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POLITE SOCIETY
- Urban etiquette demands wealth plus education plus discipline

Like Calcutta’s reorganized street crossings, Singapore’s lavatory posters are part of the polite society’s infrastructure. But whereas the poster promises improvement, our crossings proclaim futility. The danger of regression, something that Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew constantly warns against, prompts the question: Can civic manners take root unless society itself is refashioned in the middle class Socratic ideal'

The comic strip poster urges people to use towels or the dryer to dry their hands. “What for'” retorts a yokel. “I can just flick the water off on to the floor!” As the instructor murmurs “… and make it slippery,” our yokel skids on the water he has spilt. A hand dryer below the poster gives point to the advice. The legend drives home the message, “Clean public toilets are possible. Let’s make them happen.”

Contrast that blend of theory and practice with street crossings — Gariahat Road and Swinhoe Street, Ballygunge Circular Road and Gariahat Road, and many others — where zebra lines have been painstakingly painted on the tarmac. No one takes any notice. No one can. At both intersections — and at many others — iron fencing along the pavement cuts across zebra crossings, blocking entry and exit. My suspicion that favoured contractors have made a pile on railings is neither here nor there. What matters is that anyone who wants to cross the road legally must step off the pavement before the railings begin (or after they end) and walk along them but on the road itself, braving traffic, until the zebra crossing is reached.

Singaporean lavatory-users would have faced a similar dilemma if the poster alone adorned the wall, without towels or dryer. It’s better not to give instructions than give instructions that must be disobeyed.

Readers might ask why instructions should be necessary since it’s natural to dry your hands on a towel or under the dryer. It is also natural to cross the road at designated crossings. Neither can be assumed. What we think of as urban etiquette is not indigenous instinct but English middle class culture which has left a powerful imprint throughout the former empire. Society’s topmost and lowest echelons must be left out of this calculation because, as someone once said, princesses and prostitutes do exactly as they like and to hell with what others think. Those few who can be called nature’s gentlemen, exemplary because of inherent virtue, must also be excluded.

It is the Western middle class whose disciplined value system Asians have borrowed and are struggling to live up to. That is one reason for periodic hiccups in clubs like the Bengal Club in Calcutta or Singapore’s Tanglin that imperial Britain bequeathed to its successors. At another level, hawking and spitting, littering, burping and scratching don’t arouse the same horror in the East that they do in the West. Even there, disapproval is much stronger in the higher of Disraeli’s two nations which undertook the mission civilisatrice and left Asia with a set of do’s and don’ts that we equate with civilization.

The polite society they sought to create, replacing Hawaiian grass skirts with the mumu, is under constant siege. Each innovation challenges it afresh. Cars meant jaywalking. World War II brought the menace of chewing gum. Smoke, ash and cigarette butts followed popular smoking. Mobile telephones murder peace and privacy. Football is synonymous with hooliganism. Condominium-living prompts inconsiderate inhabitants to finish the water, keep lifts busy and fill buildings with sound and smell. Cinemas invite chattering. Buses, trams and trains mean surreptitious food and drink. There are manifestations everywhere of what Jawaharlal Nehru called the “black heart” of humanity, and Lee sees as man’s “unpleasant and selfish” nature.

Fighting it is an uphill task. Even in Britain, where Clement Attlee’s welfare state was founded on the premise that man is born equal, it was not entirely a joke that slumdwellers relocated in brand new postwar council houses and stored coal in unfamiliar bathtubs. Even in the late Fifties, I found highrise council estates in English industrial towns degraded into vertical slums. The task is doubly difficult in Asia because the urban etiquette that is sought to be imposed belongs to an alien milieu. It can baffle local understanding.

Covering the transfer of East Bengal refugees to Dandakaranya in the Sixties, I came upon a scuffle between camp officials and inmates: several men refused to climb down from the bonnet of the truck on which they had parked themselves. The driver refused to start until they did. The recalcitrants explained to me in our common Bengali that they were boatman used to manning the prow. On land, they saw the truck bonnet as its equivalent.

It took time, persuasion and, eventually, some degree of force to get those men down and inside the truck for the long ride through the dusty heart of Madhya Pradesh. But temporary success does not mean that the habits of generations have been permanently cured. Ever ready to fault his smaller neighbour, Mahathir Mohamad sneered when he was Malaysia’s prime minister, that lifts in Singapore’s government-built housing estates, where some 90 per cent of Singaporeans live, had concealed cameras to detect urinating. If true, it was an astute mix of entrapment and punishment to prevent abuse. Similarly, traffic lights must be manned in India to command obedience because the uniformed arm of the law (notebook and pencil ready to take down car numbers) instils fear. Lights lack the constable’s coercive power.

But coercion alone will remain a palliative rather than a cure unless backed by the social enlightenment that underlies the rise of Britain’s polite society. The middle class itself is a relatively late refinement. It has evolved during decades of creativity made possible by developments in science and industry, great achievements in art and literature, brisk commerce, the revival of a moral code and struggles against religious and feudal authoritarianism. The evolutionary process can be shortened through instructions and exhortations but it will not succeed unless wealth fosters a gracious lifestyle.

If money were all, however, rich Indians would not shout into their mobiles in public or spatter elegant bathrooms with paan juice. No wonder a Reader’s Digest survey thought Bombay the rudest city in the world. Bombay boasts some of the world’s highest land prices. Its jhuggi-jhopri shantytowns are also among the world’s most squalid. Neither the poor, who inhabit them, nor the rich in their gated enclaves have much time for the three criteria — picking up papers someone drops in a busy street, saying “Thank you!” to customers and holding doors open for others — the survey used to assess courtesy. Urban etiquette demands wealth plus education plus discipline.

Not that Indians are impolite. But in a hierarchical society, courtesy is usually for one’s betters or, at a pinch, for equals. Not for subordinates. Since Russia blends Western candour with the snobbishness of the unreconstructed East, a Muscovite retorted when the Reader’s Digest canvasser asked about holding doors open, “I’m not a doorman!”

That is where Singapore scores. It is not brusque like Moscow. It seeks to persuade, like India. Unlike India, it does not shrink from using force — the rotan is the legal treatment for painting graffiti. Most important, Singapore understands the need for community upliftment. Starting with the world’s flotsam and jetsam, it has reached closer than any other city I know to the ideal of a universal middle class. Daniel Patrick Moynihan has paid tribute to the social revolution that transformed slum and kampung dwellers into connoisseurs of fine wine.

It would be a simplification — as well as untrue — to say the poor can’t afford to be polite. But only equity of opportunity can spread an Asian equivalent of the West’s middle class values so that people understand the constraints that interdependence places on individual conduct. That is what the polite society is all about.

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