Wednesday, September 28

About social grace – or lack of it


I WAS having my dinner in the clean coffee shop in my neighbourhood and enjoying a beautiful Malaysian September sunset.

This scraggy young man sat down at   the next table. Then he tilted his head backwards, gurgled for a few seconds, and with a “ptwit..!” he   spit on the floor. He repeated this disgusting action a few times. I was nauseated, and walked   away from my unfinished dinner, fuming.

I should have walked over to him and reprimanded him politely but firmly. But a young man who is so ill-bred as to spit in a public eatery will probably beat me up if I had scolded him anyway!

You see anti-social behaviour in public places like that everywhere.

Once I was in this airplane which was taxiing on the runway seconds before it was to take off. Then a mobile phone rang, and the passenger next to me started a conversation.

The flight attendant was trying to ask him to switch off the phone, but he turned away and continued the conversation. The ugly incident ended when his phone was forcibly removed from his hand.

Whenever I hear people howl into a mobile phone in a public place, I get a king-size headache and curse the inventor of this ubiquitous machine.

Now, I notice that road courtesy is dying out in Sarawak. Once you put a perfectly nice individual into the quiet privacy of his car cab, alienating him from the rest of the universe, he turns into a selfish rude road warrior! He drives as if his father owns and builds the public roads.

He sees other road users as potential competitors for the common public space or enemies even, hurling curses and obscenities at the stupidity of everyone else on the road.  A small accident will lead to a violent fisticuff, sometimes with fatal consequences.

Nowhere else is this anti-social selfish behaviour more apparent than the car parks.

Some of my neighbourhood shops have been turn into a tuition centre. Parents will just double-park their cars to wait for their children to finish their tuition session, even though there are vacant parking bays around.

They love their children so much that they cannot endure the suffering of their children walking a few yards to their parked car, but they do not care how they block off the entire street! Their charity begins and stops at home!

Then, there are those parents who let their children behave wildly in public places as if they are still at home. In shopping malls, in restaurants and eateries, and even in cinemas, they allow their children to run around playing and screaming, without a care of how these brats irritate other members of the public. These are the adults who have no ability to feel ashamed when inconveniencing other people.

Naturally, their children grow up to inherit all their bad manners.

This lack of civic virtue is also amply demonstrated by litterbugs. Once the garbage is thrown out of their hands and onto the public road, it is no longer their problem.

They feel no responsibility for the public space that they share with other members of the public. Is that why we can never find a clean public toilet anywhere, except in the posh hotels and restaurants?

Once I met a man walking his dog in the park in my neighbourhood. I greeted him, complimented him for the beauty of his dog, and advised him to walk the dog more for exercise. He replied, saying he needed to allow the dog to defecate in the bushes. A responsible dog owner would have carried a plastic bag, and picked up after his animal with a plastic glove, instead of soiling the neighbourhood green!

I think our towns and cities have grown too large and too rapidly; the capitalist philosophy has taken hold over new generations of Malaysians. They just take care of themselves and their immediate family, and the rest of the world can go fly kite.

The toxic selfishness of capitalism has also seeped into the minds of some individuals, and considering the needs of others in public places has never entered their mind.

It may also have something to do with their sense of over-bloated self-esteem. They have made it, and the world is at their feet to serve their needs, and their needs must have priority over the needs of others!

Fortunately, most of us are still quite polite in our public behaviour. We have somehow internalised the subjective but unwritten rules of public conduct. We know that breaking those rules will subject us to the scorn of others.

We have more or less accepted that we should not do unto others what we do not want them to do unto us. We always ask ourselves this question: “What if everybody does this undesirable action?” Then we teach our children accordingly.

I am not talking about having the correct social etiquette alone.

Etiquette is merely the set of conventional rules that sets out the minimum standards of politeness and mutual respect.

Knowing the etiquette does not necessarily make you a nice person; in fact, it is a short-cut to hypocrisy sometimes.

I am talking about the moral or ethical ethos, the need for all members of the community to respect the truth that we are all responsible for the well-being of one another.

In public space, we must watch out for others, just as we expect them to watch out for us.

This moral imperative is far more important than learning the basic rules of public behaviour.

In short, when we are moving in public space, we are never lone spectators with our private agenda only. We are also participants in the common agenda of keeping the common physical public space clean, orderly, and safe.

For instance, when we witness a bad car accident in our journey, we do not stop our car, and take down the car plate number to buy a four-digit ticket later. We do not drive on as if nothing happens. We park our car in a place that would not block the traffic, and go to investigate whether we can help or not, including sending the bleeding victim to the nearest hospital!

No man is an island; all human beings are social and communal animals.

The greatness of any society must surely be judged partly by how we treat one another in public. Even small gestures of courtesy, like saying ‘good morning’, ‘thank you’, ‘please’, and ‘good bye’, are the lubricants that nurture civilised relationship in our daily social interactions.

So next time, when you are in a public place, watch your social grace.

(The writer can be reached at