My Muslim prayer cap

Somehow I get the daily email alerts from the Body and Soul website, which contain the Murdoch tabloids’ syndicated articles on personal wellbeing. Today’s headline – ‘Can you really catch up on lost sleep?’ – is relevant to me at this moment.

A day after returning to Sydney, my body clock is still on Malaysian time. The time difference is only three hours, but my body wants to go to sleep at 2:00 am rather than the usual 11:00 pm. Daylight wakes me hours before my body is ready. My Fitbit tells me I slept for only 6 hours and 4 minutes and I lack the energy and brainpower I need to face the day.

Re-entry into my own world in Sydney also requires a few cultural adjustments. The most interesting I’m facing is how to regard the beautiful knitted Muslim prayer cap that I have ended up with.

I bought it from the shop at the Islamic Arts Museum in Kuala Lumpur. It was intended as a gift for my friend at home, but he diplomatically rejected it because he has brown skin and said he feared being branded a Muslim and becoming an object of hate and fear in these troubled times.

My white skin makes it easier for me to wear the cap without attracting unwanted attention, so it’s more likely that I will feel comfortable wearing it.

As far as street wear in Newtown is concerned, exotic is the norm, so I’m fine on that score. But I need to go into it a bit more deeply to decide whether it’s really proper for me to wear it.

As a Catholic, I ask myself how I feel when I see people with a tattoo depicting the Virgin Mary or the Sacred Heart.

It is possible that the wearer of the tattoo is making a religious faith statement. But given the generation of most tattoo wearers, I would guess that it is unlikely that they are Catholics with a devotion to the Virgin Mary or the Sacred Heart.

Therefore I can conclude that they have appropriated an element of my religious culture to make their own statement of cultural identity.

Do I resent that, or am I flattered? Personally I am flattered because they are giving articles of my religion their own form of cultural validation. They probably don’t accept much Catholic doctrine (not that I accept it all). But they’re conferring on my faith a certain degree of coolness, and I like that.

I ask myself what kind of cultural statement I am making in wearing the Muslim prayer cap. I would say that it is, in equal measure, a love of the exotic, and a (hopefully not misplaced) wish to express solidarity with my Muslim brothers and sisters in these hostile times.

I look forward to wearing it in the street, in exotic Newtown and in the shopping centre of a seriously Muslim suburb such as Auburn, to test the vibe.

A view of the Royal Commission from the End of the World

Yesterday I caught a bus to the End of the World. It was not exactly how I usually imagine the end of the world. More heaven on earth than hell on earth.

It took the form of a large open air seafood restaurant named the End of the World. It was at Teluk Bahang, near a fishing village in the relatively remote north western corner of the island of Penang. The original restaurant has been destroyed in the 2004 tsunami and subsequently rebuilt and relocated to higher ground.

I selected my live red snapper from the fish tank and had it served to me steamed Hong Kong style, with garlic, ginger, light soy sauce and rice wine. But my thoughts turned to the hell on earth experience of the victims of child sexual abuse in Australia and the justice that could be around the corner for them.

As I enjoyed my snapper, five of Australia’s Catholic archbishops were fronting the Royal Commission in Sydney. I was thinking of the brief conversation I’d had with a friend in Sydney on Sunday, hours before my departure for Malaysia. My friend is a mental health professional who has counselled many victims of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

He was angry with Archbishop Fisher after reading a long interview with him in the previous week’s Sunday Telegraph. The thrust of the interview was contained in the archbishop’s description of the sexual abuse crisis as a ‘kick in the guts’ for the non-offending majority of good priests. The archbishop said they had felt ‘contaminated, betrayed and demoralised by the paedophiles in the church’.

My friend was dismayed that the archbishop appeared to have minimised the suffering of the victims.

Upon reading the interview, my reaction was to be stunned at Archbishop Fisher’s apparent discounting of an underlying reality I thought the Church was gradually coming to accept. That is the argument that child sexual abuse is primarily a product of the culture of the Church, rather than numbers of rogue priests and brothers. But his message in the interview was that the priests who had ‘given their all’ had been ‘tarred with this brush’ that belonged to those who had physically carried out the abuse.

I was surprised that the archbishop would say these things publicly, even if this is what he thought privately. It was as if he had not learned from the public outcry that followed his infamous advice to parents of victims (the Fosters) during World Youth Day 2008 when he suggested they should get over it and not ‘dwell crankily on old wounds’.

