25 September 2006

Wednesday September 20, 2006

It’s only polite


WHEN I was about five years old, my dad spanked me for sticking my tongue out at our gardener, Pak Hashim. In our house, along with telling lies, this was a major sin. My nanny used to tell me that God would cut my tongue if I stuck it out, especially to older people.

Respect for older people was the credo of our family. We children were not allowed to be rude to anyone older, no matter who they were. This was why Pak Hashim, whom in fact we adored because he told us endless Sang Kancil stories, had the right to complain to my parents whenever we treated him with disrespect. And my parents took his complaints seriously and punished us accordingly.

Unsurprisingly, good manners became a major lesson of my childhood. I am notorious for constantly reminding my children to say “please” and “thank you”. None of them are allowed to call older people by their first names; they had to be “Kakak”, “Abang”, “Uncle” or “Auntie”.

It seems that I am old-fashioned in thinking this way. Good manners, which is the way we treat other people with consideration and respect, seems to be something that has flown out the window. We pride ourselves on Asian courtesy and hospitality but every day we see examples of rudeness and lack of consideration for others, whether on the roads or in the service industries.

Like everything else, courtesy depends on example. Children who are brought up by well-mannered parents learn these social rules early in life. What they don’t learn from their parents, they learn from observing the customs of wherever they live.

When I went to boarding school away from my home state and met schoolmates from other states, I observed they had different customs and I learnt to adapt. Living overseas also means having to adapt to different social rules; doing so is only polite.

The reverse can also be true. If we constantly see bad manners and behaviour, we think that is the norm and adapt accordingly. Impressionable children are particularly vulnerable to this. Thus we cannot completely blame them for bad behaviour without looking at the examples that are being set by adults around them every day.

We cannot expect children to learn good manners when they see leaders of our country behaving in impolite, crude and uncouth ways. These days almost anything goes when it comes to name-calling. Some public figures have no qualms at all about badmouthing people much older and wiser than them, just because they disagree with them. Instead of the old adage that the higher you go in life, the more humble you should be, arrogance seems to be the norm.

That Readers’ Digest report that gave us such poor marks for courtesy only surveyed the behaviour of ordinary people; imagine what they would have given us had they surveyed politicians!

Perhaps some people think that courtesy and politeness is too restrictive, even undemocratic. One should be able to say what one wanted about another person, regardless of how malicious and unkind your words might be, especially if you don’t like the other person.

Maligning the other person’s character seems to be a right but only for people in high positions where they feel they are untouchable, or those who hide under the cover of anonymity. Try to be rude about someone higher up the social pecking order than you (and be silly enough to do it under your own name) and see what happens! You get accused of being un-Malaysian!

I think nothing reveals people more than when they talk about other people. Name-calling and other forms of arrogant behaviour only reflect back on the name-caller. You have to wonder about their own upbringing; what did they learn in their childhood that makes them mouth off in this way? What are they so afraid of that, instead of reasoned argument, they take the easy route of maligning others? What is arrogance but a cover for some inadequacy? Sometimes you can even feel pity for them.

My worry is that with these examples, we will be bringing up a whole generation of people who lack the basic good manners that would allow them to live with one another, in our diverse society, in peace and harmony.

If everybody feels that it’s okay to constantly take and give offense, then we’ll spend our time constantly fighting. That’s not to say that we should not complain if someone is rude to us. But then why have reason to complain in the first place?

Sometimes I think we need to protect our children from witnessing such behaviour on the part of public figures. Rudeness is bad enough but how do we shield our children from hypocrisy?