07 June 2005

Wednesday March 23, 2005
First World appearance, Third World mentality

We pride ourselves on many things, we Malaysians. And well we should, because we just have to travel to some other developing countries to realize how advanced and easy life is in ours. We have just about everything here. We have good roads, most people have been educated (even as the education system needs reviewing), we can easily go see a doctor whenever we need to (though sometimes it can be expensive) and we have a lot of leisure activities to partake in (even though most don’t require us to do much more than sit down).

We are very First World in many ways. But it’s one thing to be ahead in appearances, yet another to be developed mentally.

Take that oft-quoted Malaysian irritation, our driving. Is it me or are our roads getting more anarchic by the day? Is going through red lights, driving while sms-ing and changing lanes without signalling now socially acceptable? Or throwing rubbish out of the car? Recently, I saw a car stop just after a toll booth, the occupants open their boot and blithely throw their junk at the side of the road. I am half-inclined to put a megaphone in my car just so that I can shout at such people: “Shame on you!” But then, considering they were doing it in full view of hundreds of other drivers, they probably have no sense of shame at all.

Or that other bugbear: ignoring RSVPs. As anyone who’s ever organised an event or wedding knows, Malaysians don’t RSVP. Or they won’t until the last minute. Or they will say they’re not coming only to change their minds at the eleventh hour. This causes enormous headaches for the hosts. And here’s another rule: the more important you are, the more likely you are to ignore RSVPs. You think that if you decide to just show up, perhaps because you can’t find a golf partner on that day, or you just realized that you might be missing the event of the year, then the hosts will smilingly accommodate you.

I once organised a private family anniversary party where three uninvited guests showed up. It was a small party with limited seats and it was hell trying to re-arrange everything so that these guests could join in. But they were simply so unembarrassed to show up, because they were so sure that they were too important to be turned away. I’ve never been able to look at them with much respect since.

Another major irritation is the way we sometimes show so little respect to guests. While we can be extravagantly hospitable, we do have some odd habits. One is talking away while someone is giving a speech or performing some music. The person giving the speech or performing isn’t deaf and can certainly hear the buzz of conversation from the audience.

Only just recently a renowned jazz pianist had to endure playing to an audience that pretty much ignored her and chatted away regardless. Small wonder she finished her set quickly and walked off the stage.

Mind you, this type of rudeness is not limited to those in front of the stage. I was once making a speech and the VIP onstage with me carried on a loud conversation with the person next to her, oblivious to the fact that the entire audience could see what she was doing. I guess it never occurred to them that anyone would ever treat them with the same disrespect because they are, after all, VIPs.

But the thing is, does becoming a VIP mean you can abandon all courtesy to those supposedly below you? Surely that only reflects on you and your upbringing. Winning elections obviously doesn’t necessarily bestow class.

How do we expect our young people to behave with respect to others when their leaders don’t? Go into any store and how many salespeople actually greet you with a smile, attend to your queries or say thank you after you’ve purchased anything? But then, whom would they learn that from?

We get disrespect from many of our leaders when we so much as query what they are doing, so that only sets the tone for our young. If questioned, just give some glib answer and carry on as if the questioner is a little irritating fly.

We will never be developed until we learn to respect other people regardless of station and until we become more considerate of others. We have to learn to think of others before ourselves, to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and learn to empathise. We might complain about the so-called decadence of the developed world but then they have more facilities for the disabled and those who are needy than we do. Why is that? Perhaps because to be developed, it’s just not enough to be able to build fabulous buildings and roads, you also need to develop the humanity inherent in all of us.