Friday, December 31, 2010

Random cuteness

The resourceful street cats of Kuala Lumpur.

Thanks to the lovely Sangeeta Ramanan for having her camera handy.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Should countries give official recognition to minority religious holidays? The Malaysian example

So I'm in Malaysia right now, it's Christmas Day, a public holiday, and virtually all the shops are still open. No problem there, it's just a contrast to the way in which the commercial sphere almost completely shuts down in Australia every Christmas. More interesting to me is the fact that Malaysia even makes a somewhat big deal out of Christmas at all, enough to make it a public holiday at least. Only 9% of Malaysians are Christian, with the majority (60%) being Muslim. It strikes me that I do not know of any Western countries that have enshrined the holy days of minority religions as public holidays. Even France, with a Muslim population approaching 10% (probably the largest non-Christian group in any Western country) has Christian holidays but not Muslim ones.

Now I'm not saying that they should. But once a religious or cultural minority reaches a certain proportional level of the population, it is only logical that there will be a strong push for their holidays will be acknowledged, with recognition as a public holiday. What is that threshold? Probably more than 10%, for sure. Consider that Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, is an official public holiday in Caribbean countries like Trinidad & Tobago and Suriname, where the ethnic Indian communities are around 40% of the population.

Is it feasible, or desirable, to envision a future where say, Chinese New Year became an official holiday in Australia, or Diwali an official holiday in New Zealand? What about the UK taking a day off to celebrate Eid ul-Fitr?

It's probably important to acknowledge that Christmas in many societies has lost much of its religious significance, and is celebrated more as a secular day of togetherness and gift-giving, rather than one of the holiest days of the Christian faith.

Now to Malaysia. It is hardly the most shining example of a harmonious multicultural utopia, but it is an interesting example given its culturally and spiritually diverse population. Its public holidays reflect that, and it may be an example of what will happen as Western societies shift a little further from their European Christian roots.

Chinese New Year - 2 days
Prophet Muhammad's Birthday (Muslim)
Deepawali/Diwali (Indian)
Vesak Day (Buddhist)
Eid al-Adha (Muslim) - 2 days

Maal Hijrah (Muslim new year)

In addition, there are some cultural public holidays particular to some states only, including the birthdays of local Sultans. For example, the Hindu festival of Thaipusam is only celebrated in 7 states, presumably those with significant Indian communities. Good Friday is only a public holiday in the states of Sarawak and Sabah in Borneo, where the indigenous groups are strongly Christian. There are also numerous secular public holidays which are not specific to any religious or cultural group, such as Labour Day, New Years Day and Malaysia Day.

Muslim - 60%
Buddhist - 19%
Christian - 9%
Hindu - 6%
Other Chinese religion - 2%

Malay and other Bumiputera - 65%
Chinese - 26%
Indian - 7%

So that's one example of how a country caters to its various cultural groups. The number of culturally based public holidays is roughly proportional to the demographics of the population. Of course, such a model isn't going to be appropriate in every country. Aside from it's particular demographics, several factors should be added for context. Firstly, Malaysian society is not really locked in to the traditional Western notions of a 9-to-5 Monday-to-Friday working culture, with many shops typically open til 9 or 10 at night for much of the week. Secondly, Malaysia has a LOT of public holidays, which is probably related to the first point. And finally, tying in both factors, Malaysian public holidays rarely shut down the entire commercial sector as happens in some countries.

But nonetheless, it is one possible glimpse into the direction Western societies might go in the future.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Cruel to be kind: could John Howard have got it right on asylum seekers?

Recently, a boat carrying asylum seekers bound for Australia crashed off Christmas Island, resulting in the deaths of 28 people. It was not the first time that asylum seekers have died en route to Australia; in 2009 approximately 54 died that way. Some have estimated that as many as 170 have perished way in the last 3 years.

It's hard not to notice a correlation between the party in power in Australia, and the number of people-smuggling boats headed for our shores. Upon assuming the mantle of PM in late 2007, Labor's Kevin Rudd scrapped many of the controversial policies of his predecessor John Howard relating to asylum seekers. At that point, boat numbers began to rise markedly.

Was Rudd right to scrap these policies? Howard's "Pacific Solution" meant that boats were intercepted en route to Australia and diverted to offshore processing (detention) centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. In addition, the TPV (Temporary Protection Visa) was introduced, which greatly limited the rights of those successfully applying for asylum and made it more difficult to obtain a permanent visa to settle in Australia.

Howard's policies were widely condemned as overly punitive and unfair, and it is easy to regard Labor as having done the humane thing by scrapping them. Yet the number of attempted arrivals by boat since then seems to indicate that the Pacific Solution carried with it a significant deterrent effect, one which no longer exists. Labor's more humane approach has arguably led to more people putting themselves at risk on the high seas, and thus more deaths. So is it really more humane?

Mind you, no one should be deluded into thinking that Coalition policy under John Howard was motivated by humanitarian concerns, at least to any significant degree. Primarily it was geared to paint Howard as a strong leader who would protect Australia from an invading rabble. A case in point was the tactical switch in language, moving away from the term "asylum seekers" to the much more loaded "illegal immigrants" or simply just "illegals". It helped that so many of the asylum seekers were from Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, at a time when fear of Muslims was high. Howard harnessed a wave of xenophobia and rode it all the way to re-election.

From a human rights perspective, it was bad, ugly policy. But in terms of a body count, Howard seems to come out looking better than the more "humane" Labor Party. So was he right, and all the bleeding-heart lefties wrong?

Well, yes and no. Between two flawed policies, Howard's cruel policy appears better, a vindication of the conservative ideal that sometimes it's kinder in the long run not to be too kind. But was Howard's policy a good policy? Not really.

