Aren’t we all dirty minded?
Writer: Sharyn Shufiyan
Published: Fri, 28 Oct 2011
Taking shelter from the rain, I walked into a Chinese coffee shop occupied by uncles playing mahjong. In small towns like Kuang, an outsider stands out like a sore thumb. At one point while I was on the phone, the uncles stopped playing and stared at me. “They thought you are a police,” said Uncle Chong, who came to sit next to me.
I ended up in this small town in search of the Kuang landfill. I failed miserably, so I traded waste for yit cha instead. Uncle Chong told me that collecting rubbish is a lucrative business, as the landfill charges RM30 per tonne. I can imagine – KW Mak reported on The Nut Graph news website that the waste industry raked in RM52 million a year.
That’s expected for an urban consumer society such as ours. Malaysians generate over 30,000 tonnes of waste daily. But this number means nothing to most of us, because what we can’t see won’t hurt us.
I was in a car one day waiting for the traffic light when the driver of the car in front of me threw a plastic bag out of the window. I got out of my car, went over and knocked on the window. A young corporate-looking man looked bewildered as I threw the plastic bag back into his car.
Another incident happened just in my neighbourhood when a lady threw tissue papers on the ground as she got out of her car while the rubbish bin was just a few steps away. Unfortunately for her, I was right behind, so I asked her to pick them up and throw them away properly. Not in my hood, you don’t!
Sometimes, being proactive can backfire, though. My mother had done the same thing to a woman who had thrown a KFC box out of her car. As she drove off, she chucked the box out again, probably out of spite.
Once, I was snorkelling near the jetty in Tioman collecting floating plastic bags as I went along, and I could have sworn the tourists threw them over on purpose just to watch me pick them up, because every time I surfaced, there seemed to be more!
So I’m beginning to believe that Malaysians are a spiteful bunch of people. When there is a signboard that says “Dilarang Membuang Sampah, Denda RM500”, that’s where you’ll find heaps of rubbish. Maybe they think it’s funny and that they’ll get away scot-free because you can’t really trace who the rubbish belongs to, and enforcement is as much rubbish as the things they throw away. So goes our mentality of “out of sight, out of mind” that plagues many Malaysians.
It’s not like we can’t clean up after ourselves – after all, cleanliness has been inculcated since young. I remember in school we had duty rosters and took turns to clean our classrooms before we left; and the concept of gotong-royong is a core value to many Malaysian communities.
Yet when you take a Malaysian out of their homes, they don’t have the same regard towards cleanliness and the environment. We expect that we have other people who will clean up our messes.
Even so, our streets are relatively clean; we’re not Singapore, but we’re all right. Rubbish disappears from our immediate eyes thanks to the hard work of Alam Flora and DBKL workers. They are whisked far away to places like Kuang for other people to sort out.
But maybe we should allow rubbish to accumulate. Maybe we should start “seeing” the problem. We should move away from ineffective signboards and crappy PSAs to more creative ways of educating the public. Maybe we should bring landfills into public spaces; I mean, really, how many of us would drive to Kuang just to see the state of our landfills?
Last year, photographer Suchen SK was commissioned by the Danish International Development Assistance (Danida) to take pretty pictures of ugly trash that was then turned into a coffee-table book.
Unfortunately, the book, Wonderland... Beyond the Bin, is not for sale and now sits on the shelves of government organisations and libraries, beyond the eyes of the public! Another hit and miss.
Wouldn’t it be better to have these books in cafes as we dine? It would have been an unconventionally tasty meal. After all, half of our garbage comprises organic kitchen waste such as leftover and unconsumed food. If Malaysians turned freegan, we wouldn’t be complaining about increased food and goods prices anymore.
In Paris, architect Clèmence Eliard and artist Elise Morin created a waste landscape of 60,000 unwanted CDs sewn together by hand and displayed it in an arts centre. HA Schult created an army of “Trash People” from crushed cans and electronic waste. These life-sized sculptures were displayed in public areas such as parks, and even made it around the world to places such as the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids of Giza. Tim Noble and Sue Webster created figure shadows from piles of trash; one installation even included a pair of dead seagulls! These installations are a visual reminder of how much we consume and discard.
Environmental messages have been so conventional and didactic that they are, well, boring. Sometimes it takes a bit of creativity to drive the message across, especially for an issue that is conveniently invisible.
Urbanites are living in such a fast-paced environment and constantly bombarded with information and in-your-face marketing that it’s easier to switch off from these “holier-than-thou” messages than to actually internalise them. A psychological barrier to learning is also the reactionary attitudes to such environmental messages; this notion that the green movement is part of a social class structure. It is easier to ridicule someone for caring than to actually make an effort, even if that effort requires you to walk five steps to a dustbin.
We should start worrying when we come to a point where we’re actually comfortable living alongside garbage. Frankly, we’re not that far off from that future.