However when he was before the Royal Commission yesterday, Archbishop Fisher did describe the Church’s response to victims as ‘criminal negligence’. He admitted that allegations were covered up in the past to protect the Church’s reputation.

My hope is that the Catholic Church will emerge from the Royal Commission contrite and not triumphant. In the Sunday Telegraph interview, Archbishop Fisher was still expressing pride in the Church’s role in building the social welfare infrastructure of Australia through its schools for the poor, its orphanages and hospitals ‘where there were none’. To me, it appears the Church was unwittingly constructing breeding grounds for child abuse for which it must now take responsibility.

In my view, Vatican II’s vision of a ‘pilgrim church in need of redemption’ must be realised. The Church’s theologians could take the Church’s doctrine of ‘social sin’ as the basis for admitting that the whole Church, including the ‘good’ priests and laity, should take responsibility for the abuse.

My final thought is prompted by the archbishop’s admission of criminal negligence, and it may or may not be too far-fetched. It is that child sexual abuse is a crime against humanity, and on that basis it could be fitting to take the Australian Catholic Church to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, in order to secure ultimate justice for victims.


Penang's city of museums

When I’m travelling, I always enjoy visits to museums. It’s true to say that I’m spoiled for choice here in Penang, as history is very much at the core of the identity of the locals.

The list includes the Penang 3D Trick Art Museum, two separate camera museums, the Made in Penang Interactive Museum, the new Colonial Penang Museum, the War Museum, Toy Museum, Sun Yat-sen Museum, Penang Islamic Museum, Straits Chinese Jewellery Museum, the iBox Museum of Glass, and more.

Some of them would have to be gimmicks to amuse tourists. Others would be intended for a niche clientele. Or perhaps they are just the private owners’ labour of love.

The restaurant I discovered by chance on Monday – ZhengHe - had its own museum and art gallery upstairs, and I found going upstairs for a visit a very satisfying after dinner activity.

The restaurant’s building is itself a very well maintained museum piece. It spans four interconnected shops that would have been built in the 19th century. The staircase I ascended was built without any nails with original merbau wood.

I met the owner, and he is obviously very proud of the museum and must spend a lot of money keeping it in such condition. It is a pity that I was the only diner, and it was empty the following night when I walked past, despite good reviews on TripAdvisor.

Yesterday I went to the Penang State Museum and Art Gallery, which was established in 1821 and houses many state treasures including furniture, jewellery and costumes.

It is supposed to be one of the best presented museums in the country, but it was weighted in favour of the stories of the elites and dominated by ‘old wares’ and tableau presentations. It just seemed ‘old’. Not the modern ‘interpretation centre’ style of museum that I find it easier to engage with.

Cultural heritage in living cities

Yesterday I was talking to a local retired civil servant who had come to take one of my fellow hotel guests sightseeing on the other side of the island. He now lives off his pension and enjoys doing part time work in hotels to keep himself occupied.

He told me that the grand 75 year old hotel he has been working in most recently is shutting down for good next week. The building is too big and neglected to be viable as a hotel without major investment.

He said there were no plans for the building but was confident that heritage laws would protect it from demolition. When I talked to him about my hotel – Hutton Lodge - he mentioned that there had been an attempt a few years ago to burn it down for the insurance windfall.

The hotel is one of George Town’s few remaining colonial style bungalows. Fortunately it has been restored and redecorated – simply - and is now quite profitable as budget accommodation. It has a breezy interior with original architectural features intact, and I would have no hesitation in staying here again if I returned to Penang.

Later, I was thinking about urban regeneration as I walked along Armenian Street (Lebuh Armenian), which – like The Rocks in Sydney – is frequented mainly by tourists. It is very presentable, with even footpaths and restored and freshly painted buildings. The owner of the tiny café I visited said that nearly all his customers were tourists, whom he liked because they were polite and friendly.

At the end of Armenian Street is the office building of George Town World Heritage Incorporated, an advisory resource that employs professionals with backgrounds in fields including urban planning, architecture, conservation and heritage.

It is described as an independent company, although its Board of Directors is made up of government officials and politicians. Arguably that is how it should be. I would guess that the measure of their success will lie in how incorrupt they manage to be. There are exhibits on the ground floor depicting the types of architecture and methods of conservation.

Its focus is more on preservation than urban regeneration, but I was thinking that the two need to go hand in hand if the result is to be a living city rather than merely a tourist attraction or a museum.

I was reminded of an urban planning exhibition I visited when I was in Medellin, Colombia, in 2015. It was called ‘Piso Piloto. Medellin-Barcelona’ and was about renewing cities, specifically those two.

