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Articles, History, Philosophy

Securing Public Space in the post-imperial age

PEM Editorial — November 14, 2011

A HISTORY of Public Space in post-colonial countries is long overdue. Such a narrative would be a powerful one indeed if it also adopts the fall of empires as its background.

We no longer ponder about the strange phenomenon of the string of empires – colonial or traditional – that fell in dramatic domino fashion throughout the 20th century. This started with the 1911 Xinhai Revolution of China, which celebrated its 100th anniversary on October 10 this year.

By the end of the so-called First World War in 1918, at least four others had disintegrated including the Russian Empire, The Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire. The victorious empires and colonial powers—Britain, France and Holland—would chug along for a while yet. The US, in the meantime, had heralded its coming global influence.

Some of the fallen would rise again, while others would not. In the intermediate spaces, a stream of nations rose to declare independence—by definition, from imperial control. These ranged from countries such as Finland, Poland and Yugoslavia to Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. The badly defeated Ottoman Empire officially ended only in 1923, and in its stead arose as many as 30 countries.

This process of imperial disintegration accelerated after the so-called Second World War with the fall of colonial powers such as Britain, France and Holland, allowing for the rise of huge numbers of countries in Asia and Africa. Some of these were as big as empires in themselves, such as India, and some were small, such as Singapore. Malaysia laid somewhere in between. This imperial disintegration was not a mono-directional affair, however.

While the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian empires ended for good, the Russian and Chinese empires managed to rise again, to return to the global fray. While the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian empires ended for good, the Russian and Chinese empires managed to rise again, to return to the global fray.

Thus, new nations rose on wobbly legs under the heavy shadow of new imperial stand-offs—the so-called Cold War.

Now we come to what I wish to say about Public Space. The existential uncertainty of newly acquired nationhood meant that governments took it as a god-given right to be authoritarian. Nation Building became the only game in town, or countryside. Public Space was an unaffordable luxury.

But as existential fears grew less justified as these polities matured, the inherent tension between state control and civil liberties could not help but increase. That is the impasse where post-colonial and post-imperial societies now find themselves; be they located in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East or South-East Asia.

In the Malaysian context, we see that the words most bandied around today include audacious ones like “change” and “reform”. The federal government’s recent promise to repeal the Internal Security Act, lift emergency declarations and end the requirement for annual printing licences are guarded attempts to lessen the tension.

The big challenge now is whether the country—and many other countries for that matter— can gather enough courage to switch from existentialistic nation building mode to confident adulthood mode. The political battles now fought daily between the government and the opposition express exactly this fateful gathering of courage.

But if there is anything at all we learn from history, it is that no outcome can be taken for granted.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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