A greater stink under broken toilets

By Rita Sim | rita.sim@
20 December 2012
LOW QUALITY: Preference for cheap labour and tools produces bad workmanship
ON a drive up to Penang with some friends recently, we stopped in a rest stop along the highway.
While some of us needed to use the restroom, one friend refused to do so, lamenting the state of public toilets.
Her words proved prescient. The toilets were relatively clean, but the lock on the door was loose, the flush was broken and there was a gaping hole in the concrete block where a sink should have been.
Shoddy construction work is not just confined to toilets — though we love to complain about those — but can also be seen in houses, offices, roads and even hospitals.
The resigned look on the faces of those lining up to use the public toilet shows that we have become too used to this scenario.
Indeed, what Malaysia is missing is a culture of maintenance. We may spend taxpayers’ dollars on building new infrastructure everywhere, but we do not build it to last or invest in its upkeep. What accounts for such poor quality in our building and maintenance work?
Part of the reason is the low-level of skills among our construction workers and general labourers, who are largely foreigners. As foreign labour is cheap and aplenty, filling a void left by locals who want better job prospects, those who employ them pay them a pittance without investing in skills training.
Foreign workers only have to fulfil the criteria of brute strength and stamina. While some pick up more complex trades like wiring work or tiling from their employers, few can be said to be highly skilled.
Like an amateur musician who would ruin a perfectly good Gibson guitar, these construction workers and labourers are rarely given good equipment on the job because they are not trained to use it.
Instead, they are given cheap tools, which can be easily replaced when damaged. As I highlighted in my last column, such low-quality hardware is being imported by suppliers looking to undercut their competition.
As you might expect, cheap labour combined with cheap tools result in inferior work. If you have ever had renovations or repairs done, you will be familiar with the outcome. Every family member and friend seems to have a story to share.
One relative had a close call with a water heater that was poorly installed by an electrician. The heater, in his words, “exploded” while he was taking a shower.
A friend lamented that driving in Malaysia was like training for an obstacle course race, because she had to avoid numerous potholes, sometimes several on a single stretch of road. Even brand-new buildings and structures disappoint. How many high-end shopping malls have you been to, where the poor finishing is apparent upon closer inspection?
How many people have bought so-called luxurious homes, only to find cracks and leaks making an appearance before they have even really settled in?
How many cases of major hospital defects have you read about in the news? (The answer is at least nine over the past eight years).
Certification of construction and maintenance workers is the first step. Tradespeople must be well-trained and qualified to carry out their craft, with the principles of safety and quality uppermost in their work.
We have to stop doing things by half-measures and strive for excellence instead. The industry needs to set high standards that builders and contractors — right down to the last worker on the ground — can benchmark themselves against.
Our own attitudes also have to change. As customers and clients, we are part of the ecosystem that encourages quality. This means that we stop accepting half-baked work and start creating a demand for work that is worth paying for.
It is not enough to just own things. We need to take pride in them. If Malaysians don’t bring their mindset up to par, the country will never achieve developed status.
So, don’t get complacent about those broken toilets — they conceal a greater rot underneath.
Read more: A greater stink under broken toilets – Columnist – New Straits Times

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