A big and seemingly very heavy glass ashtray in front of her was what deterred me from asking if she was all right. And so, she sat there alone that evening, in her very executive-styled outfit, a phone in her left hand, a frothing cup of cappuccino in front of her, and tears running down her otherwise fair cheeks.

In some other time, I would have walked over to ask if she was okay. But, that was a coffee joint up on a hill in Bangsar, where the who’s who are sometimes seen, and in a city where increasingly, everybody is resigned to accept that every other person wants nothing other than to be left alone. In a society where all are in a mad race for whatever that prized trophy is, one of the golden rules to get by is to “mind your own business”.

And so, we continue living within what to us seems like a society, but you within your space, and I within mine. I am sorry for whatever your problems are, but I have a set of mine, too. I have targets to achieve, goals to meet, meetings to attend, financial obligations to meet and not to mention, the energy-sapping daily commute to contend with.

At the most, if any trouble should befall you, I shall send you my support via one of the messaging services and continue with my life immediately after pressing the “send” button. Other than that, you stay on your side of the line and I shall stay on mine, and everything will be fine. We have become accustomed to such a rule, it seems.

But, when the only people who enquired when my burglar alarm tripped and wailed for a good 15 minutes one stormy night not too long ago, were those from the alarm monitoring company, whose services come with a fee, of course, and that, too, from a call centre with a strange area code, it got me thinking whether as a society, we are moving in the desired direction. I am quite sure that most of us would remember that it wasn’t like this before. We seemed to care a lot more for one another then and often went out of our way to offer a helping hand.

It is not possible to pinpoint where and why our society has deviated from the qualities seen before. The change is not unique to Malaysia as in many places I have been to, the situation is the same and minding your own business is an expected norm. Many say it is a price we pay for development, that we are more concerned over securing our places in the fast moving world that there is just little time for anything else.

Once, we were busy in trying to keep up with the Joneses that we just got to have what others had. I have seen people purchasing the expensive grand piano for their Grade 2 child, just to beat the neighbour who has a stand-up model.

It has become worse today. We are no longer trying to keep up with others. We are trying to keep up with ourselves. We change our mobile telephones every time a new model hits the market, although we never actually know why.

We change cars every time we get a raise although the one we are driving still has plenty of kilometres in it. And each time, we keep our eyes peeled within the vast information available around us, just to justify our needs to be at par with, if not ahead of, everything. We are living in a world where everybody wants to be the rabbit in that story of it racing with the tortoise we heard when we were children.

Our perception of time has changed considerably with the advent of technology where “now” has become “yesterday”. As a result, we have become stressed and often overwhelmed. So, what is really the prized trophy in this mad race we are all in? Chances are we don’t really know ourselves. What we do know is that we must win, and win at all costs.

And so today, we have a society comprising more of people who are individualistic in their world views and actions. Most of us are guilty at one time or another of not yielding to another motorist who is about to join the traffic flow, even if the other driver has turned on his indicator lights long before. Worse, we often see drivers quickly closing the gap to prevent the other driver from joining the traffic flow. At times they feel proud of themselves, perhaps having been able to protect their right of way, and to be ahead of the next person.

Inadvertently, in a competition to be ahead of everything, we are being left alone because we simply cannot bring ourselves to trust another who may well be our competitor. Try greeting a stranger “good morning” in the lift one day. If the stranger is of the opposite sex, chances are that he or she would think that you are making a pass. Or try holding the door for someone behind you. Oftentimes, they would just pass through without even looking at you, let alone saying “thank you”.

In the end, even within a society of millions, we have assumed that no matter what, that like us, everybody else is in a competition and prefers to be left alone. So, much as I was curious as to what grief had befallen the lady sitting two tables to my left that evening at the coffee joint, I thought that she wanted nothing other than to be left to her own devices. Besides, the risk of having the heavy glass ashtray smacked squarely on my forehead was too big to take.


Mustapha Kamil is the newspaper‘s group editor. The profession has taken him to all corners of the globe