On the surface, cultural differences are obvious differences when incidents take place in foreign countries. But do they have a material impact on the outcome? Do cultural differences mean investigations are conducted differently? I would wager they do, but not in the ways we tend to think.
Obviously the very notion of “cultural differences” is a sticky and sensitive area, and we need to tread carefully as we navigate into this minefield, but we wouldn’t be doing our due diligence as True Crime Rocket Scientists if we didn’t dive below the surface of this particular issue.
So, worth playing for?
Since culture is invariably subjective, I hope you don’t mind me indulging in my personal travels through Malaysia some years ago. Before we deal with that, though, I want to be quite plain about one thing. In terms of the meat and potatoes investigation stuff, there’s not much difference between a British, American, Portuguese, Italian or Malaysian person [cop or otherwise] walking on the ground, looking for someone that has gone missing. So that’s not the issue here.
It’s at higher levels, the level of institutions, organisations and power structures, that culture is more relevant. To explain how this works, I’m going to provide some personal insight based on actually being in Malaysia in general, and Kuala Lumpur in particular.
I spent a New Year’s eve in the centre of Kuala Lumpur, in the shadow of the Petronas Towers with my girlfriend at the time, a lawyer from Singapore. It was one of the strangest New Year’s ever, but it took a while it figure out why. For one reason, alcohol is banned in Malaysia. Not banned to infidel travelers mind you, just to the local mostly Muslim population.
New Year’s that night felt weird because everyone was so well behaved. People arrived in great crowds to watch impressive fireworks shooting off and around the towers. Everyone oohed and aahed, then went home. No harm done. But no Hogmanay either.
In our hotel room in Kuala Lumpur an arrow on the ceiling provided direction to Mecca, Islam’s holiest site: . Muslims pray daily, facing in that direction while doing prostrations.
Wearing a bikini is regarded as indecent exposure in some states, and censorship is pretty impressive – you’ll be hard pressed to find The Dark Knight [too anarchist], Beauty and the Beast [homosexual references] or Wonder Woman [leading actress Gal Gadot served in the Israeli army].
Jaywalking is also an offence, especially if and where there are pedestrian crossings and walkways provided. When you’re in Malaysia, there’s a subtle – and sometimes not-so-subtle – sense that you’re not in Kansas any more. You have to maintain a modicum of behaviour, not one that’s necessarily beyond the norm, but the walls seem to be moved in a little closer than in other countries.
In Singapore, at least when I was there, homosexuality and oral sex was illegal, as was littering and jaywalking. I remember asking my girlfriend, “But what if you drop a scrap of paper by mistake?”
What does this have to do with the Quoirin case? Nothing, and everything. Nothing, because if anything the Malaysians are quite strict in their attitudes. So the idea that they woudn’t treat a high-profile disappearance with the requisite urgency is complete anathema. Everything, because when you’re a foreigner in Malaysia, although you’re granted some concessions, you’re also expected to toe the line. You do as it’s done there, and things are done there according to their protocols and procedures, not yours.
Most important, and this is a generalisation: there is perhaps a stronger sense of us vs them [from locals towards tourists and vice versa] in a Muslim country like Malaysia than in secular countries, for example the Netherlands and France. That’s not to cast aspersions on Malaysia alone, South Korea and Japan have similar attitudes to foreigners as “outsiders”, a lot of Asia is like that, even relatively laid back countries like Thailand and the Philippines.
How do cultural differences play out in other countries in the region? Thailand to the north feels a lot more liberal than Malaysia, perhaps because their culture is based on “go with the flow” Buddhist beliefs. The Thais definitely give foreigners a longer leash to play with. Even so, in Thailand just as in most Asian countries, if you’re caught with recreational drugs you can be jailed, and in many cases executed.
So when the Quoirins said they thought their daughter was abducted, one can expect, even from a cultural point of view, that the authorities would have no problem contradicting that claim. Not only was such a claim culturally inappropriate, it was – arguably – politically inexpedient. It was also unlikely.
But I want to focus on how this cultural appropriateness, when it came to the Nora, was treated very differently by the media in Britain versus Malaysia. I would argue that these differences can be explained in part due to cultural differences.
When we examine the media narrative, we see two narratives emerging almost from the get go, the Abduction Narrative in the western media, and a more conservative, more innocent explanation – the Lost Nora Narrative – in the local media.
One could also confidently predict that the pet narrative in the circus-like Madeleine McCann saga – the Paedophile Abduction Narrative – simply wouldn’t fly in Malaysia as it might in the west. This isn’t because paedophiles cease to exist in Malaysia, it’s just that the cultural conversation and the media in the East isn’t nearly as bottom-dwelling as in the West.
Even the Portuguese were appalled to be accused by the British media of having paedophiles running amok through the Algarve, something that says a lot more about the British tabloids and cultural imagination in that country, than the state of things on the ground in Portugal.
To their credit, the Malaysians didn’t exclude the possibility of an abduction, even though – given the evidence, and the outcome – they had every reason to. It was a fanciful theory imposed on them by the outside world, and not least of all, the family of the lost child.
One wonders if the authorities had gone with their gut, ignored the foreign influence and focused on Lost Nora, regardless of how she got to wherever she was, whether she may have been found sooner, and perhaps even saved.
It may well be that by being nice, by not being assholes and investigating this case the way they damn well wanted to, the search for Nora was compromised.
In this sense, culture may be relevant after all. Malaysia may have felt culturally insecure given the unrelenting media spotlight focused on them during the disappearance. When the media carried advice courtesy of Britain’s “missing children experts”, perhaps they did feel they needed guidance. Who wouldn’t 3, 4, 7, 9 days into a frustrating, fruitless search?
But it was also more fraught than it may have appeared on the surface. If they didn’t follow the instructions emanating from Britain, and the experts turned out to be right, Malaysia would have egg on its face.
On the other hand, if they jumped through the hoops they were told to jump through and still didn’t find Nora, then they would look foolish too. In the end the authorities took the middle road, following their own theory and splitting up their resources to chase the wild goose that was the Abduction Narrative. The enormous resources brought to bear in this search – over 350 on the last day – clearly show that the one thing Malaysia can’t be accused of is a lack of urgency or commitment in this case.