The focus was on public housing, including both architecture, art and design, and the social dimension in particular. They did not use the word ‘heritage’. But importantly, for me, they had integrated an aspect of regeneration and renovation of existing spaces.

In George Town, it seemed to me that it was all about preservation without a social dimension. That suggests that they need to work to ensure they do not end up with a large street museum rather than a living city that caters for the needs of its own population in addition to the desires of tourists.

Should Penang sanitise its past?

After taking an overnight flight from Sydney and transiting at Kuala Lumpur for four hours, I arrived in Penang at 8:00 am yesterday.

I told the bus driver that I wanted to go to Penang. He obviously gets it regularly from tourists, but laughed and was intent on correcting me. I was already in Penang – the name of the island - and headed for George Town, the island’s city that is Malaysia’s second largest and one of Southeast Asia’s most famous cultural and gastronomic hubs.

Within George Town, I am staying in a historic no frills bungalow hotel on the edge of the 108 hectare World Heritage zone, which was inscribed in 2008. UNESCO recognised the city for its 'unique architectural and cultural townscape without parallel anywhere in East and Southeast Asia'. George Town contains one of the largest collections of pre-World War II buildings in Southeast Asia and is considered an architectural treasure.

That description leads me to expect the kind of picture perfect vistas that we associate with many urban precincts in Europe. But my first impression was that George Town is just as dilapidated and functional as Jakarta and Ho Chi Minh City and many of the other Asian cities I’ve visited, complete with the odours of an inadequate sewerage system.

I enjoyed my day long ‘discovery walk’ along the broken and uneven and obstructed footpaths. There’s a lot to see, but what stood out for me was an attraction much less grand than most. It is the historic photographic display and memory collection point on the ground floor of the Star newspaper building.

In particular I liked the ‘What’s your Penang story?’ corner where visitors were invited to type a letter to share their experience of Penang. I don’t know how many people have actually typed their story, but I appreciate the symbolism of publicly holding up the value of listening to and recording people’s stories. Until they see a display like this, many people think that nobody wants to know about their past.

I’ve long been interested in ways of preserving the past, since I did my Applied History postgraduate degree at the UTS Sydney in the 1990s. Coincidentally, on Sunday I was talking to a member of an oral history collection group that had a stand at a fair in Newtown in Sydney. He is currently doing a postgrad degree in history at UTS.

Understandably Penang will want to capitalise on its World Heritage site status. I noticed many of the hundreds of restaurants in the city use heritage as a selling point. My photo depicts promotion of ‘Penang Tradisional Famouse Food’ and ‘Dessert Old Time Delight Shop’.

I like this. But I suspect that commercial reality will probably see the transformation of the heritage zone into a sanitised theme park so that tourists will visit in large numbers and generate renewed wealth for the city.

That will probably mean the creation of even footpaths and the elimination of sewerage odours. These enhancements will make for a more comfortable visitor experience, but I think it will also be a less authentic representation of Penang’s past.

Travellers who hand their wallet to strangers

Last night we were having a conversation about naïve travellers. The kind of person who is not particularly seasoned as a traveller and doesn’t think much of the Australian Government travel warnings on the DFAT website.

These people have the best time. They’re wide-eyed and fully immersed in the experience of discovering new and strange things. They’re not constantly on guard. They don’t miss out on experiences because they’re too busy exercising a high degree of caution.

It is obvious that this type of traveller is statistically more likely to come to grief. It goes without saying that it is highly irresponsible of me to disparage the travel warnings. I am tempting fate and potentially leading others into danger.

But we need perspective.

If DFAT says ‘don’t travel within 10 kilometres of the Iraq border’, I can accept that. But I will baulk at advice to stay away from political demonstrations. That’s where I’m likely to discover what really matters to the citizens of the country I’m visiting.

I am thinking of a beautiful travel vignette I read a few months ago on the ABC Open website. It was from Oliver Jacques, a young Sydney writer who had been backpacking through Iran for three weeks.

I was intrigued by the title: ‘The Persian woman who wanted my wallet’. He begins: ‘The woman in the lime green hijab leaned across into the men’s section of the crowded bus and told me to give her my wallet.'

He speculates that DFAT must have a warning about handing over your wallet to strangers in developing countries. But he’s clearly glad that he didn’t follow it.

What transpires is on one level just another of the dozens of intercultural exchanges you have every day when you visit these countries. But it was one of the most affecting travel stories I’d read in a long time.