One of the Coalition's unequivocally stated goals has been their repeated slogan Stop the Boats. While the motivation behind this was far from altruistic, it was a worthwhile aim, and one that the Left was too soft on. Asylum seekers heading to Australia on boats = virtually inevitable casualties. But the Coalition's methods for achieving this goal were cruel and unfair. So is it possible to find a third way? A course of action that will mean no unnecessary loss of life trying to get to Australia, yet will not punish those seeking asylum?

One of the terms frequently tossed around by conservatives in this debate is "queue-jumpers". In other words, those who come by boat are unfairly subverting the process, and sneaking in ahead of those back in Indonesia and elsewhere who are applying via legal means. While this is in many ways true, it doesn't mean that the "queue-jumpers" do not have legitimate claims to refugee status. And more significantly, talking of "queue-jumpers" conjures images of an orderly system for applying that actually works properly. The reality is that the system of processing asylum seekers is so slow and inefficient that it almost inevitably leads to the conditions that encourage people to look for less legal means.

Any policy designed to tackle the problem of unauthorised arrivals needs to start back in Indonesia, and other locations from which refugees can apply for asylum. There is no sense in insisting desperate dislocated people wait patiently and adhere to a dysfunctional system. Australia needs to work closely with the UN and other countries in the region to get refugees processed quickly and fairly, and then sent to a safe country (not necessarily Australia). Deterrent measures are necessary too, primarily targeted at people smugglers.

If we are going to insist that asylum seekers play by the rules of our system, we need to make damn sure that the system actually works.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Some light refreshment

Spotted at Nature's Vegetarian Restaurant in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia.

Monday, December 20, 2010

We can't let schools teach kids anything they don't already know

Ok, now here's a thought: given the amount of stuff in the school curriculum that kids learn that they'll probably never use, how about making it part of their education to learn about the religious traditions of some non-Christian faiths?

Doesn't seem like a particular outrageous concept. After all, given that we live in a fairly diverse society, you don't want your kids to grow up thinking Ramadan is something like a papadam, or thinking Passover is a some kind of ball game.

Or perhaps it is outrageous, judging from this story in Australia's most popular newspaper this week.

Schools should embrace Ramadan as well as Christmas - Muslim leaders

SCHOOLS that celebrate Christmas should also embrace other non-Christian religious festivals, Muslim leaders say.
Keysar Trad, president of the Islamic Friendship Association of Australia, called on the Victorian Education Department to include the traditions of other religious faiths as part of the formal school curriculum.
"Schools have religious programs - but generally they're elective, they're not compulsory," he said. "To have an awareness of these festivals can be very enriching for all students, including people who go to secular schools."
His comments follow Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu's recent move to protect Christmas celebrations at state schools so that all children can enjoy the "simple pleasures" of the holiday.
Mr Trad called on Mr Baillieu to extend the same level of support to other religions as well. "When the Premier of the state makes a statement in that manner, one can't help but feel that he is giving an official stamp to one religion to the exclusion of the other," he said. "To be a Premier for all Victorians, I look forward to his instructions to schools to teach about the important religious festivals for all faiths."
Mr Trad added that Muslim people should be able to take leave from work during Eid, the three-day holiday that marks the end of Ramadan.
Sherene Hassan, vice-president of the Islamic Council of Victoria, also endorsed the incorporation of Ramadan and other religious festivals in the classroom.
"Conversations about increasing awareness of different cultures and religions are already taking place and have been happening for some time among educators," she said. "The ICV believes this is a positive way of fostering respect between children."
Sheikh Mohamadu Saleem, spokesman for the Australian National Imams' Council, said that schools could hold anything from lessons to full-blown celebrations, depending on the number of pupils of that particular faith.
"Christmas here is celebrated, although the majority of Australians are not Christians but probably consider themselves to be secularists or atheists," he said.
"Exposure to other cultures in a multi-racial country is a good thing, especially in schools."
Mr Baillieu and the Victorian Education Department declined to comment when contacted by the Herald Sun.
Now what they are suggesting is hardly radical at all, whether you agree with it or not. But check out the tone of almost all the 491 comments attached to the article:

Jooles Posted at 12:34 AM December 15, 2010
Nope! Not even remotely interested. Muslims came to MY country, I didn't go to theirs. When THEY embrace our cultures and other religions openly and equally in THEIR countries, then we will do the same. Until then, I'm not interested. In fact, not even then. Who cares about Islam? Not me and not many many people around me.
Comment 1 of 491

Gate-Keeper of Vienna Posted at 12:42 AM December 15, 2010
Inch by inch, creep & creep, push & push....this bunch of supremacists has no interest whatsoever beyond one simple outcome - final and absolute victory. There is no second prize, there can be no compromise of any kind. It is written in their blood-curdling prose - read it yourself.
Comment 9 of 491

Mary K of travelling Oz Posted at 6:35 AM December 15, 2010
We can and should accept and respect other religions but dont need to learn about them.I do not think that imported religions should be able to take time off from work during "Eid". Australia cannot, and shouldn't give them or any other religions the holidays they have during their special time, as they are now living in Australia!
Comment 89 of 491

Preston W. of Rowville Posted at 7:10 AM December 15, 2010
do schools in muslim countries celebrate Christmas? No? Well, if you don't like our way of life you can always try elsewhere!
Comment 117 of 491

Mick Ellis of Narre Warren Posted at 7:11 AM December 15, 2010
How many christians blew themselves up in 2010? How many christians declared war on islam? We celebrate christmas as a time of peace and giving to all. Will islam open thier hearts to non-muslims during ramadan in the same way. I know they won't. I've heard muslims singing the turkish national anthem on Anzac day just to be disrespectful. Islam cannot co-exist peacefully with other religions it's not in there nature. They kill thier own as punishment they will never respect anyone else.
Comment 118 of 491

Aussie of Melbourne Posted at 7:41 AM December 15, 2010
How about, no? If you want to celebrate Ramadan, go to an Islamic country. Simple. It seems people come to Australia to infiltrate it, not because it's a better alternative. "Tradition" is now being branded "discrimination". What a pathetic joke.
Comment 154 of 491

Andrew Posted at 11:59 AM December 15, 2010
What next? Main Kampf in school?
Comment 436 of 491
The paper also ran an attached poll, asking "Should schools that celebrate Christmas embrace Ramadan and other non-Christian festivals?"
Of the 6271 respondents, 87.56% answered No.

