Grappling with civic-mindedness

THERE was a price check machine at the biscuit isle, when a grown man walked by with two large tubs of yoghurt. Stopping to scan the bar code of each tub, he proceeded to leave one of the chilled tubs of yoghurt on a biscuit isle shelf and proceeded to the checkout counter. Stunned, I was about to alert him that he had left a chilled item in an un-chilled area.

My mind thought of what would happen to that tub of yoghurt if it sat there till the end of the day.

What if after being kept out of its cold space for hours, that tub of yoghurt was then placed back into the chiller area. And what if I were to buy that tub of yoghurt after it had been sitting out for most of the day.

I also imagined the pain of proving that the yoghurt was already off when purchased.

But when I was about to speak up, I felt an involuntary sense of paralysis stopping me. I was too scared in case it caused a scene.

Instead I then took this orphaned tub of yoghurt back to its cold home. I hadn't thought about the incident until now when I was speaking to a friend who said, you chose your battle with that one. I didn't agree because I felt more like a scaredy-cat than a wise person.

In an ideal world, price tags would be visible and if we had to take items to the price check machine, we would know to return the unwanted items to the rightful place where we found them. But here I was scared to speak up over a tub of yoghurt. I was disappointed at myself.

I've been thinking about this for a few days now but it comes back to how we behave as a country. The vandals on the MRT. The state of our public toilets. The conditions of our playgrounds. The mentality of the person who throws rubbish out of a moving car.

On one hand we want better public amenities but on the other hand, what we also need is a change in mentality not to vandalise.

How do you teach a smoker that cigarette butts thrown into a flower garden do not grow into a cigarette tree. Or that the rightful place for a used tissue paper is the bin. Or that the trees that line our roads are not billboards in disguise, they are in fact real trees and not a space to crucify advertisements for plumbing, property advertisements or even adult toys and supplies.

When Singapore banned the humble chewing gum, the world laughed. How limiting to be policed about something as small as chewing gum. But it also made people more aware. It wasn't that chewing gum was banned, gum for personal use was permissible. But it was that people did not dispose of the gum properly. You don't stick used gum wherever you please. It needs to be wrapped and placed in a bin as to not inconvenience anyone else. If you go to Singapore today, you'll find that there is an underlying mentality of a more socially conscious people and a cleaner state in general.

You might say well, it is a false sense of civic-mindedness when there are so many laws – even one that does not allow for people to harvest fruits of public fruit trees. But it is the enforcement of the laws that has made Singaporeans more civic-minded. And maybe that's the more effective way of making people more civic-minded as unpleasant as it sounds.

How often do we see a huge pile of rubbish below a large sign that states RM500 fine (or more) for littering. Admittedly you can't place an enforcement officer at each signpost to wait for the perpetrators but clearly these not-so-subtle signs are ignored because there is no repercussion. Perhaps there is something in our subconscious too that tells us nothing much will be done, just like year after year when the Auditor-General's Report is made public, as we see the amount of corruption and waste that happens.

Yes, we can call someone out for bad behaviour but let's face it, we're quite a hot-tempered and entitled bunch, and the outcome of telling someone who has inconvenienced you by say parking illegally might not be as idealistic and peaceful as we imagine.

The challenge for Malaysia is not how to teach children civic-mindedness but how adults need to be better model citizens who at the very least put yoghurt tubs back on the right shelves.