Thursday 19 July 2012

A sad, bad and mad society - Stanley Koh

Of what use is physical and economic development if we are bereft of social capital?

In all the decades that it has been in power – but especially around election time – Barisan Nasional has been boasting of its so-called successes in “bringing development to the people”.

And how does it measure this “development”? Usually by the number of roads built, the buildings constructed (no matter how ugly), the number of cars on the road (no matter how much they foul up the air), and so on.

True, BN politicians also at times speak of their concern for social development and what they would do to bring progress in this area, but none has been able to boast that their party has met success in addressing such social ills as drug addiction, juvenile delinquency, the breakdown of family institutions, etc. The list is endless.

Today, despite claims of an improving quality of life, everywhere there seems to be definite symptoms of social turmoil, with many questioning whether there is in fact a failure or betrayal of leadership.

To get a quick idea of how sad, bad and mad our social condition is, we need only to ask ourselves questions such as these: Are our divorce rates increasing? How many babies are abandoned? Why is the suicide rate increasing? Is domestic violence a continuing but hidden problem? How many homeless people do we see sleeping on the sidewalks of our cities? Are the mentally ill properly cared for? Is the official rosy picture of the crime rate a true reflection of our personal experiences and those of our neighbours and relatives?

An article posted at speaks of “social capital” as referring to the “internal social and cultural coherence of society, the norms and values that govern interactions among people and the institutions in which they are embedded”.

Social capital, says the article, is the “glue that holds societies together and without which there can be no economic growth or human wellbeing”. In other words, a society with no social capital is bound to collapse.

Any measurement of social capital must take into account both the social and political environment that shape social structures and enable norms to develop. The government itself plays an important role as a political regime shaping the rule of law and the judicial system.

Do we trust our ruling government? Is our electoral system clean and fair and governed by a truly independent body? Are we dealing appropriately and effectively with corruption?

Experts agree that measuring social capital may be difficult but not impossible.

In fact, the World Values Survey Association has measured interpersonal trust in 22 countries by asking people questions such as, “Generally speaking, would you say that people can be trusted or that you cannot be too careful in dealing with people?”

Last year, our nation was placed at number 55 among 199 countries surveyed. We lost out to many other countries in Asia, including Singapore (14th), Hong Kong (18th), Japan (22nd) and South Korea (39th).

Public apathy

The question quoted above seems pertinent in the Malaysian context in view of the many outrageous incidents that, especially in recent years, have caused widespread outrage.

In one of the most recent of these ugly incidents, a 60-year-old resident of Penang, Tan Kim Chuan, became the victim of a snatch thief. She fell to the ground and was left there unconscious, and this was despite the many pedestrians passing by.

And neither was it a case unique to Tan. Last June 26, Lim Dang Chin, also of Penang, suffered robbery and assault and got no help from the many people who witnessed the crime.

And yet, many Malaysians professed being shocked when they learned last year, through newspapers or YouTube, about an infant being run over by two vans and ignored by as many as 18 passers-by.

The recent incidents in Penang prompted this writer to speak to a few Malaysians picked at random to find out how they would respond if they were to come across a similar incident.

Under what circumstances would they render help?

Storekeeper Ahmad bin Mazlan, 44, said he was saddened by the Penang incidents and would render help only if no crime was involved – but again it would depend on whether it was daylight or night time.

“Depending on the time of day, I will definitely help the victim or victims, especially it is a car accident involving family members.” He said he had provided such help before.

Project coordinator Ann Loh, 21, said she would exercise great caution because she had learnt from a bad experience. She once fell victim to robbers when she stopped to help in what turned out to be a fake accident in Petaling Jaya.

“Because of this unfortunate incident, I am more cautious and I was advised by my family that I should help accident victims only when I am with friends. I should not do it alone.

“I think anyone passing by without helping can be accused of lacking a conscience, but it is hard to blame them in view of the many press reports about people trying to help but became robbery victims.”
If one is afraid to stop and help, is there anything else that one can do?

Auto mechanic Tan Chan Nam, in his 40s, had this answer: “I would stop at a distance and call an ambulance, especially if it is night and the locality does not look safe.”

Another 40-something, Miss Ho, who operates an elegant stall selling cakes and other kinds of pastry in Jalan Ampang, had the same cautious attitude.

“I would just call the ambulance and give the exact location of the accident if it is late at night, but I would not stop,” she said.

“Three years ago I helped a motorcyclist involved in an accident in Johor and if I were there in Penang at the snatch theft incident, I am sure I will help the victim,” said Jeffrey Loh, an insurance agent in his late 30s.
Indeed, all respondents in the survey said their reaction to such incidents would depend on the time and location.

Breakdown in trust

Is this a sign that there is a breakdown of trust in our society? Has Malaysian society gone into a crisis mode that neither ordinary members of the public nor those in authority are even aware of?
Perhaps, we should always keep in mind this old Chinese saying: “Saving a person’s life is better than building a seven-storey Pagoda.”
And there is a piece of Mahayana Buddhist wisdom that almost echoes the Chinese saying. It is from a text on compassion. It defines this quality as the instinct to save those in danger even at the risk of one’s life.
How many of us are willing to do that?
Stanley Koh is a FMT columnist.

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