Category Archives: Hijacked

The Hires and Lows: The aspiring actor

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It’s a familiar story: the young actor leaves his small town for the big smoke, with hopes of making it big. But instead of Hollywood, Declan Burgess moved to Sydney. The small town he left behind was Perth.

Now 21 years old, the recent graduate is a self-confessed shy guy – but underlying his quiet demeanour is an undeniable passion that emerges whenever our conversation moves towards the arts. He seems rather idealistic, but perhaps that’s a quality that every artist needs. “I think it’s so important to do what you love,” he says. “There’s a lot of people in the world who are depressed. They work in these stuffy offices that have no windows, and it’s such a clinical environment. Humans weren’t conditioned to be numb and manufactured like in factories.”

Declan also comes off as incredibly driven: he has no ‘drama teacher’ backup plan, and says that being financially unstable is a risk that will only motivate him further. At the same time, he doesn’t hide away from recognising the competitiveness of his industry, and he is not without fears. “The concern is getting to 40 not having done anything in your career or not being at a place where you can make your living off your profession,” he says.

After completing his acting degree at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) in October last year, Declan confronted the looming question faced by all university graduates: “What do I do?” Many of his peers had resolved to ditch performance and study something else, or to stay in Perth for another year to save up money. But armed with a little bit of saved-up cash, Declan decided to “hit the ground running” and move to Sydney.

“OK I’m here – what do I do now?” he said to himself upon arrival. Armed with few contacts, Declan could only really rely on himself. “I’ve just got to make it happen and get myself out there,” he reflects. “It’s a scary feeling knowing that my support network is much greater back in Western Australia than it is here.”

Employment opportunities were the main reason behind Declan’s move. “The work prospects in WA for an actor and a singer were completely miniscule,” he says. Now in Sydney, Declan’s week consists of working at a Dan Murphy’s call centre to pay the bills, attending auditions and recording his music in a studio. Back in Perth, he would sometimes struggle to get four auditions a year; since moving almost two months ago, he’s already had seven or eight auditions with two callbacks.

At a recent audition, the judges were optimistic about his future career – but they wanted him to have more practical experience. Declan has both unpaid and paid theatre and film experience from school, university and other projects in Perth. But in an industry that demands practical work there’s always more to be done.

Of course, when starting out with mostly unpaid or low-paid work experience, it can be tough to find time to make money for life’s basic necessities. Living out of home, Declan is forced to juggle paying for rent and food with work and auditions. But he’s set on avoiding government payments like Youth Allowance and Newstart. “Personally, I would hate to have to depend on the government to give me money,” he says. “I think everyone deep down always wants to be able to earn their own.”

Life for performing arts students may soon become more difficult. Following government plans to deregulate university fees and decrease funding by 2016, expert analysis shows the minimum annual cost of a visual and performing arts degree is likely to rise from $6000 to $9000. Declan is concerned about the impact on an arts industry that already lacks funding. This is especially important, he says, because art – whether it be through music or film – impacts so many people.

Declan is aware that the entertainment industry is a tough nut to crack. “Because there are so many people vying for that one spot, it’s quite hard,” he admits. Yet rejection only motivates him to push harder: “With my mindset and how I have my life planned out, failure is not an option.”

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The dark side of political life: Sandwiches, name-calling and “assault”

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Being a politician is not for the faint hearted. Whether we’re talking about student politics or an Australian federal election, those in public life are often subject to ridicule, insults and angry protests. This reality was made clear this month, when several current and former Liberal politicians were confronted and even allegedly assaulted by angry university students while visiting several uni campuses in Sydney and Melbourne.

Early last week, student protesters disrupted a lecture by former Liberal MP Sophie Mirabella at the University of Melbourne. This was predated by students yelling at Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop when she visited two Sydney universities this month. Education Minister Christopher Pyne has also seen his fair share of student activism – first on a now famous episode of Q&A and then again last Thursday night, when he attended the Howard Debating Cup at the University of Sydney.