He took a calculated risk and was richly rewarded.

Free music data is killing the free internet

If I’m out and about, I sometimes listen to music through a streaming service. The data it uses is free. It does does not eat into my monthly quota. That’s because my mobile phone service provider Optus gives free data to many of its customers using Spotify or certain other music streamers it has commercial deals with.

What’s not to like about that?

At home, Optus includes a FetchTV set top box and 35 pay channels with my broadband internet access at effectively no cost to me.

What’s wrong with that?

These apparent acts of corporate generosity are back door means of getting around the net neutrality rules. Free data for Optus' Spotify users is killing the 'free internet'.

Most users are not bothered enough to get their head around ‘net neutrality’. But it’s important, because it underlies the principle of the ‘open internet’. It guarantees consumers access to the content they want, not the content that big business wants them to access.

Without net neutrality, corporations would be free to throttle or perhaps block sites they did not want us to visit. We’d have effective access only to content that suits our provider’s commercial or ideological interest.

My FetchTV box gives me a handful of news channels. One of them is ChannelNewsAsia, the mouthpiece of the Singapore Government. The Singapore Government is the majority owner of Optus’ parent company Singtel. When I had FetchTV with my previous provider iinet, I had Chinese and Indian news channels. The Singapore Government wants us to see the world through its eyes, so it removes the Chinese and Indian channels from its particular offering of FetchTV.

Optus can do that because Fetch is just a box attached to my TV. Strictly speaking, it’s not a violation of the net neutrality rules. But they couldn’t block or throttle my access to Chinese or Indian news sites that I access through the world wide web on my computer. Not yet, anyway.

Net neutrality - i.e. the ‘open internet’ - has always been cherished as a basic consumer right. It was vigorously upheld by the Obama administration. Much of corporate America wished this was not so. But now their prayers have been answered with President Trump pick of an enemy of net neutrality - Ajit Pai - to lead the Federal Communications Commission regulating body.

The New York Times reported earlier this month that Pai has already ‘aggressively moved to roll back consumer protection regulations created during the Obama presidency’, taking a ‘first swipe at net neutrality rules designed to ensure equal access to content on the internet’.

Meanwhile Europe’s telecommunications regulator strengthened net neutrality rules last year by closing a few loopholes that allowed service providers to create ‘fast lanes’ for ‘specialised services’.

Will we follow Europe or the US? As yet, it’s unclear. What is clear is that we should expect more tricks from internet service providers keen to exploit loopholes. After floating the idea in 2015, Optus would still like to charge Netflix a fee to offer consumers ‘the best customer experience’ of Netflix. We can presume this means the worst customer experience of what other content providers have to offer.


Meeting Russian aggression with an open mind

Last night I went to the Australian Institute of International Affairs in Kent Street Sydney for the launch of Tony Kevin's Return to Moscow (UWA Publishing). The book explores the complexities of Russian history and identity in an attempt to understand Putin's aggression towards the West.

Tony is a former diplomat in Moscow and Ambassador to Poland and to Cambodia. When I was editor of Eureka Street, I would always rely on him to quickly produce a quality article on international affairs or Australian Government asylum seeker boat rescue (or non-rescue).

That was the subject of two of his previous books, Reluctant Rescuers (2012) and A Certain Maritime Incident (2004). Last night he nearly got sidetracked into talking about Australian Government atrocities when challenged on why he didn't devote more space in his book to addressing Russian atrocities.

He was making the point that 90% of our media makes a sport of demonising Putin, and in the process we miss the true story of Russia's attempt to regain self-respect after the monumental disaster of the Communism of the 20th century and the impotence of Boris Yeltzin after the fall of Communism.

To counter our media's line on Russian aggression in Ukraine, Tony talked about 'regime change' by the US and NATO, in their efforts to prop up the anti-Russian nationalists who look to the West.

My imagination produced absurd thoughts of Trump attempting regime change in Australia by propping up Pauline Hanson. Then I wondered how many US attempts at interference in the complex affairs of other nations are in fact just as stupid. I had just been chatting with my friend Jan about clumsy US mis-steps to create the perfect regime in Afghanistan, where she'd worked. 

Tony's message is that we must treat Russia with respect and study Russian history and culture. In this he was warmly supported by the Russian consul Sergey Borisovich Shipilov, who said that there is so much to learn that he is still studying Russian history at the age of 62.

During the height of the Cold War, I remember listening to an old Jesuit who was fixated on the excesses of Russian Communism to the extent that he visited Moscow when he got the opportunity. But with a closed mind. 'I knew what I'd find and I found it,' he would say. Tony's return to Moscow last year was of an altogether different order.

