderful MDA: http://www.mdaltd.org.au
Image from the wonderful MDA: http://www.mdaltd.org.au

The only thing to truly fear is ignorance. Ignorance breeds misunderstanding which breeds fear, fear that corrodes logic and common decency and manifests as hate.

I’m talking of course about the recent terror raids in Australia, about ISIS, ISIL or Daesh, and the toxic smog of fear clouding judgement and suffocating tolerance and understanding.

If it were a question of religion, I wouldn’t comment. I’m an atheist and I think you’re all equally insane, but you have every right to be. The thing that gets me the most is that this shouldn’t be about religion. Because it’s not. It’s about extremists and terrorists. This should be a dead giveaway for those who point the blame at Islam. Extremists and terrorists. Not Muslims. Just because those terrorists use Islam as an excuse for their behaviour doesn’t mean it has anything to do with the religion itself. Similarly, Catholic priests under investigation for interfering with children have used their religion as a way of justifying and hiding their actions. There have been no questions around Catholicism following these revelations, about the leadership absolutely, but not about the religion itself and the majority of those who follow it.

Terrorism is about fear. And you know what? They’re winning. Fear is everywhere. Yes, it’s in the news, it’s on the faces of the paranoid among us, and it’s gotten to me too. You know what I’m scared of? I’m not scared for my family and friends back in Australia. I think they’re more likely to be attacked by a drop bear than be exposed to a terrorist attack. No, I’m scared for the Islamic community of Australia. A community that are already subjected to so much suspicion and abuse. A community of normal people being vilified for the religion’s non-existent links to a terrorist organisation.

Why this group of people though? When Anders Breivik slaughtered innocent people in Norway in 2011, we didn’t go around saying, “You can never trust those Christians, bunch of white-skinned, no-hat lunatic”. No. It was a tragedy committed by a mentally ill extremist. A terrorist. His religion barely came into is, his extreme views did certainly, but never once was it ever implied that his behaviour was representative of all Christians everywhere.

The whole issue is completely bizarre. It is a non-religious group of people taking a non-religious issue, terrorism, using it as ammunition against a religious group, Muslims. Because the arguments are never, “I’m a Christian and I believe in Jesus and the Bible as the one true gospel/word/religion” or “Dude, I’m a Buddhist and you’ve got this whole religion thing wrong.” It’s “I’m an Australian, my family’s lived her for generations”.  You know what, champ? Unless you identify as a First Nations Person, being Australian means being an immigrant. An immigrant from England or Scotland or Ireland, or from Greece or Italy, from China or Vietnam, from the Middle East, or even from New Zealand.

The same fear-mongering has happened with each new wave of immigration. First we feared the Greeks and Italians, then the Chinese and Vietnamese, now it’s the Middle East’s turn. I’m sure once Australia is over this, it’s only a matter of time until we turn against the Americans or the Kiwis. The only reason it’s worse now is the unrelenting exposure to a media that is treating this issue with all the sensitivity and tact of a rabid dog. We are constantly exposed, bombarded, with reasons to be afraid, reasons to be outraged. Overblown headlines, misleading causation and consequence links and interview after interview with suburban housewives saying, “They kept to themselves, I always thought they were a bit funny”. Once the media has made us uncertain about what we thought we knew about our suburbs, at the click of a button we can be in touch with people who can feed our fears and help them grow from insecurities into bitter, violent monsters.

It is a vicious, caustic cycle of misunderstanding and misinformation breeding fear and hatred, and it needs to stop. Because when I read those articles, when I read the comments, when I see posts on Facebook and Twitter, I feel ashamed to be Australian. But I shouldn’t because those ignorant, hateful people are not representative of Australia exactly the same as Daesh do not represent the people of Syria or Iran or Afghanistan or Iraq, or the whole Islamic faith.

<rant over>

Home.

Anuradhapura butterflies
Anuradhapura butterflies

Sometime it takes going away to realise where your home is.

I haven’t felt homesick once since the move to Singapore. Of course, I miss friends and family, and I’m very much looking forward to going home for Christmas, but there hasn’t yet been that overwhelming sadness of the “What have I done? I want to go home!!” variety.

Naturally, I swirled my kopi and attributed this to my imagined status of “citizen of the world”. “The world is my home,” I said to Tippy, who did not even look up from licking her foot. This wankery delusion was further supported by a weekend trip to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. It felt very cosmopolitan and worldly to jet off to Vietnam for the weekend. Because when you’re cosmopolitan and worldly you don’t fly, you “jet”. Even if it’s in economy with screaming kids and snuffling Vietnamese men, it’s still “jetting”. Anyway, it was nice to come home after that, home as in Singapore. Nice to come back to our bed and our couch, to be able to drink tap water again.

Sri Lanka though, still only a short trip, changed that. As we puttered through the country side in a tuk-tuk, going from Anuradhapura, the fabled ancient capital, to Kalpitiya, the deserted windy beaches straight out of kitesurfing fantasies, I caught myself thinking about Australia. Specifically, though I loathe to admit it, Bundaberg. I thought about the smoke plumes from cane fires and catching ash as it fell from the sky. I thought about sitting behind the couch at my Grandma’s house with the cat, squinting at the street through the yellow frosted glass windows. I thought about Arnott’s Assorted Creams and the lolly jar on top of the fridge that became easier to reach as we all got older. How strange it was to be suddenly back in the home town I had joked off for years as “You know, where the rum comes from?”. In the middle of Sri Lanka, of all places. Maybe two months and two weeks is too soon to receive a “Citizen of the World” Passport?

I’ll go back at the end of the year though. There’s no more cane fires, the cat’s long gone. The lolly jar has likely been replaced by bottles of rum: my 21-year-old cousin lives there now. I’ll buy some Assorted Creams though, I’ll eat the Monte Carlos first. I’ll drive through the streets that are the same every time I’m there, a constant cause of outer derision and inner comfort. I suppose they calls them roots for a reason. As far as you go, as wide as you spread your branches, as many different creatures come and build nests on you (maybe not), your roots stay in the same place. You know, where the rum comes from.