Pyne was quick to label students’ approach to Bishop as “assault”, though many dispute this. Disagreement and dissent are healthy to democracy, but as shown in the latest series of student protests against the Liberal government’s cuts to higher education, the level of acceptable dissent against politicians and other authority figures can polarise opinion across Australia.

Defending the Q&A protest

When you make promises to the public – when you are elected on those promises and when you wield enormous power over the nation’s future – your actions and your policies are justifiably scrutinised. “That politicians would become the focus of intense public scrutiny and intense emotions is to be anticipated to some extent”, said Dr Peter Chen, a politics lecturer at the University of Sydney, to Hijacked.

Dr Chen said we should recognise that politicians are people with human emotions, but that the power and responsibility they hold is exceptional. Dr Chen defended the chanting Q&A protesters and pointed to the power imbalance between students and politicians. “On the one hand, it would be good to engage in civil policy-oriented debate, and I think in general people do agree to that, but that position assumes we are in an environment where all people can participate in civil debate [equally] and I’m not sure that’s necessarily the case,” he said.

Throwing shoes and sandwiches

When your voice is ignored, when your letters are answered only with regurgitated statistics, and when forums like Q&A become more and more scripted, how far should you push to be heard? Some people draw the line further along the spectrum than others, and throughout the years, politicians have been subject to some pretty humiliating and threatening demonstrations.

During his reign as Prime Minister until 2007, John Howard had shoes – an old school form of spectator disrespect – thrown at him twice over “racist” policies and the Iraq War. Australia’s first female PM Julia Gillard also had sandwiches thrown at her during two separate school visits and she narrowly missed a flung egg in Perth. Even in New Zealand, MP John Banks was recently sprayed with a bucket of mud over charges for failing to declare high profile donations.

Dr Chen says that throwing things constitutes as violence. “Everyone should have the right to participate politically without the fear of violence, and it does no good when violence is used as a political strategy by any side of the political spectrum in a democracy,” he said.

Name-calling and ridiculing

If an average person experienced the amount of name-calling and ridiculing that politicians face in the media and on the street, people would not hesitate to call it extreme bullying.

During her time as Prime Minister, Julia Gillard was called a bitch and a witch. “Take that, you dog,” is one line shouted before a group of Greens supporters threw shoes at somebody dressed up as former PM Kevin Rudd. Last October in Melbourne, students burnt an effigy of current leader Tony Abbott outside Victorian Parliament, and it’s not unusual to see young and old Australians wearing t-shirts or holding signs that say “Fuck Tony Abbott” or “Tony Abbott eats poo”.

When we don’t know a politician, it is easy to idealise them as an ultimate hero or villain – much like the way we sometimes forget that celebrities like Kanye West or Kim Kardashian are actually real people. Some people say that putting yourself up for criticism is a price to pay for public power. But should we still take into account a politician’s emotions, the impact on their loved ones or their basic human rights?

Some people realise that politicians aren’t just talking heads on a TV screen. Georgia Hitch, a student from the University of Sydney, went to school with Kevin Rudd’s son. Kevin Rudd was mostly just the dad who showed up to his son’s tech shows or held a charity event with the school. “He was first and foremost a dad, just like the rest of our [parents],” says Hitch to Hijacked. “At the end of the day, politicians really are people with emotions,” she says of the effect of Rudd’s ousting on his family.

Like the rest of us, politicians deserve the right to feel safe from harm, to be free from persecution based on sex, race and religion and – dare I say it – to be allowed freedom of political communication (to the extent that it does not incite hatred, violence or significant harm against others).

Ineffective protest strategies

Some people say that violence, profanities and abusive slogans like “Fuck Tony Abbott” are not only crass, but that they also undermine the effectiveness of the movement because they overshadow the issues and peaceful nature of protests.

“The ambush of Julie Bishop made the protesters seem erratic and abusive and potentially undermined the cause and their motives,” says Hitch. “Considering how critical the media are being towards protesters [we] all have to think very carefully about exactly how we choose to get our message across [and not] through profanities, shoes and sandwiches.”