Now to understand the reaction to this story, a few contextual factors must be taken into account, including the way the story was presented and who is in it.

Firstly: Keysar Trad is the main Muslim leader quoted, and a large photo of his grinning face accompanies the article. Trad is widely seen as a dodgy individual, and he quite simply is a poor spokesman for Australian Muslims. He routinely attaches himself to questionable causes, and every time I see him interviewed on TV he just exudes every negative stereotype the public has of "the shifty Arab". I'm sure he does some good work somewhere, but if the Muslim community in Australia value good PR, they need to shove this guy right to the back.
Because the paper makes him the primary feature of the article, straight away readers are going to have negative associations. And they managed to find the shiftiest-looking photo of Trad available (although in fairness, that's not hard to do). I wonder why they didn't instead choose the much more benevolent-looking Sherene Hassan? Simple: because one suits the image of Muslims that News Limited wishes to focus on.

Secondly: Is this issue one of across-the-board religious tolerance, or is it solely about Islam? Certainly it is being raised by Muslim leaders, but what they suggest encompasses non-Christian religions generally, not just Islam. So the headline, invoking Ramadan, seems to be designed to put a sensationalist spin on the article.

One of the fears that seems to resonate through the comments attached to the story, is that this is "the thin end of the wedge"; Muslims are trying to gradually Islamicise Australia by imposing their customs onto everyone's daily life. Now, I don't doubt that there are some in the Muslim community who do have that agenda. Is it really what the majority of Muslims want? I'm not so sure. Is it the underlying agenda of the Muslim leaders quoted in this article? I don't think so. But for a significant section of the public, the entire Muslim ummah is seen as being engaged in a sneaky campaign to turn the world into a giant Caliphate, and this sort of thing fits right into that theory.

The problem is, that in the case of this story, the nature of the messenger obscures the actual issue. It is worth discussing the role of religion in the school system. Shouldn't young people be taught about religion, at least in an anthropological sense? Since it is such an influential factor in the lives of most of the world, should we not have a better understanding of it? For example, what's the difference between a Sikh and a Muslim and a Hindu? I bet at least half of graduating high school students in Australia would struggle to give an answer to that. Now given that Christianity is by far the most widely practiced religion in Australia, it follows that it should be taught in more detail - it is fundamental to understanding the moral and legal basis of Australian society. But likewise, I think it's essential for people to have a basic understanding of what the major religions are about. Should they celebrate all their holidays as part of the school curriculum? Perhaps not, but it certainly wouldn't hurt to learn about them.

The other recurring theme in the comments is that most Muslim states don't teach Christian traditions in their schools, so why should we teach Muslim stuff in ours? Which is sound logic, if you are they kind of person who doesn't think we we strive to be a better society than any other. Hell, why don't we base all our legal principles on what the Saudis do?
I don't want students being proselytised to in the classroom, unless they are attending a specifically religious school. But neither do I like the idea that we should keep religion out of the classroom entirely. Even if religions are mostly a bit nuts, it's still important to understand what they're about. Because, like, school is like, for learning and stuff, innit?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Sugar Sammy or Russell Peters: who's funnier?

Recently I've been getting into the work of comic Sugar Sammy (real name Samir Khullar). As a Canadian standup of Indian descent who bases much of his material on ethnicity, the inevitable comparisons will be made between him and Russell Peters. Peters has a far higher profile globally, but I've heard a few folks comment that he can no longer reach the funny heights of his early material. Sugar Sammy, by contrast, is younger and a star on the rise. It would be a little unkind to describe him as a "poor man's Russell Peters", but there is a similarity in their acts that is hard to ignore. In truth that's partly due to Peters having essentially cornered the "Indian guy making jokes about race" section of the market. But funny is what ultimately matters, and Sammy's got some good material.

So who do you think is better? Judge for yourself.
Below are parts 1 to 3 of Sugar Sammy's 2007 standup special for Comedy Now!

And this is Russell Peters on the same show back in 2004. It was the set that really catapulted him into the worldwide consciousness; his best known bits are all here ("Be a Man!" and so on.)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Indonesia's richest men, and what it says about the country

I don't really know jack about economics, but I my attention was drawn to Forbes magazine recently as it released its list of the 40 richest Indonesians.
Here's the top 10:
1. R Budi and Michael Hartono : US$11 billion
2. Susilo Wonowidjojo : US$8 billion
3. Eka Tjipta Widjaja : US$6 billion
4. Martua Sitorus : US$3,2 billion
5. Anthoni Salim : US$3 billion
6. Sri Prakash Lohia : US$2,65 billion
7. Low Tuck Kwong : US$2,6 billion
8. Peter Sondakh : US$2,3 billion
9. Putra Sampoerna : US$2,3 billion
10. Aburizal Bakrie : US$2,1 billion

Now, I don't necessarily begrudge anyone making lots of money, but HOW they make their money is sometimes a problem. Indonesia being what it is, undoubtedly most or all of those men have had to do a little dirt along the way to making their fortune; bribery and corruption have simply become a regrettable fact of life. But that aside, a perusal of the industries themselves that many of these men profit from reveals what else is killing Indonesia.

