Next to godliness

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 June, 2006, 12:00am

A barefoot man with an improbably wide, toothy grin crouches beside a toilet, rag in hand. Could he be a criminal performing shame-inducing public service? A homeless man grateful for a menial job? In India he might be an untouchable; in America, an immigrant from the depths of Central America. But here in Taiwan, he is the centrepiece of posters appearing in windows of 7-Eleven stores nationwide, encouraging middle-class people to scrub public latrines.

Angst over the state of Taiwan's public toilets is widespread in the island's fastidious middle class. Outraged citizens write letters to newspapers complaining about smelly facilities at Taipei's international airport. Female university students protest at the sorry state of university washrooms, calling them a threat to public health. And Taipei's popular mayor, Ma Ying-jeou, wears a grim but knowing smile as he regularly inspects and cleans washrooms in front of TV cameras during public holidays.

For Mr Ma and many other Taiwanese, the state of the island's toilets is an index of progress and personal virtue. It is also at the centre of an elaborate system of monitoring and moral exhortation in an uphill battle for modern standards of cleanliness. In Taipei, for example, civil servants rate toilets in public places. The trouble is that they never seem to visit the same location more than once: the result is a faintly ironic plaque left by the inspector telling you that the fetid pit you are in is actually a model toilet - 'meeting the highest sanitation standards'.

Perhaps most symptomatic, though, are the little signs taped above urinals telling men to step closer, to keep the floors unsoiled. Often they remind us to think about the hard work that goes into keeping the place clean, and how just a moment of extra care can make the world a better place.

Clean toilets, in other words, are the fruit of personal virtue. If we were all better people who would just think, ever so briefly, about the common good instead of our own selfish interests, we would be rewarded with sparkling, modern restrooms.

One very Confucian lesson to be drawn from toilets is that reform and progress hinge on changing small, overlooked problems that may seem insignificant at first - but which, in fact, have unforeseen effects. This seems sensible, for instance, in the case of the cleverly rhymed admonitions to wash your hands taped on mirrors in washrooms across the island.

So, while Taiwan increasingly has the infrastructure that a modern country needs, one of its greatest challenges is to stop seeing management problems as issues of personal virtue.