Civility: A thing of the past?

A recent trip to Singapore and Malaysia brought me face to face with the sharp contrast between fast and slow cultures. Okay, no-one is going to call Singapore slow. It is a city on the move, often derided as an oversized shopping mall in which all traces of tradition have been bulldozed to make way for more shops.

What struck me most strongly in both countries is their (sigh) intense civility.

We know Singapore is a deeply regimented society and that much of what takes place there is mandated. So it’s no surprise folks actually wait until you have stepped from the train, rather than crushing you as you disembark.

We spent two days in relentlessly multicultural Melaka, during which time we witnessed an amazing late night gathering in the neighbouring kampong, which I assume had only been preserved because of its touristic value. There was music, sound and colour.

Exploring the kampong a couple of days later I was engaged in conversation by a friendly local. I got the old “where do you come from” routine. This of course doesn’t happen much here in Oz. I’m told that we Aussies are friendly when approached but we do not approach strangers in this manner, in fact even when we see travellers clearly in distress we tend to ignore them.

So I asked this Malay gentleman what the hubbub the other night had been about.

“Ah” he said, “ my hero was here to meet us” with hand over heart as he pointed to the large poster of ex-PM Mahathir. I thought it best not to remind him of Mr Mahathir’s lowly opinion of Aussie’s in general and Paul Keating in particular.

He asked me why we hadn’t come down to the kampong to see for ourselves, telling me: “we had so much local food you would have been welcome to join us”. I thanked him anyway and wandered off contemplating his words. Did he have any idea how far removed from our cultural practices his question was? Imagine if I told him about the overseas student who said, regarding her three years in Australia: “ I’ve really loved being here, I’m, just sorry never to have been inside an Australian home”.

We Australians are sick of having our culture criticised and very sick of the claim that we have none. I’m reminded of a wonderful woman called Joy Burn. Joy was raised in Cunderdin in WA’s wheat belt and was a stalwart of the CWA. Privileged to interview her, I arrived at her home to be greeted by the smell of fresh baked Anzac biscuits.

Joy Burn was old-school, an Australian of the Depression and War years, who invited neighbours round and offered a cuppa, even to “new Australians” like my family.  That Aussie hospitality still exists but sometimes we need to be reminded to open our doors wider.

Dr Felicity Newman is a member of the Centre for Everyday Life at Murdoch University