Here is how the top 4 made their fortunes:

#1) clove cigarettes and palm oil plantations
#2) clove cigarettes and palm oil plantations
#3) palm oil plantations
#4) palm oil plantations

and so on. Palm oil is the main reason that Indonesia has the 3rd highest rate of deforestation in the world (only Brazil and DPR Congo, which are much larger in size, are worse). And while palm oil kills the Indonesian environment, clove cigarettes kill the Indonesian people. Almost 70% of Indonesian men smoke, and the numbing, sweetening presence of cloves in the popular kretek brands (Gudang Garam, Sampoerna, etc) must surely be a factor, since it disguises the harshness that dissuades many youngsters who try cigarettes for the first time.
This doesn't mean that those millionaires and billionaires who made their fortune this way have done anything wrong per se. And no doubt their industries have created numerous jobs, so valuable in this poor country. But it's a shame that the great bringers of wealth and prosperity in Indonesia are the same things that are slowly killing Indonesia at the same time.

Interestingly, #6 is actually an Indian who has adopted Indonesian citizenship (I believe he's also India's 62nd richest man). The majority of the top 40 are also Indonesians of Chinese origin (it's hard to tell with many since they have adopted Indonesian names). This is not a bad thing - it's reflective of the Chinese drive to succeed in business - but with ethnic Chinese making up only around 3% of Indonesia's population, it's not hard to see why many resentment still festers towards the Chinese minority amongst pribumi ("native" Indonesians).

(Hat tip: Unspun)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The "Muslim Obama" Saga, part 137

Another example about how certain types of humour don't seem to translate so well across cultures.

Saudi media fall for Obama Muslim joke (AFP)
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — When a US satirist joked that President Barack Obama will admit to Congress that he is Muslim in his latest compromise with Republicans, Saudi media took it seriously.
On Friday the online version of Al-Hayat newspaper and the prominent news website both reported straightforwardly humourist Andy Borowitz's column that began:
"In his latest effort to find common ground with Republicans in Congress, President Barack Obama said today that he was willing to agree that he is a Muslim.
"In agreeing that he is a Muslim, Mr. Obama is sending a clear signal that he is trying to find consensus," Borowitz said in the column posted on the Huffington Post and The Borowitz Report websites this week.
Both Al-Hayat, one of the Middle East's most influential newspapers, and Sabq, believed to be controlled by the Saudi interior ministry, apparently missed the joke.
"Obama doesn't mind coming out as a Muslim if that will satisfy the Republicans," the Al-Hayat headline said.
"Obama: 'I'm ready to announce that I am a Muslim,'" led Sabq.
Both repeated Borowitz's "quote" of Obama saying:" My place of birth has been, and will always be, negotiable."
"White House sources indicated today that the president might be willing to meet the GOP (Grand Old Party -- the Republicans) halfway on his birthplace and say that he was born in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean," Borowitz joked.
Despite Obama repeatedly saying he is Christian, because his native-Kenyan father was born a Muslim, and because his middle name is Hussein, many Muslims and even some US Republicans suspect he is secretly Muslim.
Borowitz's original piece that caused the confusion is here, and it's well worth a read; it perfectly captures both the current disallusionment on the left with Obama's capitulation to Republicans, as well as the stupidity that underlies the Obama-is-a-Muslim controversy. Borowitz is a funny-ass dude and one of the few people I follow on Twitter, that is on those rare occasions when I bother to glance at Twitter.
The sad thing is that, as you would expect, there will be many in America for whom articles like Borowitz's are not satire, but further proof that they are being governed by an evil swarthy Manchurian Candidate. If you're not familiar with it, the equation is as follows:
Barack Hussein Obama = Arabic middle name + lived in Indonesia + some Muslim relatives + black + doesn't obviously hate Muslims = Muslim = hates America = Terrorist

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Fly, roti, fly

I've previously posted some of the feats of aerial brilliance that Malaysian roti canai makers are capable of. Well it turns out that there are some folks in the subcontinent with a few tricks up their sleeve too; unsurprising I suppose, since they did invent the roti. I'm guessing this is in South India (though I could be way off) and this time it's a paratha or possibly a chapati that is getting the frisbee treatment.

(Hat tip: Sepia Mutiny)

"My brother's coming home one day."

When you live in one of the world's most advanced countries with one of the highest standards of living, it is reasonable to expect that your fellow citizens uphold a basic level of civilisation. Yet clearly some people's mentalities remain mired in barbarity.
Now it's not uncommon for people to get stabbed and beaten in Melbourne, unfortunately. But once in a while a case emerges that exposes the culture of macho insanity that lies behind it.

This from a year ago:

A brawl in which a man was fatally stabbed at a suburban football oval was payback for a party fight among teenagers, a Melbourne court has heard. Nathan Roberts-Nunan, 20, died after being stabbed at Diggers Rest in February this year, and his mate Stephen Thorneycroft was critically injured.
Six men are facing committal proceedings charged with murder and attempted murder.
 Those charged are: Ante Vucak, 18, of Cairnlea, Jovan Ogrizovic, 18, of Caroline Springs, Mladen Mrnjaus (Mladen Mrnjaus), 21, of St Albans, Tomislav Panic, 18, of Hillside, Tomislav Stevanja, 19, of Sunbury, Nikola Andreevski, 21, of Avondale Heights.
Nathan Smith, 18, of St Albans, pleaded guilty to murder on Monday.
Ryan Downes, 15, told the Melbourne Magistrates Court on Thursday that he had punched three youths at a birthday party the month before the stabbing after they took an interest in his sister.
Subsequently, Mr Downes' 16-year-old mate Kyle Nunan received a message on the MSN website asking him to take part in a fist fight the following Sunday at the Diggers Rest skate park in Melbourne's outer north.
Mr Nunan told the court the person messaging him said he was 16 years old and they agreed no weapons would be used. The person said he had heard about Mr Nunan picking on his mates.
In a statement to the court, Mr Nunan said he had heard rumours at school on the Friday before the fight that there would be baseball bats and knives at the fight. Under cross-examination, he said he took a knife to the fight because he did not know what to expect, but he did not use it. In his witness statement, Mr Downes said he saw a group of about 15 people walking across the oval. "They had their wog hair cuts, and I could see that they were carrying machetes and poles," he said. As they got near, the group started to sprint towards them, he said. One of the men yelled "St Albans", before the attack began, Mr Downes said.
"Then Nathan goes: `No trouble, no trouble," he said. "By this he meant that he didn't want to fight. Nathan didn't get a chance to run."

