Rules smoothen urban living

THERE are towns and cities that are pleasant and conducive for work and bringing up families. Many would agree that such examples are Vancouver in Canada, Fukuoka in Japan, Adelaide in Australia and Singapore. They have, in common, beautiful parks, pedestrian-friendly streets and a clean and safe environment.

Alternatively, there are also towns and cities that are filthy and chaotic. Although they are magnets to the rural poor, they are no better than living in hell-holes masquerading as human habitats.

Then there are towns and cities that are rather dirty and haphazard, yet busy and vibrant. Some examples of these are Bangkok, Manila and Ho Chi Minh City in Asia. Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh and George Town also fall into this category. The municipal leaders can try harder to raise the standard of liveability.

It is an important role of towns and cities to provide shelter for human beings. It is also vital to note that the above mentioned cities have rules, including development plans, to bring about an urban environment that is clean, healthy and conducive for habitation and socio-economic growth. One of the distinguishing features separating the liveable and efficient cities from the others is compliance with rules formulated and passed by the local authorities.

In other words, a common thread running through cities that are attractive and pleasant is the rule of law. Also, a common observation in these cities is good civic values of the residents.

Compliance is doing what is in the rule books or moral codes. In the context of urban development in Malaysia, this means complying with municipal rules to ensure the development of liveable, pleasant and efficient towns and cities.

As a general rule, a high degree of compliance with the laws not only helps to keep the costs of governance low, but also contributes to the stability of the society. Conversely, a high rate of non-compliance with municipal rules leads to inefficient urban management, which in turn leads to higher management costs. It also results in the degradation of the urban built environment and a lower quality of urban living.

The question of compliance with laws, rules and even moral and ethical codes has attracted the attention of many social scientists and jurists because urbanised societies depend on the rule of law to function effectively.

However, too little attention has been paid to compliance with municipal rules and regulations. Take for example illegal parking of cars at the bus stop next to the Jelutong Post Office in Penang Island. The parked cars prevent buses from stopping in the designated space for passengers to get on and off. Furthermore, bus drivers are forced to stop in the middle of the road, thereby obstructing the smooth flow of traffic.

The bus stop in Penang Road at the entrance of the famous Chowrasta market is also blocked by parked cars. The presence of a large police station (IPK Pulau Pinang) on the opposite side of the road has not spurred irresponsible motorists to be more law-abiding.

Besides disregarding traffic rules, other common offences of non-compliance are indiscriminate littering and illegal extensions of buildings.

As a result, while the local authorities are busy passing more and more rules or amending them to increase penalties, little attention has been given to the degree of compliance or the capability to enforce compliance.

Generally, people comply with rules because of strict material self-interest or purely altruistic reasons. In the case of the former, this can be coercion or positive incentives.

Coercion can be in the form of monetary distinctions such as fines or physical penalties such as jail terms or caning. It can also be in the form of social pressure, such as being ridiculed by peers, neighbours and the community.

Positive incentives can be in the form of monetary rewards or social recognition in the form of state or national awards.

Those who comply for altruistic reasons do so because of moral principles and for the welfare of others. Unfortunately, not all Malaysians have such principles.

A developed country must not just show off state-of-the-art buildings but also have clean, pleasant, safe and efficient places to live, work and play. All Malaysians and visitors and workers from foreign countries must comply with the laws and the authorities have the machinery and will to enforce the laws fairly and punish the few who transgress them.

Datuk Dr Goh Ban Lee is interested in urban governance, housing and urban planning. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com