Hawker shops sit next to a dirty drain in Alor Star. This blasé attitude is so entrenched that it will likely be there even in the far-flung future. Pix by Sharul Hafiz Zam

As our dirty eateries and the recent fatal hit-and-run accident at a zebra crossing clearly show- there is sadly not much civic mindedness among Malaysians

MALAYSIANS love to boast of their ability to withstand many things foul and profane — yes, we have an iron will. But better than that, we have cast iron stomachs, too.

We endure filth and scum, and we do so even in the establishments serving us food. Malaysians don’t seem to have a significant problem eating in grimy eateries, tolerating their questionable levels of hygiene just because they are convenient or serve otherworldly dishes.

Our foreign friends are told they have not had a proper Malaysian gastronomic experience if they don’t dine alfresco next to disgusting drains, sewage pipes or heaps of garbage. Furry creatures scampering between tables and nibbling on the toes of patrons are dismissed as “normal” and part of an enriching culinary experience. We laugh these incidents off, and sneer at those who don’t, telling them to be “more Malaysian-lah”.

But, it’s no laughing matter. A number of people have succumbed to the dreaded leptospirosis, or rat urine disease, following routine excursions to their favourite foodstalls.

Viral posts showing, among others, rodents scrabbling at loaves of bread for sale, and renowned eateries forced to shut down due to the presence of rats, underscore the enormity of the problem, and the filthiness we have condoned for so long. And, it’s not just backlane eateries that harbour these bearers of plague and pestilence.

Rats have been sighted at upmarket bakeries and well-known neighbourhood convenience stores. The most recent widely shared post was a video of a rodent nestled snugly among grocery items at an established supermarket in an upper middle-class neighbourhood in Kuala Lumpur.

Gratefully, Aeon 1Utama was ordered to close until it passes the Health Ministry’s inspection.

The thing with Malaysians is, however, that it won’t be long before the rot sets in again, once the public forgets and enforcers look the other way.

The hallmark of a First World nation is when social and civic responsibilities are a way of life and exist even in the absence of legislation, enforcement or incentives. But, in Malaysia, there is action only when there is enforcement. We keep clean only when we are compelled to, and act only when threatened with punishment.

While the country has the most modern amenities, First World infrastructure, and a TN50 vision, the general mentality of Malaysians remain, woefully, third world. This blasé attitude is so deeply entrenched that it will likely be there even in the far flung future, when what is now an impossibility — non-race based politics and clinching the Miss Universe crown — becomes reality.

This mentality is also evident in other spheres of our lives. We see it in motorists who barrel into pedestrians at zebra-crossings, those who throw rubbish into the sea or out of moving cars, and do not clean up after themselves at picnic spots, recreational areas, and self-service restaurants.

We see it when the physically able park cars in spots designated for the handicapped, occupy seats in public buses and trains meant for the pregnant and infirm, and when smokers light up at non-smoking areas.

Filthy and perpetually wet public toilets, and the heaps of garbage under “No Littering” signs clearly highlight our low class mindset, too.

It also explains why the children who careen on mosquito bikes unsupervised in the middle of the road can boldly return a few weeks later to do the same even after most of their friends are killed horrifically in an accident.

On our roads too, speed demons and traffic offenders drive heavy vehicles with all the impunity and recklessness of wounded elephants. They have flouted countless traffic laws and killed and maimed many road users, and continue to. This “no enforcer, no need to heed the law” attitude is testament to a third world mentality.

We do things only when we have to, even though it benefits us directly as an individual, or the community as a whole. This is why we manage to resolve most problems only temporarily.

We must overhaul how we think as there is no point having the longest this and tallest that if our attitudes remain the same as our primitive hunter-gatherer tribal forebears.

The facade of an advanced nation is easily achievable. We can take pride in the nation’s development, its gleaming skyscrapers, futuristic airports, and eventual high speed trains, but socially, culturally and mentally, we must all change first, one way or the other.

Chok Suat Ling, the award-winning columnist takes a light and breezy look at hot, everyday topics. A law grad turned journalist, she is now NST Associate Editor News. She can be reached at sling@nst.com.my

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