The recent interest by the government and the public on the issue of declining levels of courtesy and good values among Malaysians is timely - to solve a problem, you first have to admit you have one. Yet the majority of suggestions on solving this issue - both from the public and from politicians - seem to lack the subtle knowledge of human psychology.
We assume people to be rude. Yet in the field of psychology it has been shown by several experiments (Hartshone & May in the 1920s, Zimbardo at Stanford in the 1970s) that humans are never always 'rude', 'honest' or 'polite'. People behave differently when put in different environments.
For example, we conclude Malaysians are rude and inconsiderate based on the observation of Malaysian driving habits. But take a Malaysian and place him in Northern California and he becomes a caring, polite member of society. Take a Northern Californian and place him in Malaysia and he becomes a rude, obnoxious driver.
It is the environment that creates the psychological attribute. Psychological studies show that behavior is a variant property and changes depending on one's environment and the context of the situation.
When observing others, humans tend to overestimate the influence of psychological factors and underestimate the influence of environmental ones. This is known as FAE or Fundamental Attribution Error.
So to solve the issue of Malaysian rudeness, the government must look at what factors of our environment that cause us to become rude don't waste time on politeness campaigns. These environmental factors could be related to traffic congestion, government bureaucracy or even declining standards in the service industry.
The second problem occurring is that those who do look at environmental factors seem to place an emphasis on conservative values. In a newspaper report recently, two articles suggested that the problem of declining values could be alleviated by people becoming more religious or by them avoiding western dress in favour of local attire. Both these suggestions are based more on emotion than careful sociological study. Careful study of other countries shows the opposite.
Take Norway for example. Norway is one of the least religious societies on earth. A mere four percent of Norwegians report going to church regularly. It is also a highly liberal society devoid of most sexual taboos. Yet Norway is by all accounts, one of the most honest and law abiding societies on Earth.
In a study by the the Reader's Digest magazine, 90 percent of Norwegians returned a wallet that they found containing money to it's proper owner. In Malaysia, the return rate was a mere 50 percent.
Norwegians are also known for the calm, friendliness and social awareness. The country tops the world in adoption rates, has a low crime-rate and scores highly in standard of living, government transparency and social awareness. Yet Norway falls on the extreme liberal side of the values spectrum.
To solve the problem of declining values in this country, we first have to understand the nature of human psychology. We must then apply concrete scientific study to the problem - not jump upon every lame theory tossed out by a conservative clerics or simple-minded politicians.