In a protest of thousands, it is often the small and apparently violent group that will make front page news. It is the violence, the egg and the shoe – not the issue or peaceful protesters that we remember – that are often latched onto by tabloid newspapers or those with an agenda to push.

Dr Chen says the protesters face a difficult paradox when dealing with the media. Violent protests can distort the focus of an issue, but peaceful protests like March in March are often under-reported. “While a more rambunctious style of protest may be somewhat counterproductive, it may be less counterproductive than getting no coverage at all,” he said.

Politics is not an easy job and sometimes it becomes intensely personal. While protesters are disadvantaged when challenging powerful politicians, it is still within their power to determine their personal actions and decide what kind of social movement they want to create.

Published in Hijacked, 26 May 2014.

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The problem with small town racism

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On the Easter long weekend, I took a trip with my family to a place three hours down the coast from Sydney. The water was crystal blue, the white sands were beautiful and live music filled the town street at night.

But something tainted my escape from the city: small town racism. It wasn’t from everybody, and it wasn’t necessarily vicious, but it was there.

On Saturday night, we were walking back from dinner when six teenagers walked past. The only boy in the group started waving profusely, and with wide eyes said “good morning”. I smiled at them, and my sister replied “good morning?”

It was night time.

It seemed pretty innocent until I heard one of the girls say to the boy: “oh, they speak English!” They then all walked off giggling. Sorry to shatter your small-minded stereotype of Asian people.

I don’t know whether they thought it was wrong or even racist, but it does touch on issues regarding the government’s proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act. The reality is that it can be difficult for the dominant race to identify when something is racist, which is what makes the proposed subsection (3) so problematic.

The subsection states that whether an act is reasonably likely to vilify or intimidate is “to be determined by the standards of an ordinary reasonable member of the Australian community, not by the standards of any particular group within the Australian community. In other words, not by the ethnic group being vilified.

The question is who is the ordinary Australian? If ‘ordinary’ means the norm, and the norm is white people, then we could have a problem, writes Waleed Aly. “Plenty of white people (even ordinary reasonable ones) are good at telling coloured people what they should and shouldn’t find racist, without even the slightest awareness that they might not be in prime position to make that call,” he says.

I don’t think the small town boy’s remarks warrant legal punishment under the Act. Even though I was offended, I think, to an extent, people should have the right to say stupid things. But there must be a limit. The idea that the market will automatically self-correct itself and oppose racists is flawed because it overestimates Australia’s tolerance and underestimates entrenched inequalities within the system.

To me, my coastal weekend experience indicated a deeper entrenched racism that has the potential to manifest into the humiliation, vilification and intimidation of people because of their race. This potential is especially ripe if the standard of racism is to be determined collectively by people who have not experienced it. And I’m not just talking about white Australians. An Asian may struggle to understand how racism affects Aboriginal people. Likewise, a person with a Middle Eastern background may have different experiences to a European.

Most of all, it’s the victim’s voice that matters.

As a person with Malaysian-Chinese heritage that was born and raised in Australia, this is not the first time I’ve been faced with racial slurs. But I must say it hasn’t happened in a while and I wasn’t expecting it. It wasn’t terrifying or extreme. I didn’t fear for my life. But these nuances of the small town frustrated me. It made me wonder for the Chinese kid growing up in a rural school or for the Korean tourists who are mocked behind their backs. It certainly made me realise Australia isn’t the multicultural nirvana that I sometimes think it is.

After that incident, I walked the streets hyper aware that I was one of the only Asians in that town.

This is understandable. The town has a population just over 700 people, and according to local statistics more than 80 per cent of them were born in Australia. Only 0.05 percent of its population were born in China (the only Asian country represented) meaning this small town probably doesn’t encounter Asians very often. When they do, it’s most likely to be international Korean and Indian tourists who dress differently, speak loudly in another language and seem to take up a lot of space during tourism season.

