When in Sepang, do as the locals do: The Star Columnist

Nine Australians, who undressed and posed with underwear with the colors of the Malaysian flag at Sepang circuit on Oct 2, arrive at the Sepang Magistrate Court on Oct 6, 2016.
Nine Australians, who undressed and posed with underwear with the colors of the Malaysian flag at Sepang circuit on Oct 2, arrive at the Sepang Magistrate Court on Oct 6, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

By Brian Martin

The Star/Asia News Network

The act of stripping down to your underwear or going completely naked at sporting events is a common occurrence and is probably as old as sport itself.

Particularly common at football matches, these strippers or more correctly, streakers, are in it for their five minutes of fame.

Viewed usually as an amusing distraction from the main sporting event, they are usually bundled out of the grounds by policemen or security personnel and are then charged for public indecency. The offender may be jailed but is more likely to be given a fine and warned on future behaviour - straightforward and no fuss.

Why then was there such an outcry over the recent act of stripping at the Formula 1 Malaysian Grand Prix last weekend?

To recap, nine Australians were arrested and remanded for stripping down and wearing Jalur Gemilang briefs as they celebrated fellow Aussie Daniel Ricciardo's first F1 win in two years.

They were apparently being investigated for intentional insult, a charge that carries the maximum penalty of two years' jail or a fine. The men are referred to by Australian media as the "Budgie Nine" in reference to the budgie smuggler, Australian slang for a type of men's swimwear similar to underwear.

Australian media reported that the men had, in fact, stripped down to swimwear, and not their underwear.

Sepang OCPD Asst Comm Abdul Aziz Ali said the foreigners were detained at 5pm on the same day shortly after the inappropriate act. "They were under the influence of alcohol. Initial investigation revealed that they had bought the underwear in their home country," he said.

The nine were reportedly in good spirits when they were arrested after the race. They were chanting "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi, oi, oi" for several minutes and posed for pictures with local race fans.

Social media predictably went into overdrive as Malaysians slammed the Aussies for their "indecent" behaviour.

Netizens were not amused by their childish antics, with many saying that their action had not only insulted Malaysia, but had tarnished their homeland.

Australians, though, appeared to be divided.

The Sydney-based tabloid The Daily Telegraph led with a front-page headline, "To our dear recalcitrant, humourless Malaysian friends... Free the Budgie Nine".

The newspaper took pains to interview friends and relatives of the nine and showed them to be "basically decent blokes, if a little high spirited".

The Telegraph quoted social analyst David Chalke as saying "while many Australians see semi-nudity in good humour, the same cannot be said for Malaysian authorities. You might be able to run around naked in Cronulla (a beachside suburb in Sydney) but not in Kuala Lumpur".

I think the paper is missing the point. Are they tolerating uncouth behaviour of their citizens abroad?

The actions of the nine were an insult to our national flag. It had nothing to do with being "high spirited".

No one will stop you for consuming alcohol at Sepang, but as Deputy Home Minister Datuk Nur Jazlan Mohamed puts it: "We open our doors to tourists, we try to treat them as well as we can, sometimes even better than our own people, but when they come here with the intention to commit indecent acts, to embarrass us, I think that's not how visitors should respond to our good treatment".

The Sydney Morning Herald, on the other hand, took the opposite view to the Telegraph. Its columnist Andrew Street opined that it was best not to wear flags as clothing at all. "Unless you're deliberately trying to provoke people, of course, in which case, you should probably anticipate some interesting consequences," he wrote.

Street also quoted the Australian Government smart traveller website which advises, "There are conservative standards of behaviour in many areas of Malaysia. You should find out what customs are observed at your destination and take care not to offend".

Street argued that the nine, who included a staffer of Australian Minister of Defence Industry Christopher Pyne, should be aware of such standards.

In the end, though, the "Budgie Nine" seemed to have got off lightly. Yesterday, the Sepang Sessions Court discharged the nine with only a caution. The Australians had pleaded guilty under Section 290 of the Penal Code for public nuisance, which carries a fine not exceeding RM400. Judge Harith Sham Mohamed Yasin said their conduct was totally inappropriate, but took into account their young age when discharging them.

* The writer believes the nine Aussies will no doubt be relieved at their discharge as they would have feared the worst, but perhaps the learned judge should have considered an alternative charge for them - sheer stupidity.