Much more to high culture

WHEN someone in a senior position talks about high culture many people are bound to sit up and listen. Expectations are high. One such talk made it to the front page of a popular Malay tabloid last week. A quote in the report read: "Tandas yang kotor mencerminkan keruntuhan budaya."

Dirty toilets and the deterioration in culture are simply linked in a linear fashion. The "thesis" apparently was derived from a "tinjauan" (random, casual observation) of more than 100 sites in Selangor, Negri Sembilan and Pahang. The "conclusion" – they were generally "kotor" and not properly managed.

Presented like a "scientific" finding with the collapse of culture as its alleged outcome, it invites some interesting discourse covering at least five points.

First, what happens to places where there is no semblance of a "toilet" – in the modern sense? Does this translate to mean that those places are culture-less? Which comes first, "culture" or "toilet"?

The word "tandas" at one time conjured a latrine (hole dug in the ground). For others it meant some "natural" water catchment or forest. This was culturally given, and was dealt likewise! For the latrine, "night soil collectors" had the job of clearing the "human waste" periodically. Although not the most desirable way in terms of hygiene, the status of culture then was not at all in question compared to what is claimed today – "diambang keruntuhan". National identity was far more defined and not as blurred as it is made out presently.

Second, if it is true that toilets are indications of high culture why are there still countless places in rural Malaysia that are desperate for proper toilets (however defined)? Why are such basic amenities not prioritised over other mega projects for example? After all the cost is just a small fraction given the availability of local talent, materials and technology. It is a national disgrace that issues of properly sanitised toilets are still an unfinished business as we approach the 60th Merdeka anniversary, and 2020 is just around the corner. Worse, it is dubbed as a sign of collapsing culture.

Third, I recall reading a UN report, alluding to the fact that in India more of its citizens have access to mobile devices than basic toilet facilities. This raises yet another question as to which of the two is more reflective of high culture. Still, despite the alleged lack of toilets, never mind cleanliness, Indian culture is ever more vibrant worldwide. Bollywood with all its cultural splendour continues to invade our cultural space pointing to its buoyancy, not the reverse.

In fact, the Indian prime minister on his last visit to Malaysia to officiate the Indian cultural gate at Brickfields wore an elegant Nehru outfit.

Fourth, how did it escape us that the toilets as we know and champion today are culturally incompatible. Namely, the designs are generally meant for "dry" use to suit certain cultural practices that use little water, if at all, other than to flush.

In our situation, some cultures require water to "wash" – not just to flush. Succinctly, the "dry" toilet concept is deemed culturally unsuitable. The so-called "kotor" and "tidak diurus dengan baik" remarks tend to explain more of such like phenomena.

It is not an indication that a culture is collapsing or has collapsed. Rather it is about cultural insensitivity and oblivion. Nothing was done to substantially re-invent the toilet to fit the "wet" cultural needs and habits. True that culture is more than just song and dance to include the way we live only if form follows the culture, not vice versa.

Lastly, look east to the Japanese techno-cultural prowess. Their toilets have been (re)engineered to an extent that using them is an experience in itself.

Some models have music to mask the "noises" and in-built devices for "washing" – hot or cold – are routine features. All were culturally thought through and deployed beyond the usual idea of a toilet. A health check is even possible with some models – while keeping the place "dry", "clean" and well-managed.

It looks like someone has jumped the gun by over-generalising to summarily offer an "opinion".

With some four decades of experience in education, the writer believes that "another world is possible". Comments: letters@thesundaily.com