And this week:
The family of a man killed in a gang brawl at a suburban Melbourne football oval has clashed with supporters of three people jailed for their role in his death.

Nathan Roberts-Nunan's family said the jail terms handed out to the three - the last of a dozen people sentenced over his death - were disgusting and a joke.
Mr Roberts-Nunan, 20, was struck with a baseball bat and then stabbed during the brawl at Diggers Rest in Melbourne's northwestern outskirts in February 2009 and died in hospital a few hours later.
He had gone to the skate park at the Diggers Rest Recreational Reserve with a friend - who was stabbed but survived - to support his younger brother who had been challenged to a fight.
On Thursday, Nikola Andreevski, 22, John Ray Garcia, 22, and a 17-year-old youth were jailed for a total of between five and six years for charges including manslaughter and affray.
Andreevski will serve at least three years before being eligible for parole, Garcia three years and nine months and the youth was given a non-parole period of three-and-a-half years.
The sentences angered both the accused's supporters and the victim's family, with many from both sides storming out of the Victorian Supreme Court.
One of the victim's sisters had to be restrained by a relative as she reached for the accused as they were led past. The confrontation continued outside the court, with both sides yelling abuse and the sister labelling the sentencing as disgusting.
"My brother's coming home one day. My brother's coming home," a brother of one of the accused yelled to Mr Roberts-Nunan's family.
Mr Roberts-Nunan's aunt Carmel Nunan hit out at the sentencing of all those involved and the behaviour of their supporters.
"What do I say here, 18 years of age, sob story, yet again, we're so sick of it," she told reporters.
"The thing is kids of this age, young men of this age, are over fighting wars in Afghanistan and are considered brave young men. But in courts like this they're considered immature and therefore their sentences are reduced. It's just double standards, and it's an absolute joke when you consider the severity of the crime and the brutality of the crime."
Justice Paul Coghlan said while the three did not inflict injury or cause death, everyone in the group was responsible at least to some degree for what happened.
He said the incident and the crime of affray involved an "unremitting senselessness and cowardly display of mob violence at its most extreme".
"I reiterate that this event at Diggers Rest was one of the worst examples of an affray which could be imagined," Justice Coghlan said. "I emphasise that you all chose to be part of it."
The court heard that Andreevski, of Avondale Heights in Melbourne's northwest, was towards the rear of the group that went across the oval and stopped when the attack began. Garcia, of nearby St Albans, was close to the victim's car during the attack but was unarmed, while the youth, 15 at the time, was one of those who attacked the vehicle.
In April, Nathan Smith, 19, of St Albans, was jailed for 22 years after pleading guilty to charges including murder and affray. He is appealing the severity of the sentence.

So it starts with the typical piece of young male stupidity that happens pretty regularly all over Melbourne. Teenagers throw a few punches in a dispute relating to a girl. That's dumb, but common. And it could have ended there.
It didn't. A subsequent challenge went out, a fight organised. Again, that's not all that uncommon these days. That said, there once was a time when people punched each other's lights out and then that was it.

What I find remarkable about this case is that it appears that most of the machete-wielding thugs did not even know the person they were attacking, or barely at all. The initial beef was between Kyle Nunan and Ante Vucak. Andreevski, Smith, Garcia, Mrjnaus and the others came armed to the teeth with molotov cocktails, poles, knives and machetes, to murder someone they had apparently never met. Just because their friend asked them to. 
Is this what they call "backing up your mates"?
Having your friend's back is an essential part of the male code. Yet at some point it has become warped beyond recognition. You'd think that a true friend would have the sense to dissuade these people he allegedly cares about from committing an act that would land them in prison for a long time. But no. For a certain class of people, friendship is seemingly about willingness to commit murder of a complete stranger, just over some macho bullshit that is entirely someone else's business.

And the incident outside court this week - a brother of one of the sentenced men taunting the grieving family - shows that little has been learned from this horrible mistake. It's a throwback to the most primitive form of tribalism; murder is not instrinsically wrong, it's only wrong when it happens to one of my group. The way of thinking that propagates this cycle of violence lives on.

There's video of the incident outside court here.
The other bewildering aspect of this kind of behaviour is that undoubtedly the convicted men believed that what they were doing was the manly thing to do. Yes, the courageous, masculine course of action was to get a large mob of people armed with deadly weapons to attack a smaller group of people who had believed it was only going to be a fist fight, and who were trying to avoid the fight once they realised what they had got themselves into. Guys in their early 20s taking on guys in their mid-teens.
If this is what manliness has turned into, the world has officially turned upside down.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Random coolness

From this guy's cool blog, via Angry Asian Man and Boing Boing.

Some Asian-Australian bits and pieces

Asians in the Australian modelling industry
'Bucknall makes a point of signing ethnic models to FRM but is constantly frustrated, he says, and even shocked at some reactions. "On numerous occasions when I'm sending a group of models in for castings I've been told, "We don't use blacks or Asians, so don't send them."

Matthew Anderson, director of Chadwick models, says his agency, which currently has only one Asian-Australian model signed, reflects the commercial reality of supply and demand, which in turn reflects a culture stuck on one concept of fashionable beauty.'

Poh's Family Garden
Malaysians are terminally obsessed with food and eating, and this segment of Gardening Australia shows another part of the cycle. TV chef Poh Ling Yeow takes the show to visit her uncle and auntie and their garden in Adelaide, where they cultivate kangkung, bok choy, snow peas and other Asian vegetable goodies.

Natalie Tran's travel video blog at Lonely Planet
I've somehow remained largely oblivious to the Natalie Tran phenomenon, but the 24-year-old Sydney v-logger is an international internet celebrity whose humorous observations have led to her being the 6th-most-subscribed director of all time on Youtube. She's now landed herself a gig as a guest video blogger for Lonely Planet, detailing her travels around the world. It's worth checking out.

