Officials in uniform stopped reader Janakan Arulkumarasan outside the door of a shopping mall, saying: "Excuse me, sir. We are checking random bags because of a significant terrorism threat." Janakan obediently handed over his bags. "Would you mind removing your shoes, sir?" He took off his shoes. "Please walk around this pole, sir." He circumnavigated the pole. "Would you mind jumping up and down, sir?" He pogoed. As further exercises were requested, a crowd began to form outside the mall in Croydon.
Janakan finally asked to see some ID. The man burst out laughing and told him they were being filmed by a hidden camera for a show about how far people will go without questioning authority. Janakan, a Sri Lankan who works in Hong Kong, told me: "Apparently I had gone well beyond anything anyone else had done, or they had scripted, so he was improvising."
Of course, people say Asians are more compliant to authority figures than Westerners. This is utter rubbish, unless whoever is reading this is wearing a uniform, in which case I totally believe it, sir. Yet the weird thing is that Asian officials so rarely deserve respect.
For example, officials in a city in southern China recently sent phone text messages to residents offering them cash to take part in a survey, the China Daily reported. Residents were annoyed, complaining that they had been told to write positive comments, and - this was the really irritating bit - they were being bribed with THEIR OWN MONEY, since it was taxpayer-funded.
At roughly the same time, another demonstration of the "values" of officials took place in Thailand. Transport Minister Chadchart Sittipunt instructed officials to keep in touch with the needs of the masses by using the public bus system. A few days later a reporter from the Nation newspaper saw him standing at a bus stop. The minister waited. And waited. And then phoned his chauffeur to pick him up in a limousine, the paper said. "The system's totally screwed up, who runs it? Oh, it's me," the official remarked. Well, no, he didn't say that, but he should have done.
In Japan, the obsession with cuteness makes it hard for officials to generate respect. The Japanese prison service recently decided to "express its personality" by launching a giant cuddly toy mascot. A human-sized version with an actor inside prances around at prison-related functions. Instead of convicted murderers being dragged off by burly guards, I picture them holding the hand of a giant cuddly toy speaking in a high pitched voice: "Hello! You're going to come and live with me from now on, sweetie!" Critics say it is "sending the wrong message" about crime and punishment.
To balance out the cuddliness of the prison service, shopkeepers in Japan are super-tough and have been fighting a spate of shoplifting incidents by putting up signs saying that anyone caught will be killed. One sign spotted by a Rocketnews24 reporter simply said: "Shoplifters beware. The owner is a rampant homosexual." No further details were provided, leaving the actual punishment to the imagination.
If a Japanese shopkeeper tells me to jump up and down, I'm just going to do it.
(Nury Vittachi is an Asia-based frequent traveller. Send ideas and comments via www.mrjam.org)