Mt Kinabalu nude stunt kicks up a storm

Naughty, not nice, behaviour: Taken from Emil Kaminski’s Facebook page, this photo shows the group in question stripping off at Mount Kinabalu. Kaminski had captioned it: ‘Mount Kinabalu: Time of my Life’.

Datuk Masidi Manjun, Sabah's well-known Tourism Minister, is known for driving a hard bargain when it comes to promoting the state.

Having to deal with the international headline-grabbing nudist incident at Mount Kinabalu, the veteran leader says he is not concerned if Malaysia is seen as backward or "not modern" for hauling up and sentencing tourists who went naked up there.

"If glorifying public nudity and complete disregard for other people's customs and traditions is considered as qualifying conditions of being modern, I must plead guilty... I am not modern," he states.

Malaysia does not take any public display of nudity lightly.

Last May, incidentally also on May 30 (the tourists stripped on Mount Kinabalu on the same date this year), a group of Malaysians and Singaporeans took part in nude sports games in Teluk Bahang, Penang, and posted a video of it on social media.

They too got into trouble with the law. They were charged for commiting obscene acts in a public place. Six pleaded guilty and were jailed one month and fined RM5,000. The one who produced the video got extra six months jail. Four others claimed trial.

What makes the Mount Kinabalu strip act even graver is the fact that the mountain is revered by the indigenous communities who believe the souls of their ancestors rest there.

Every year, usually in October, the bobolian (high priest or high priestess) have a ceremony to slaughter seven white chickens, offering seven white eggs and betel nut leaves as a mark of respect to the mountain.

And each day, climbers are given a briefing by the Sabah Park authorities at the Timpohon Gate about the 'dos and don'ts' and the need to respect the mountain, before they start the climb.

Kadazandusun Cultural Association (KDCA) executive secretary Benedict Topin says the community was angry and hurt by the action of the 10 foreign tourists who stripped on the mountain, defying their guide's advice not to do so as the mountain is sacred to the locals.

"He was called stupid and told: "go to hell". That hurt us all because it is as if we are lesser humans," he says.

On June 5, there was an earthquake in Sabah which claimed 18 lives on the mountain. And because the 5.9 magnitude earthquake happened only six days after the tourists went naked on the mountain, some, especially those who hold to traditional beliefs, think the catastrophe was due to the tourists having disrespected and offended spirits of the mountain.

Topin points out that there was already a lot of anger, shock and hurt among the people even before the earthquake happened, when news first broke of the strip act.

The Roman Catholic reveals that he has studied the beliefs of the bobolian and its community for decades and has a lot of respect for them. "When they say they are related to the flora and fauna, and animal kingdom, I can see why.

"They can read signs from the animals and plants. For example, when they see frogs coming out of the water on a dry day they know something is wrong."

Topin says many other traditional communities elsewhere, for example inIndochina, also believe that everything is inter-connected - they too have mountains that are considered sacred with temples built atop.

"The higher you go, the more sacred it is. We are not supposed to disrespect what is sacred. But nowadays that is all gone because science is ruling our conscience and we have not developed the (metaphysical) other side."

Of the 10 tourists who shed their clothes, four - Lindsey and Danielle Pertersen, Dylann Snel, Eleanor Hawkins - pleaded guilty and were jailed three days and fined RM5,000 each and deported.

(This is a lighter sentence compared to what was dished out to the nude sports bunch in Penang last year.)

The remaining six got away scot free as they could not be identified or had left the country.

But that has not stopped one of the "escaped" nudists, Emil Kaminski, from ridiculing Malaysia and its culture on Facebook and Twitter, calling Masidi "an idiot, not a minister of tourism" and taunting the authorities to come and get him.

"I actually laughed off his offensive remarks," says Masidi.

"I realised with pride that I am more civilised and cultured than him and I won't stoop to his level to argue. I have always made it a point to never waste time arguing with a person with a mental problem," he says, brushing off Kaminski's comments.

But other Malaysians and foreigners are not so compromising. Using colourful language, they have been telling Kaminski off on social media. Some locals have been spewing curses at him. But all this only seems to egg Kaminski on.

Kaminski is entitled to say his piece, Topin says, "but we think differently."

"Even though it seems arrogant, we cannot assume he is. "Because it could be the expression of a deep set of insecurity, and uncertainty of his own being,'' he adds.

Masidi is not the least surprised at how Sabahans reacted to the bitter episode on the mountain. "Sabahans take their customs and traditions seriously and passionately. Even non natives share and respect native customs.

"That's the reason why the British colonial government found it fit and proper to incorporate native courts in our judicial system. It worked well for over a 100 years.

"We are what we are now because of our deference and unquestionable respect to native customary laws and traditions,'' he points out, adding: "As a native myself I would have been surprised if people's reaction was muted or indifferent."

"Does it make us less modern holding on to customs and traditions that Westerners consider illogical? "Many of us readily believe in the existence of God even if we can't see Him,'' he says.

Mount Kinabalu is no stranger to mystery. In 1991, two Sarawakians vanished on the mountain and were never found.

In 1994, a British military expedition which went missing wererescued only a month later.

In 2001, a British teen died on the mountain after going there to get help for her brother. She got lost in the fog and bad weather and fell. This year, an elderly Japanese man fell off the mountain.

Topin says the bobolian are able to communicate with the spiritual realm and "can find out what happened."

Academics Dr Khoo Ying Hooi and Dr Rosila Bee Mohd Hussain of Universiti Malaya point to a recent trend among Western travellers to strip and pose for photos as the possible reason the tourists took their clothes off at the mountain.

Travellers have gone buck naked to pose for photos at Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, the Pyramids in Egypt, the Great Wall of China and posted these on Facebook, much to the horror of the authorities in those countries.

"For some reason, naked tourists seem to be a growing phenomenon. For example, the recent case in Angkor Wat and many other cases. My take is 'when in Rome do as the Romans do'.

"All of us should respect rules and cultural beliefs of others even if we do not agree.

"What more, it is common sense to be culturally sensitive when you travel," says Khoo, a senior lecturer at the International and Strategic Studies Department.

She says the stripping and the earthquake are two different issues and "though it is tempting to assume the connection" each needs to be dealt with separately.

She feels the best option would have been hauling the offending tourists to the native court.

Rosila, a senior lecturer in Sociology, says culture is very subjective as it involves "material and non-material things like a set of beliefs."

She says if someone stripped on a street in the US it would not be a big deal but such a stunt is a 'no no' here.

"It all goes back to respect. I am not saying what they think is wrong. But what they did in that (Kinabalu) setting is not considered right. They are being disrespectful," she says.

"Malaysian culture is very forgiving. They are foreigners and guests in the country so the tendency to forgive is bigger.

"But if the locals did it, they will get a harsher punishment because they know our culture and should know better."