Indian student tells of Melbourne stabbing
"An Indian cookery student in Melbourne has recalled the night he was stabbed in the stomach by two men after he finished work in a South Yarra bar. The 31-year-old man, who wants to remain anonymous, now bears a 26-stitch scar where doctors performed emergency surgery on his punctured bowel after the attack on November 5."

Muslims and homosexuals - working together to destroy America?

This is a story that nicely exemplifies how religion can be a force for tolerance or for ignorance.

If you are a right-wing American of the particularly small-minded variety, there are two things that you see as an almighty threat to your country: Muslims and gays. Now at last, some genius has concocted a conspiracy theory in which the two bogeymen come together so neatly. (Add in some illegal Mexican immigrants and some Kenyan socialists and it would be beyond perfect!)

Bradlee Dean: Keith Ellison is advancing Sharia law through ‘homosexual agenda’

Bradlee Dean of the religious ministry You Can Run But You Cannot Hide International believes Rep. Keith Ellison’s support for LGBT rights is part of his strategy to bring Sharia law to the United States. On his radio show Saturday, Dean said that members of the LGBT community are fools for supporting Ellison and that the Minnesota Democrat is “adamant about overthrowing the United States Constitution.”

Sharia law is the sacred law of Islam and derives its condemnation of homosexuality from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, as do fellow Abrahamic traditions Christianity and Judaism. As with Christian and Jewish approaches to LGBT issues, Muslim interpretations of Sharia laws on homosexuality vary widely, ranging from full support to prescribing a death sentence for it.
“I said time and time again that there is a correlation between the Muslims and the homosexual agenda, and we have a couple of fools in the state of Minnesota that are putting a rope around their neck and they just don’t realize it,” said Dean [audio below]. “Here, let me give it to you this way: Keith Ellison is a Muslim.”
Dean said that Ellison’s support for protections for LGBT people from hate crimes and for same-sex marriage is part of an attempt to overthrow the U.S. Constitution and implement Sharia law.
“Why is he so adamant about overthrowing the Constitution as it is right now? Because if you pay attention to the plow he’s planting the seed,” Dean said. “He’s trying to come through with Sharee [sic] law.”
Raising his voice, he urged his listeners, “Does somebody want to talk to the homosexual community in the state of Minnesota and tell them what he is doing? Go online, folks! You love the homosexuals so much then why don’t you tell them who they’ve appointed as their chairperson? He’s a Muslim!”
He continued, “Hello? Why is he after it? Because he wants to bring in Sharee [sic] law through the homosexual agenda!”
“They are using the homosexuals as a political battering ram to bring forth what? Sharee [sic] law.”
LGBT leaders in the United States are “ignorant,” Dean said, for allowing Ellison to serve as co-chair of the House LGBT Caucus.
“What is Keith up to? I think we have to ask the question, Keith,” said Dean. “I’m just asking the gay communities what’s up with Keith Ellison because they are so foolish, blind and stupid not to figure out that their vice chair is a Muslim. This is no hidden secret, folks. This is in America. Who is this guy working for?”
“Why is this guy advocating the overthrow of the United States Constitution in the state of Minnesota?”
Dean then played an audio clip of an unidentified Muslim who said that Sharia law calls for the execution of homosexuals.
“I would say to the homosexuals: You better keep your eyes peeled. You are playing the fools. I knew there was a correlation. I knew it, I knew it, I knew it. And the homosexuals are using the Muslims to do it, and the Muslims are using the homosexuals to do it. The homosexuals are playing the fool to the Muslims.”
He continued, “That’s how foolish these homosexuals are in Minnesota. God is not mocked. You can’t spit against heaven and not expect to fall upon your own back. And that’s exactly what’s happening to those that want to play the devil’s advocate.”
To Ellison, Dean said, “Keith you can call me any time. Let’s see how much of an American you really are.” He added the Ellison’s office has not returned his calls. Ellison’s office has not yet responded to the Minnesota Independent’s query about whether Dean has called or to offer comment on Dean’s statements.
Can you follow Dean's logic? If you can, you are either very smart or very stupid.

Actually, it makes perfect sense if you see the world through the lens of the small-minded Christian conservative right-wing American. This is what you have to believe:

  • All Muslims have an agenda to bring about Sharia law in the US.
  • All gays have an agenda to undermine the family and the American Way.
  • Every Muslim believes exactly the same things as every other Muslim.
  • Thus, it is not possible for a Muslim like Keith Ellison to have a view on sexuality that differs from orthodox Muslim doctrine.
  • Since Ellison does profess a broad-minded attitude towards sexuality, it cannot possibly genuine; it must be part of a hidden agenda.
  • If gay Minnesotans believe Ellison is genuine, they are ignorant. Dean is the only one who is smart enough to see the masterplan at work here.
  • All Muslims are sneaky and cunning about their agenda.
  • Thus, even though all Muslims hate gays, they would have no problem using them as pawns in their agenda to Islamicize the US.

See? Totally sensible.

Let's hear more about Ellison, who apppears to display the kind of magnanimity and compassion which is so anathema to Dean and his ilk that he believes it cannot possibly be real. Religious faith and homosexuality do not always coexist comfortably, but Ellison's position seems to be a pretty sensible one for a religious person to take.

