Law not a silver bullet for our problems

Updated: 2009-07-21 00:00
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Law not a silver bullet for our problems

People in the two rival cities of Shanghai and Beijing now have something common to talk about.

Beijing’s subway Line 4, to start in late September and run by a joint venture with Hong Kong MTR Corp, will ban food and drink. If all goes well, this rule may be extended to eight subway lines in the capital.

While Beijing’s ban is merely a notice by the subway operator and does not have teeth, Shanghai intends to go further by including its ban on food, drink and folding bikes in a local regulation on rail transport, to be ratified by the local legislature. A public hearing held early this month, however, couldn’t produce a consensus.

Shanghai’s move is simply an effort to solve problems that may not and should not be fixed through legislation.

Just like jumping the queue or yielding seats to senior citizens in buses, whether a person should eat and drink in public places, such as a subway car, is really a matter of civility to be governed by a code of public conduct rather than laws.

Due to decades of neglect, uncivilized conduct, such as spitting and littering on the streets and pushing through crowds, have become public hazards. It is a major hurdle in building a harmonious society, and is preventing the rise of cities like Shanghai and Beijing as glamorous global cities.

So it is understandable that city administrators would like to eradicate eyesores in a prompt way, such as before Shanghai hosts the World Expo in May next year.

Yet, given its power of fear and punishment, the law is not a silver bullet. Other forces, such as moral standards, customs, religions and public opinion, are just as important, if not more important, as laws in moulding public behavior.

So trying to compel people to kick their bad habits and poor manners overnight through one or several draconian laws reflects wishful thinking. It is going to be neither effective nor feasible.

On food and drink in the subway, for instance, it is hard to define what kind of consumables should be banned. Should we ban them altogether, including water? Should children and pregnant women be exempted from the rules? An hour-long ride would be cruel to them without food and drink. It might be cruel to anyone to be deprived of water during a long ride in summer.

Such a law, if passed, would be difficult to enforce, especially in Shanghai’s crowded subway system. It would require huge resources, and Shanghai Metro Company is a subway operator, not a law enforcement agency. Should local government then deploy its already understaffed police to patrol the subway cars and stations?

The right and effective way to tackle such problems is to cultivate and regain the lost standards of public conduct to nurture something deep in people’s hearts. Our traditional culture, or Confucianism, has long believed in the strength of morality.

It would be naive to think that laws and regulations can solve every problem.