Getting Malaysia to clean up its act - literally

Getting Malaysia to clean up its act - literally
PHOTO: The Straits Times

HERE'S an unintended lesson from Bersih 4: Malaysians can be taught to keep clean. After the 34-hour rally, during which thousands flooded the streets of Kuala Lumpur, it was impressive how little trash was left on the roads and pavements after the crowds dispersed.

There was, of course, the odd discarded plastic bottle or two. Further away from the rally's epicentre near Dataran Merdeka, there were small piles of rubbish comprising mainly of empty water bottles.

Still, considering how filthy the streets are after a pasar malam (night market) or the kind of mess that is left behind after gatherings like sporting events and carnivals, Bersih scored on collective responsibility and clearly showed if there is a will, there is a way.

Why were thousands of Malaysians, who would normally litter without a thought, so well-behaved?

Here's why: The organisers made it part of their cause.

The message was clear and simple and repeated until it was widely known and internalised: Prove to critics that rallygoers are responsible citizens and that includes not littering. If you do, it will cause trouble and bring about consequences.

Next, make sure there is a way for the people to dispose of their rubbish by providing garbage bags and getting scores of volunteers to oversee and collect the full bags.

And the rallygoers co-operated. There was peer or crowd pressure to shame those who did not. A friend shared that during the rally, she placed her empty plastic cup on the road beside her, meaning to dispose of it properly later. When she turned to look for it, someone had removed it.

One would think she would have been pleased that someone had taken care of her litter but no, she was horrified. She did not want fellow protesters to assume she was irresponsible.


So, there you have it: a successful formula for collective responsibility for cleanliness which I wished could be applied across the nation.

Instead, we have "the tragedy of the commons" repeated over and over. We have garbage in our drains, rivers, roadsides and playgrounds and no one seems to care.

How many times have you walked in town centres where the pavements are dirty, greasy, littered with flyers and unopened mail and often wet from dripping air-conditioner compressors and pipes?

The pavement is for everybody to use but nobody is made responsible for its care, including shops fronting it. In worse disrepair are shop back lanes, especially when restaurants use them as their wet kitchens.

Another tragedy we are familiar with: public toilets. Everybody uses it for his own benefit yet the collective attitude towards them stinks.

And that is the essence of the tragedy of the commons, a phrase made popular by ecologist Garret Hardin in 1968. It was first used in 1833 by economist William Forster Lloyd to describe a situation where shepherds allowed their sheep to graze in common areas which eventually led to overgrazing and thus destroying the areas that are supposed to benefit everyone but which no one took responsibility to look after.

In modern times, the most devastating example of this saying is the collapse of the Grand Banks fishing grounds off Newfoundland, Canada. For centuries, fishermen caught cod here. In the 1960s, sophisticated fishing technology led to enormous catches. By the 1990s, unregulated overfishing had depleted the cod population which has never recovered.

Simply put, it is a tragedy because individuals selfishly use a common or shared resource or space but do not take responsibility for it, which ultimately leads to the destruction of that resource or space.

We have plenty of examples of that in our midst, with one of the most obvious being our garbage-strewn environment. How long more will we hide behind the label of being Third World, hence the lack of civic responsibility evident in many First World states?

We see and feel the difference when we visit these developed states which have in place education, facilities, laws and enforcement for collective responsibility which, in turn, have resulted in clean waterways, parks, pavements, toilets and proper citizen-led garbage sorting and disposal.


Which brings me to my next point: the mandatory home garbage sorting by citizens in six states that began on Sept 1.

I wrote about the lack of preparation and awareness two months before the start date. Because of that, I was not optimistic about the success of such a programme even though other countries have succeeded.

In Taiwan, the residents not only sort their household waste, they are also responsible for delivering it to garbage trucks that come around on designated days.

The trucks announce their presence by blaring out classical music like Fur Elise and The Maiden's Prayer and residents wait by the kerb with their trash bags to throw them into the vehicles.

This is a marvellous example of collective responsibility and there are lots of stories from foreign residents living in Taiwan (Japan and South Korea too for that matter) on how they were shamed into quickly learning how to sort waste by their neighbours and becoming part of the community structure.

To reiterate the success formula:

1. Ensure the message is clear and well-articulated for the buy-in. For that, the audience/citizens must believe it is for the greater good even though it means making sacrifices or taking up personal responsibility.

2. Make the appropriate laws which must be enforced consistently because there will always be people who would not take responsibility. The laws also show there are consequences for not cooperating.

3. Put in place a well-planned support system and facilities to make it as easy as possible for people to do their part.

4. Keep repeating the message at all levels, especially schools, and make the required information easily available. Do not assume people will know what to do.

5. Stay the course. Do not give up and make U-turns when faced with opposition.

Malaysians are a very long way from that kind of collective responsibility but Bersih 4 proved we can do it, even if it was just for 34 hours.

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