Lack of exposure is a problem in Australia, but it’s no excuse. There comes a point where you cannot blame the small town society that shaped you for the wrongs you commit.

Mostly, what they said made me wonder whether I would have been treated worse if I’d turned out to be one of the Korean tourists. If I don’t speak English well, or I don’t share the same cultural norms as the locals, does that make me more fair game to be mocked? I found myself feeling – not for the first time in my life – that I had to prove that I was a westernised Asian, that I was well-spoken in English, that I had the Aussie accent, that I dressed like an Aussie and that I was from Sydney.

Even growing up, I remember how the few Asians that did appear on TV were usually ridiculed stereotypes, like this guy:

Flynn on Australian Idol was so popular he go invited to sing in the grand finale. But, if we’re being really honest, we weren’t laughing with him. We were laughing at him. Only in hindsight have I realised how depictions like these influenced my perception of my own ethnicity. The message from both the small town teens and Australian Idol was this: Asians are people with funny accents who are oblivious to how silly they look.

The cultural implication that my ethnic roots are inferior or sillier than Western culture is, quite frankly, offensive. The implication that I need to disassociate from my heritage in order to be cool or accepted, I find offensive. When I was a kid, I was more inclined to believe them. Now I know better. Cultural diversity is to be celebrated not mocked, and no one should be made to feel like they are worth less because of their race.

Published in Hijacked, 24 April 2014.

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Modern day thought police

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“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.” – George Orwell.

You sit at your dusty desk at the Ministry of Truth, where your job is to alter historical records in favour of the Party. The Ministry is currently implementing a new language called Newspeak where certain words are deleted from the dictionary.

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

Thoughtcrime is the worst crime of all. Wherever you go, Big Brother is watching through telescreens. Wherever you go, there is the irrepressible murmur of political propaganda in the airwaves. The outside world is your enemy. Food is scarce. The torture of dissidents is rife.

Everything is great. Because that is what they tell you and this is all you know.

“The masses never revolt of their own accord, and they never revolt merely because they are oppressed. Indeed, so long as they are not permitted to have standards of comparison, they never even become aware that they are oppressed.”

It sounds like a fictional story because it is. This is the world of George Orwell’s 1984. But it is also harrowingly similar to the world of today’s North Korea.

“I had to be careful of my thoughts because I believed Kim Jong-il could read my mind. Every couple of days someone would disappear. A classmate’s mother was punished in a public execution that I was made to attend. I had no choice – there were spies in the neighbourhood,”writes Yeonmi Park, a young woman who escaped North Korea.

In Nazi Germany, it was the Gestapo. In Orwell’s 1984, it was the thinkpol. And now, the mental and physical repression of the masses in North Korea is nothing short of a modern day thought-policing system. Both the past and the fiction exist in today’s reality.

For the first 15 years of her life, Yeonmi Park grew up in North Korea literally believing Kim Jong-il was an omniscient god. “I never doubted it because I didn’t know anything else. I could not even imagine life outside of the regime.” Earlier this month, she appeared on SBS Insight to share the harrowing reality of the North Korean regime.

“It was like living in hell. There were constant power outages, so everything was dark. There was no transportation – everyone had to walk everywhere. It was very dirty and no one could eat anything.

“It was not the right conditions for human life, but you couldn’t think about it, let alone complain about it. Even though you were suffering, you had to worship the regime every day.”

When her father, a government worker, was accused of doing something wrong, he was sent to prison for three years. The regime’s policy of generational punishment meant that Park’s entire family was exiled from Pyongyang to the countryside near the Chinese border.

The UN Commission has also heard many testimonies indicating there are currently 120,000 political prisoners in North Korea. Many are systematically starved and instructed to burn dead bodies into fertiliser. Mothers are forced to kill babies that are of ‘impure’ blood.

As a teenager, Park fled the dictatorship, crossing a frozen river and a winter desert to get from North Korea to China to Mongolia and finally, to South Korea. After years of brainwashing, it was difficult for her and her mother to let go of their indoctrination.

