A sense of right and wrong

04 Dec 2018 / 09:00 H.

LAST month, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad expressed that the government’s vision for building a “New Malaysia” would be based on good governance, the rule of law and integrity.

He said this in conjunction with the release of the “Economic Outlook 2019” report.

Indeed, integrity and compliance with laws are important traits for all Malaysians, not only our leaders. No matter how rich the nation becomes, Malaysians will not be able to stand tall if we are not imbued with integrity and a strong sense of right and wrong.

A lack of integrity accounts for many problems in our cities and towns, such as indiscriminate littering, smoking in prohibited areas, illegal parking, obstructing five-foot ways, building houses and extensions without permits, and vandalism and destruction of public facilities. It shows as well when corners are cut in development projects or when conditions are not fulfilled as stated in development plans.

This lack of integrity allows the noncompliance with and wilful neglect of rules and laws.

The basic assumption of urban governance is that residents follow municipal rules which have been enacted for the common good. Yet to most observers, there are numerous cases of noncompliance with those rules. As a result, many urban areas are seen as haphazard and filthy.

It is not that there are not enough rules. It is just that too many Malaysians lack the sense of respect for the public good and the integrity to do what’s right.

Most Malaysians are aware of the undesirable consequences if they go against the laws. They keep their houses clean but their behaviour changes dramatically as soon as private space becomes public space.

Wealth does not necessarily bring about responsible behaviour. Those who own luxury cars have somehow failed to inculcate responsibility in the use of the vehicle and in obeying traffic rules.

Education also seems to have failed to instil a sense of right and wrong. For instance, speed limit signs are ignored by many drivers, even on university campuses, where speed bumps have to be installed to slow drivers.

Universities are supposed to house communities of educated people. Signs and notices should be enough and respectful behaviour expected. If university students and lecturers need physical barriers to comply with traffic rules, what chance of success can one expect from the local authorities in enforcing rules in towns and cities?

Even religious piety does not ensure good traits of citizenship. Just observe the haphazard way drivers park their vehicles around houses of worship during religious festivals. They seem to believe that being in the house of God is a licence to break man-made laws.

It is obvious that many Malaysians are not civic-conscious and could not be bothered with municipal rules. Hence, the priority of the state and local authorities should be to do two things: to educate better and instil integrity and respect, and to enforce rules for lawful and civic behaviour.

Student are taught civics and moral studies in school. Too often, that teaching can be linked better to everyday actions in public. We should take inspiration from examples where young people take the lead when they are taught well, such as in recycling and other sustainable behaviour.

Failure to comply should be a punishable act. The full force of the law should be applied fairly to everyone, from ordinary people to councillors, senators and VIPs holding state or federal honours. It should be stressed that the titles are honorifics for paragons of civic-consciousness and not badges to break rules with impunity.

There is no suggestion that the titleholders are saints. Being humans, they sometimes break the law inadvertently. What is proposed is that they are not let off easily. In fact, they should be fined to the extent the law allows.

In most cases, a single act of non-compliance with municipal rules does not lead to an immediate life-threatening situation. It is only when non-compliance occurs on a big scale that it becomes a problem of urban governance.

The interests of all Malaysians will be better served if there is a strong sense of integrity and right and wrong, and when there is respect for rules of law and social norms.

All residents should be involved in this. City councillors can play an important role by ensuring that the proposed rules are fair and implementable, and that the process of compliance be made as simple and clear as possible.

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