Bond University: What's in a name?

At the weekend, when I stayed with my aunt and uncle at Robina on the Gold Coast, I was within ten minutes walk of Bond University.

Walking through a university campus has long been part of my lifestyle, having lived within ten minutes walk of Sydney University for almost 24 years. I have welcomed the proximity as if, through some process of osmosis, it conditions me to be a more questioning, reflective and ethical person.

But with Bond University, the feeling is more ambiguous.

It is certainly one of the most beautiful modern university campuses I have walked around, and I have noted that the privately owned not-for-profit institution is one of Australia's best performing universities.

But I can't quite get over the reality - for me at least - that the university is a gigantic monument to one of Australia's most notoriously dishonourable businessmen, Alan Bond.

In Australia, Bond was synonymous with the corporate excess of the 1980s. He was one of the central figures in the WA Inc scandals of the time. A few years later he was declared bankrupt, with personal debts approaching $2 billion. Then he was jailed after being convicted of fraudulently appropriating $1.2 billion.

It's a long time since Bond University severed links with Bond and Bond Corporation. But it is perverse that it appears to have the discipline of business administration at its core, with the Bond Business School one of the university's more prominent and successful entities.

The obvious question is what kind of implicit or explicit inspiration does the School take from Alan Bond the man of business. Is it at all proud of Bond's legacy in business? What kind of business ethics does it teach?

Try putting bond business school business ethics into Google and the search result will point to the 'truly personalised educational experience' and - almost comically - end with the search engine indicator: 'Missing: ethics'.

I would guess that this gives a wrong and unfair impression. But so does the university's name. In recent days, I've read with interest about Yale University's decision to rename one of its undergraduate colleges because its name has honoured the white supremicist and slavery advocate John C. Calhoun.

The Yale University statement said that having one of its colleges named in honour of such a person 'fundamentally conflicts with Yale's mission and values'.

Yale's action could be a trigger for Bond University to examine how its name sits with its mission and values.

The kindness of people in the country

Over the last few days I've been travelling in northern NSW and over the Queensland border by train and bus.

I wanted to attend a funeral in Ballina and also visit my uncle and aunt on the Gold Coast hinterland. But I also liked the idea of travelling at a slower pace that allowed me to see more of the countryside and the towns and the people.

I appreciate the stories that you hear from people in the country. This time there were two in particular that stayed with me. One was from my AirBNB host in Lismore and the other the waitress at Curry House restaurant in Casino.

My AirBNB host welcomed me about 8:00 pm and invited me into her backyard for a BBQ sausage and a beer with her husband and her medium term boarder.

She had a large vegetable garden and complained that her neighbour's goat would sometimes get into her garden and eat the plants. When she'd mention it to him, he would nonchalently reply that the goat must have been hungry.

My host was very patient with him because he was always very kind to her and to everybody else he'd come across.

He drove a taxi, and one night picked up a woman living with mental illness who was estranged from her family. The woman said she didn't have anywhere to go, so he took her home to stay the night in his spare room. That was a year ago, and she's still there.

A few days later I found myself in Casino, which is as far as the north coast train goes, since former NSW Premier Bob Carr closed the service to Murwillumbah in 2004. I had a few hours to fill in because the train that connected with my bus from Robina was running late due to the heatwave.

It had been 46 degrees earlier, but in the cool of the evening it was a more bearable 38 degrees. I'd enjoyed the curry I'd eaten in Lismore and was pleased to find a simple Indian restaurant in the main street the town. The waitress wasn't Indian, and she was just there helping out her friend the owner, who was.

I was the only customer, and she sat down to talk with me while I waited for my beef korma (Casino calls itself the 'Beef Capital'). The heat was the main topic of conversation but she got around to telling me about the woman with a mental illness whom she'd taken in until the woman could find better permanent accommodation than the tent in the caravan park that the Salvos had provided. That was many months ago.

My waitress's mother had passed away early last year and she had a spare room, and most likely the need for companionship. The woman with the mental illness was 'no trouble'.

She would leave the house every day at 8:00 in the morning and return around 6:00, with her dog. But the dog was 15 and died of of old age some time after she moved in.

My waitress told me that her boarder was distressed and didn't know what to do. So she took the initiative and went to Bunnings to buy a pot and some potting mix in which to give the dog a dignified burial. The woman was very grateful and now the pot with the dog's remains is her most treasured possession.