Ellison has been forthright about his beliefs about Islam and homosexuality, and he has repeatedly said that Islam has taught him the importance of civil rights and social justice.
Earlier this year, Ellison addressed the Unitarian Universalist National Convention in a speech that covered themes of faith, love and abundance. “There’s enough for the straight and the gay,” he said. “There’s enough for the people who were born in America and the new immigrants. There’s enough for the blacks, there’s enough for the whites, there’s enough for the Latinos, there’s enough for the Asians, there’s enough for the Muslims, the Christians, the Jews, the Buddhists, the Hindus! There’s enough, everybody!”
And in an interview with the Muslim Peace Fellowship he stated unequivocally that he opposes violence and discrimination against LGBT people.
“I’m not asking people to embrace homosexuality,” he said. “I’m saying it’s wrong and immoral to kill them, beat them or exclude them from working. You don’t have to like them. Leave ‘em alone. Let them live their lives and let God decide if He will judge them, as He will judge us all. That’s all I’m saying.”
Meanwhile, back to our friend Bradlee Dean:
The Minnesota Independent emailed You Can Run But You Cannot Hide for clarification on Dean’s statements about Ellison and whether the group believed Ellison would try to implement Sharia law that would call for the execution of homosexuals.
“Due to the fact that the Muslims are the ones who would enforce Sharia Law and execute homosexuals, and being that Keith Ellison is a Muslim, you should be asking him that question,” a spokesperson replied. “That is our point.”
“I think the problem here is that Bradlee is trying to warn you of your sin before God for your good, and time and time again, you treat Bradlee like he is your enemy for doing so,” the email continued. “He has stuck his neck out for you many times. Bradlee’s heart is out of a sincere and real love to turn all men from sin to God.”
“You should be writing an article about what the Muslims are saying, since they are the ones who want to execute homosexuals. We are here merely to look out for you in that sense. Why do you turn on those who warn you?”
But Dean seemed to applaud Muslims that call for such executions. On his May 15 radio show, Dean said:
“Muslims are calling for the executions of homosexuals in America. This just shows you they themselves are upholding the laws that are even in the Bible of the Judeo-Christian God, but they seem to be more moral than even the American Christians do, because these people are livid about enforcing their laws. They know homosexuality is an abomination.”
Dean and his ministry have close ties to the Republican Party and GOP elected officials and candidates including gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Secretary of State and current state Rep. Mary Kiffmeyer, and state Rep. Dan Severson. Rep. Michele Bachmann has fundraised for the group extensively in recent years as well.

So while I doubt most conservative Americans would want a bar of Dean's whacky conspiracy theory is, the last paragraph shows just how mainstream and close to power Dean's sort of worldview is.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Cosmopolitan now available in Mongolia

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Cosmo Is Available in Mongolia
Colbert Report Full Episodes2010 ElectionMarch to Keep Fear Alive

Mmm, bukkake-flavoured noodles...

My friend Sash snapped this on the menu of Ichimaki, at Docklands in Melbourne. He didn't order it, and without wishing to disrespect the venue, I can't say I blame him.

If you don't get why this is funny/gross, you might need to read up on what bukkake means. (That link is not safe for work, even though it's a Wikipedia entry.)

Bukkake Udon is actually a common Japanese dish, in which a sauce is poured over the udon noodles. Bukkake means to pour or splash something. So now you know.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Whitewashing Attila the Hun

So I'm watching this BBC docu-drama historical re-enactment show called Warriors (although it's originally called Heroes and Villains in Britain), and this particular episode chronicles the life of Attila the Hun, whose marauding armies laid waste to much of Europe in the 5th century BC. I'm a sucker for medieval military history so I watched it eagerly, but it's not all that great really.

Now, the series carries the claim that "it is based on the accounts of writers of the time. It has been written with the advice of modern historians."
But the most glaring feature of the program for me was how Attila and his Huns were portrayed - as a kind of generic medieval European warrior force. They could have been straight out of a Viking movie, or Lord of the Rings, or Braveheart (particularly as they sounded kinda Scottish when they spoke). Attila (played by Rory McCann) was depicted as the stereotypical alpha-male warrior leader in the Western tradition - tall and powerfully built, with long hair, a beard, and a big sword. His soldiers looked much the same.

Problem is, everything we know about Attila says that he looked nothing like that. He and his armies came not from Northern Europe but Central Asia, beyond the Volga River.

Roman writer Priscus describes Attila thusly:
"Short of stature, with a broad chest and a large head; his eyes were small, his beard thin and sprinkled with grey; and he had a flat nose and tanned skin, showing evidence of his origin."
Of the Huns, Gothic-Roman bureaucrat Jordanes wrote:
"They made their foes flee in horror because their swarthy aspect was fearful, and they had, if I may call it so, a sort of shapeless lump, not a head, with pin-holes rather than eyes. Their hardihood is evident in their wild appearance, and they are beings who are cruel to their children on the very day they are born. For they cut the cheeks of the males with a sword, so that before they receive the nourishment of milk they must learn to endure wounds. Hence they grow old beardless and their young men are without comeliness, because a face furrowed by the sword spoils by its scars the natural beauty of a beard. They are short in stature, quick in bodily movement, alert horsemen, broad shouldered, ready in the use of bow and arrow, and have firm-set necks which are ever erect in pride. Though they live in the form of men, they have the cruelty of wild beasts."
Clearly, the real Huns did not resemble Rory McCann. But descriptions of them are complicated by the likelihood that they were not a single homogeneous ethnic group. The Central Asian steppe from whence they came was gigantic inhabited by numerous tribes, and as they conquered more territory they would have absorbed more diverse populations. So among the Hun armies there might have been people who spoke Turkic, Uralic, Mongolic, Slavic and Iranic languages. As for Attila himself, he was probably not purely "East Asian" in phenotype (in the way that Genghis Khan would have been); rather, he likely resembled a modern day Uighur, Uzbek or Kazakh, or a Hazara from Afghanistan.

The Huns played an important role in shaping the history and genetics of Europe. Firstly, they were one of several nomadic groups to have introduced East Asian DNA into Eastern Europe. Secondly, their invasions displaced numerous other barbarian tribes, such as the Goths, who then in turn invaded Western Europe and precipitated the fall of the Roman Empire. It also pushed the Angles and Saxons out of Germany and into England.

