Since 2000, 49.4 million summonses have been issued to Malaysians for various traffic offences. This is a staggering amount, translating into a rough average of five summonses per Malaysian driver. For me, however, the statistic itself was not particularly interesting. Instead, the question that came to my mind when I heard about it is this: Basically, are we a nation that only follows the rules when there is enforcement in our sight?
During a recent holiday to Hong Kong, my family and I noticed how expensive everything was. For example, a short train ride from our hotel to the airport cost HK$90 (RM40) per person, one-way. Multiply that by the size of our travelling party, and I was looking at spending HK$450 (RM200) for the trip. Now, tickets were generally sold through machines. Sensing my apprehension about the huge expense, my kids were curious why people did not just buy the concession tickets at about half the price from the ticket machine. After all, it was a machine and nobody would know whether you were eligible for these tickets. Learning opportunities exist in every situation, not just in the school classroom, and this was one of those real-life situations. My wife Rose immediately responded that while the machine would not know the difference, we humans know we would be doing the wrong thing. Our children understood the rationale and agreed that we must be honest at all times – even when no one is watching.
One may argue that enforcement is necessary for societal good, but there’s only so much the men in uniform can do. The best way to effectively maintain good conduct by all is to start by instilling “Enforcement From Within” among our children. This means that they are taught to voluntarily obey the basic rules of living, including religious duties, without too much prompting and supervision.
This is not easy as it requires a strong sense of self-awareness and responsibility, but neither is it impossible. Let’s take a look at examples of more developed countries and how their citizens, young and old, respect the rule of law. The Japanese, for example, are often seen observing rules and laws conscientiously even when they travel to other countries that may not strictly enforce those rules or laws. They ensure that they keep their environment clean, drive carefully or arrive on time. Unfortunately, the same cannot always be said for travellers from many other countries.
Small lessons, big results
Parents can train their kids to be responsible and honest even when no one requires it of them. Inculcating voluntary good habits, like picking up litter and throwing it away properly, goes a long way towards instilling the right attitude from young. Check yourself if you find yourself issuing instructions like “put on your helmet/seatbelt to avoid summonses – the policeman is watching,” or “don’t litter or else the teacher will punish you.”
These are phrases that train young minds to associate the correct action with the fear of punishment. The moment children realise that the risk of being caught is low, they will happily break the rules to suit their convenience.
So use, instead, words that encourage responsibility while properly describing the cause and effect of a particular behavior. Depending on the situation, these would include sentences like “please put on your seatbelt; it will prevent you from being thrown out of the car in case the emergency brake is applied,” or “keeping this area clean is our responsibility because we want to be able to come back here again next week and enjoy it.” The difference is clear. If this approach is practised well and consistently, children will get it. They will understand that behind each rule is a proper rationale. This simple revelation is so powerful that the children themselves will then want to do the right thing without being asked.
A fellow parent recently told me about his elder brother, a man known to be a very strict parent. In his house, everyone must follow the rules, failing which severe punishments will be meted out. His children always complained about how they were forced to study at certain hours or do certain things in exactly the way their parents wanted. All was good up until the point when these kids went to visit their cousins. Suddenly, all rules were blatantly ignored and they were running wild and free all around their cousins’ place. Because their own parents were not there to enforce the rules at that moment, these children seized the opportunity to live a little bit more flexibly.
Honesty is the best policy
It’s hard to be honest when we always act in response to external pressure and not based on our own conscience.
Dishonest people are an outcome of the failure to enforce good conduct from within. Such individuals may get away with it for a while, but the truth will eventually catch up with them. In the case of my family’s Hong Kong vacation commuting, our honesty “paid off” immediately. I approached the Customer Service Counter to inquire about a cheaper option, and I was offered a Family Package at a great discount. Indeed, the true test of integrity is what we do when no one is looking. Teach that to your child, and he or she will have the chance of living a happy life, guided by a clear conscience. This can only happen if and when enforcement comes from within.
Continue your journey with us by checking out this episode from the "Leadership Nuggets' series. In this episode, Roshan Thiran, CEO of Leaderonomics, shares his leadership nugget on the best way to learn: seeing, doing, and teaching.