“I realised that everything I thought was a lie. I had not been a real person – I was created for the regime to work for them. If they ordered us to die, I would’ve died for them,” she writes. It took Park three years to overcome the brainwashing.

“My mother took longer than me. When Kim Jong-il died she couldn’t believe it…she said, ‘he can’t die because he’s not a human, he’s a God!’”

While Park may have escaped, some of her family and many more North Koreans have not been so lucky. In 2014, it seems unfathomable that this could be a reality for anyone. But it is.

Published in Hijacked, 23 April 2014.

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Why journalists make great pets for corrupt governments

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If the detainment of three Al Jazeera English journalists in Egypt has taught us anything, it’s that journalists make great pets for corrupt governments.

For a preview, all you have to do is Google “journalists in cages” and you’ll get plenty of totally non-sickening images of grown men literally caged like animals in a Cairo court room (note: if your search results have been replaced with pictures of your Supreme Ruler, it’s probably because you live in a heavily internet-filtered country like China or North Korea).

The cute cats and exotic birds of the world better watch out – they’ve got some stiff competition and here’s why:

Caging journalists because you believe they have portrayed you badly in the media is a great way to show the international community how un-bad you are.

Since December last year, Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy, and Baher Mohamed have been imprisoned in Egypt, accused by the current military government of aiding terrorism and the Muslim Brotherhood by publishing lies.

Egypt has been in political turmoil for the past three years whether it’s been under ousted President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, elected then ousted Muslim Brotherhood President Morsi in 2012-2013 or the current military government who took power in a coup.

There’s no better public relations strategy for restoring your nation’s international reputation than by jailing a few journalists. It’ll be as if the political violence, government retaliation and thousands of deaths never happened.

Like animals, journalists are unable to expressly communicate against any punishment you inflict because your court system is corrupt and refuses to hear any exonerating evidence. That, or you don’t have a court system.

In their fourth hearing in Cairo on Monday March 31, the Al Jazeera journalists denied any connection to the Muslim Brotherhood. “After three hearings, it’s apparent that there’s no case against us. No witness has anything that incriminates us,” Mohamed Fahmy told Agence France-Presse, just before proceedings began.

At the end of the fourth hearing, they were denied bail. Time will tell whether their voices are heard.

Unlike birds, journalists can’t fly so you’re less likely to find yourself in the backyard with flailing arms trying to catch your little sister’s pet budgie journalist that you accidentally let loose.

It has now been around 100 days since the three Al Jazeera English journalists were detained and as of yet, there have been no signs of wing-development.

Journalists eat human food so you don’t have to get your hands dirty with smelly cat food or dead mice.

If you’re lucky, the pet journalist might even go on a hunger strike meaning you can save yourself the effort of cooking. Such is the case with another detained Al Jazeera journalist, Abdullah al-Shami, who has been on a hunger strike for almost 80 of his 240 days in Egyptian prison.

Keeping journalists on a leash rather than letting them run wild means preventing them from airing your dirty laundry

With the latest UN Commission’s findings of North Korea’s atrocities, who would want a journalist cramping their style further by telling the world all their secrets?

If the world heard you’ve been forcing mothers to drown their babies, systematically starving 120,000 political prisoners and getting them to incinerate the dead bodies into fertiliser, the world just wouldn’t get it, ya know? Really, you’re doing everyone a favour. Nobody will feel obligated to do anything if they don’t know about it.

Animal rights abuse is a thing but luckily, human rights abuse isn’t

If anyone ever hurt my dog, I wouldn’t hesitate to go all Legally Blonde 2 on their arse.

Luckily for all the corrupt governments, people don’t care about stuff like free speech and it’s not like there’s a Universal Declaration of Human Rights or anything…

So if you’re the leader of an oppressive, corrupt dictatorship and you happen to be searching for a new pet, look no further than that cute, fluffy journalist. They might need some taming at first, but not to worry! It’s inevitable that they will bow before you O Great and Fearless Leader.

Published in Hijacked, 7 April, 2014.

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