Remembering how to make gravy on Christmas Day, and maybe a Nasi Lemak

Written for the Malaysian Consulate-General

December 2016

With Christmas upon us, it is often a difficult time for diplomatic staff around the world. Their loved ones may still be living in their home country of origin and missing the customs and traditions of home, sometimes the weather and most certainly the food.

Whether Christmas is celebrated or not, it is a time of year when we feel very strongly about our connection to our family, our country and our community.

Just before Christmas, I was given an opportunity to attend a very special visit to Casuarina Prison by the Consul-General for the Consulate-General of Malaysia in Perth, Mr Nazarudin Jaafar. Throughout the year, Mr Jaafar encourages his staff to visit Malaysian nationals who have unfortunately been sentenced to prison for crimes under Australian law.

Mr Jaafar has worked with the Western Australian Commissioner for Corrective Services, Mr James McMahon, to build a trusting relationship that allows Malaysian Consulate-General staff to sit unguarded with prisoners, often in the privileged comfort of a staff room rather than a prison interview room, and to also bring in traditional Malaysian food and converse in Malay.

For this visit, Mr Jaafar has also made sure there is enough food for some of the prison staff, one of whom is very quick to say, ‘Terima Kasih!’

Casuarina Prison is the main maximum security prison for male prisoners in Western Australia. It is a large, spacious complex of nearly three square kilometres with vast areas of well-maintained lawn and gardens and currently has over 900 prisoners.

It’s just one prisoner that we’re visiting today. A young man still in his 20’s who has a wife and young baby in Malaysia. He used to run his own food stall cooking the best Nasi Lemak in a local street market but unfortunately his circumstances now see him imprisoned in Western Australia.

While we wait for him to arrive I think of a famous Australian song by popular artist Paul Kelly. The song is called, ‘How to make gravy’ and it’s about a young man who is in prison and he is writing a letter to his brother a few days before Christmas. He describes in his letter the Christmas he knows he will miss out on. He won’t get to laugh with friends and family, he won’t get to hold his children and he won’t get to make the gravy for Christmas lunch.

To be in prison on Christmas Day must be a very distressing time for prisoners, no matter what crime they have committed. To be in another country must be particularly difficult.

When he arrives it is obvious he is pleased to receive this visit. To speak in Malay, to smell traditional food, to sit with countrymen and share his story is a welcome respite from an environment none of us would choose to be in.

I don’t speak Malay and at times Mr Jaafar stops the conversation between his staff member, Mr Hisham Ahmad, and the prisoner to let me know what is being discussed. There is conversation about the conditions in the prison, the opportunities to work and learn in prison, his life back in Malaysia and of course, prison food.

For me, I’m fairly happy with cornflakes for breakfast but for the Malaysian palette this is far too plain and boring. Most mornings, he can’t bring himself to eat the breakfast because it is not interesting and even upsets his stomach.

It’s at this time that Mr Jaafar presents him with some cooking that they have had prepared especially for him and the prison staff have approved.

There is a homestyle chicken curry that has delicate pieces of chicken on the bone and has a beautiful, fragrant sauce made of coconut milk, chicken stock, curry leaves and spices. To soak up the sauce there are roti jala, the famous net crepes of Malaysia.

Also for his enjoyment are crunchy vade’s with just enough chilli to make you need a glass of water and accompanying the vade’s are some karipap sardin, bursting with fishy flavor and just the right amount of coriander, cumin and garam masala.

vadeWell spiced vades

To complete this mini-buffet of delights are some beautifully wrapped banana leaf pulit inti, a heavenly combination of sweet, grated coconut, pandan leaf and palm sugar.

At the end of our one hour visit, the prisoner requests a book on how to pray. His spiritual requirements are being met in Casuarina but he needs guidance with his prayers. This is something Mr Jaafar and Mr Ahmad assure him they will seek to provide.

I have found this visit profoundly inspiring. As part of my research for the story, I called Consulate-Generals from other countries and couldn’t find one that made such a commitment to imprisoned nationals and certainly not one where the Consul-General made visits.

For comparison, I spoke to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and found out that last year 1551 Australians were arrested in foreign countries and 391 Australians received consular support while in overseas jails.

While much of this assistance was related to legal and family liaison issues I’m not sure much Australian consular assistance included the provision of traditional Aussie food and just making the time to talk and to listen.

Casuarina Prison is a maximum security prison and looks like it. Despite the spacious, well maintained gardens and outdoor sporting facilities we walked past, there is no hiding the razor wire fence that surrounds the complex. It’s a reminder that for Mr Jaafar, Mr Ahmad and I, we can walk out, get back on the freeway and be in the city in just a few minutes, free to get back to work, go for a walk and maybe just take a minute to think about how lucky we are to have our freedom. This visit wasn’t about forgiving a man for his crimes, it was about letting him know that he is not forgotten.

There is no doubting that a visit such as this makes me grateful for the life I lead. It also makes me grateful to have met a Consul-General who is defining a new brand of diplomacy whereby engagement is so important.

Mr Jaafar’s ability to engage at all levels is truly inspiring and should encourage all of us to seek a new understanding of all the people in our life.

Terima Kasih. Selamat Hari Natal.

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