So it's a shame that the folks at the BBC didn't see fit to acknowledge the Oriental origins of the Huns. The East-meets-West culture clash between the Huns and Rome would have made for a far more interesting program.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

No place for a brown hobbit

From The Age
Agent fired for light-skinned hobbit casting call
NEW ZEALAND: It has been beset by budget blowouts and strikes and now the casting agent for The Hobbit has been fired over accusations of racism.
Naz Humphreys, a Briton of Pakistani origin, was in New Zealand on holiday when she decided to try out for the part of a hobbit in the pounds 320million prequel to The Lord of the Rings films.
After travelling 80 miles (130km) and queueing for three hours to audition Ms Humphreys was told that she was not white enough to be a hobbit.
"The casting manager basically said they weren't having anybody who wasn't pale-skinned," Ms Humphreys, a social policy researcher, told The Waikato Times.
"It's 2010 and I still can't believe I'm being discriminated against because I have brown skin."
A video of the auditions taken by the newspaper reportedly shows a film company representative telling the crowd: "We are looking for light-skinned people. I'm not trying to be - whatever. It's just the brief. You've got to look like a hobbit."
A casting agent had also placed newspaper advertisements seeking extras with "light skin tones".
The advertisements listed the requirements for potential hobbits, including age (16-80), height - below 5ft 7in (1.7m) for men and 5ft 2in for women - and the requirement that women should have light skin.
A spokesman for WingNut Films, the production company owned by The Hobbit director Sir Peter Jackson, said that no such instructions had been given to the casting company and described it as an unfortunate error.
"The crew member in question has been dismissed from the show," he said. "It's something we take very seriously."
Ms Humphreys said that she was a fan of the Oscar-winning The Lord of the Rings trilogy and, with a height of 4ft 9in, had thought that she was perfect for the role of a hobbit.
"I would love to be an extra," she said. "But it just seemed like a shame because obviously hobbits are not brown or black or any other colour.
"They all look kind of homogenised beige and all derived from the Caucasian gene pool."
A spokesman for Sir Peter said: "All people meeting the age and height requirements are welcome to audition."
The two-part film is scheduled to begin filming in 3-D in February with Martin Freeman, a star of The Office television comedy series, playing the lead role of Bilbo Baggins.
In the meantime Ms Humphreys has started a Facebook group called "Hire hobbits of all colours! Say no to hobbit racism!"
What you reckon?

On one hand, Naz Humphreys (pictured left) is hardly that dark really, and I don't think anyone would have really noticed or cared if they caught a glimpse of a slightly swarthier hobbit in the background of a scene. Perhaps the guy in casting was being a bit too over-zealous.

On the other hand, we have to be realistic. If the people involved in the film want the hobbits to look fairly homogeneous, then they absolutely have the right to. Putting people of colour in TV or movie scenarios which you'd normally expect to be all-white often comes across as a bit silly. For example, having a black Guinevere in the UK series Merlin, or the black Moorish character in Robin Hood played by Morgan Freeman. Leave aside the alleged racist sentiments of author JRR Tolkien; if Tolkien's vision of the hobbit race was that they all had pale skin, then so be it.

What does irk me is the film industry's tradition of white-washing movies that should rightly have an ethnic cast. For example, how the Asian-inspired cartoon world of The Last Airbender somehow became mostly white for the film adaptation. Or how a real-life group of predominantly Asian-American blackjack card-counters became entirely Caucasian in the film adaption, 21. Or the story of Chinese-Australian war hero Billy Sing, played by a white Australian in the film made about his life. Or casting John Wayne in the role of Genghis Khan. I could go on.

So fair is fair. If you are brown, don't automatically expect that you can play a role that almost everybody associates with pale skin, and then cry racism when you get rejected. And if you are a casting agent for a role in which the protagonists are meant to be brown or Asian, don't cast a white person. Deal?

"The wrong Wong"

A Current Affair featured this story this week of a Chinese-Australian man who was exposed as a fugitive welfare cheat on Channel 7... except that 7, and the Department of Social Security, had confused him with another Andrew Wong. With a different middle name. I dunno how many Andrew Wongs there are in Australia, but I imagine there are heaps.

Now I'm glad ACA ran this story to allow Wong to clear his name, but really, did they really need all those Chinese sound effects? Kung Fu Fighting playing in the background? Check the 2 minute 57 second mark for some signature Chinese percussion, as the reporter walks through Chinatown, for reasons that have nothing to do with the story. There are approaching a million people of Chinese background in Australia now; is Chinese-ness really still that exotic?

(Hat tip: Yuey)

RIP Leslie Nielsen (1926 - 2010)

Actor Leslie Nielsen died this week aged 84 of pneumonia-related complications. I remember him as one of my favourite actors growing up, due to his roles in films like The Naked Gun, below.

Nielsen, born in Sasketchewan in Canada to a Danish father and Welsh mother, began his career in serious dramatic roles, such as Forbidden Planet, The Opposite Sex and The Poseidon Adventure. It wasn't until Airplane! in 1980 (known as Flying High in some parts of the world) that he switched to comedy; the movie was an absurd spoof of disaster movies, but used actors better known for straight dramatic roles. Nielsen's deadpan demeanour and great timing were perfect, and one of the film's memorable lines was listed by the American Film Institute in it's Top 100 Movie Quotes:

Nielsen's career then shifted to playing deadpan slapstick roles. The Abrahams-Zucker-Zucker directing team behind Airplane! cast Nielsen as Lt Frank Drebin in Police Squad!, a TV series that sent up the classic police dramas of old. The series was short-lived (cancelled after only 6 episodes), but its characters and many of its gags were recycled 6 years later for the big screen in The Naked Gun trilogy, which proved a big hit.

While Nielsen appeared in numerous comedic roles after The Naked Gun, few of them are worthy of recommendation. All in all, over his career he had appeared in over 100 films and 1500 television programs.

Interesting Leslie Nielsen fact: his brother Erik Nielsen was the Deputy Prime Minister of Canada during the 1980s.