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Cleanliness, or a clean public toilet, should not become a commodity. FILE PIC

FAR from Tokyo as well as the hustle and bustle of a typical Japanese city, Fukuoka represents the laid-back version of an assiduous nature commonly associated with the people of this country.

The usual picturesque rush hour at crosswalks and continuous streams of vehicles on roads are almost non-existent; the people here walk at a more relaxed pace, smile and nod more often to strangers, wishing each other “ohayo gozaimasu” (good morning) as a way to start the day.

The current summer heat and loud cricket chirps only serve to colour the amiability of locals. Seismic activity is not as intense as in some other parts of the country and an “otaku” might not be sizzled by the less-than-zany pop culture promotion.

But the easygoing nature does not mean the prefecture and its 1.5 million people in the Kyushu region are in any way less industrious than their counterparts. For starters, it is a regional powerhouse whose gross domestic product is estimated to be larger than a few state capitals in other countries.

Fukuoka runs primarily on the services sector. As Kyushu’s economic centre, it boasts an almost perfect transport network of air, land and sea to form major arteries to facilitate businesses. The prefecture also has a stock exchange.

When it comes to local amenities, the public toilets, for example, are worth jotting about. To say that they are clean remains an understatement; everything functions as they’re suppose to, without the slightest hint of a double entendre — a bidet is designed to function as a bidet, and not necessarily hooked up to a rubber hose for other purposes.

And despite Fukuoka’s grand economic achievements, hygiene and cleanliness stemming from a civic sense of belonging are perhaps among the foremost takeaways for Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad during a recent visit there. It is a general opinion which is in stark contrast to numerous views of our public toilets.

One can only imagine his frown upon comparing the ones back home, with the ones that put his mind at ease during private moments abroad. The same goes for anyone who has been somewhere similar and about. After all, cleanliness is a reflection of the people’s broader mindset. Otherwise, and unfortunately as seen in the country, the civic lens is rather opaque or almost non-existent due to the lackadaisical attitude towards hygiene. It is
all the more palpable when it took an expression of disappointment from the prime minister himself for the issue to resurface.

Yes. The issue of toilet cleanliness is not new. The horrors of unbearable stench and unsightly stains which left an indelible perception of such facilities, began at school in the 1990s. Broken toilet doorknobs or sliding locks, too, were common and nothing in the education system was effective enough to inculcate civic consciousness in students.

The subject is purely humanistic at the very least. Where have we gone wrong, or astray, when it comes to cleanliness? To postulate an absence of civic education in grossly inaccurate.

In Islamic studies, for example, students are taught that cleanliness and hygiene are a major practice in the faith. Certainly, such a message, for example, has not been conveyed sufficiently as a mode of discipline.

Toilet users tend to discard waste without care for the next occupant and take for granted that somebody else will take care of the mess. Someone, a few years back, had comically termed such an attitude as “lepas dan lupa”; undoubtedly, it is a concern that such behaviour should not be identified as a Malaysian trait.

As a developing country where broadband use is close to being classified as a utility, will it be pertinent for us to celebrate the annual World Toilet Day, whose mission is to promote sanitary practices in certain parts of the world?

In January, it was found that 41 per cent of 1,630 public toilets in Johor Baru had been classified as “dirty”, a matter which does not seem to be in line with the city authorities’ mission to turn the state capital into “a cultured city of international standards”. And of course, it is a problem not unique to Johor Baru.

Changing the people’s mindset will always be an uphill battle, particularly when it comes to a matter of conscience. Cleanliness, or a clean public toilet, should not become a commodity. But already, there is a fuel station chain which proudly promotes its toilets as the cleanest. It speaks volumes of what is taking place, in the bigger picture.

Syed Umar Ariff is NST specialist writer

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