By OOI KEE BENG, for The Edge Malaysia, 2-9 August 2020.
Now when Covid-19 is on the loose and the movement of the public, practically throughout the whole world, is controlled, traced and monitored, in principle every moment of the day whenever an individual is out and about, the very notion of public space becomes an interesting concept to dissect.
Is it a term that applies to any society in a common manner? Is it understood the same way in all societies? Or is it a modern concept applicable to societies organised as a nation state under a national government, coming into being only when “no man’s land” as a concept and a reality disappeared with the coming of the nation state?
Is public space the opposite of private space, meaning that different norms apply in each of them, and different laws regulate individual behaviour within each sphere? Where does one stop and the other begin? At the door to the person’s abode?
Does it have to do with the ownership of land, private space being territory belonging to a private person while public space is found where the land is owned by the state and its agencies?
Or is public space a collective state of mind developed over time under certain stable conditions of legality and socioeconomic circumstances?
Admittedly, I am asking a lot of questions, but this is meant to draw attention to the undecided environment we have learned to call “public space”. This is important because modern living— conditioned, crowded and CCTV-ed — may be endurable only if a balance is kept between the sphere the state controls and the sphere the individual can occupy without being watched.
When George Orwell wrote “1984” in the 1940s when Fascism, Stalinism and Militarism had consumed the world, he was simply warning us of where humanity was inevitably headed—organised as the species already was by then into nation states which were either defensive or offensive (paranoid in any case), regimented in highly complex societies facilitated and monitored more and more by technology, and without anywhere to go where no state had planted its covetous flag.
For the protagonist of “1984”, Winston Smith, there was no individual space, let alone public space. There was only state-monitored and state-determined space. The polar situation presented here by Orwell is meant to help us conceptualise public space through its absence.
The other end of the dichotomy, logically, would be the position taken by the influential French philosopher and “father of anarchism” and of mutualism, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865), who famously said: “To be GOVERNED is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so. To be GOVERNED is to be at every operation, at every transaction noted, registered, counted, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, prevented, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be place[d] under contribution, drilled, fleeced, exploited, monopolized, extorted from, squeezed, hoaxed, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, vilified, harassed, hunted down, abused, clubbed, disarmed, bound, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, derided, outraged, dishonoured. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality” (General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century).
In simple terms, public space is that created by the coming of the state as it encroaches into individual space. The individual mind, itself admittedly an unclear concept, parries the collective mind championed by the state on the one hand and by religious authorities on the other. The public sphere then is where the daily and unending negotiation takes place between what the individual can get away with, and what he is bound to do under social and legal pressure. And often, the line between the privacy of his home and the public sphere is where this negotiation is worked out, especially where cyberspace is concerned.
From 2020 onwards, the need to fight a disease like Covid-19 allows for all measures undertaken by the state to be justified as a matter of public health, the way “national interests” overrule individual or human rights in times of national crisis in general.
In a pandemic, does public space exist then? The search for an answer to that question should reveal many essential things in any specific society, and it should be the duty of any citizen to probe into the matter. The survival of his society may depend on his interest in it.
What would possible responses to this query say about Malaysia? There may be no definitive answers, but it would do the country no end of good if its citizens took time to consider the issue.
If social distancing measures and other standard operational procedures are to be effective in curbing the spread of the virus that causes Covid-19, compliance from members of the public is completely necessary. The fact that Malaysia has managed to keep the pandemic from spreading across the country has earned the authorities a deserved degree of appreciation from international health agencies.
Malaysians have largely followed the SOPs as the country went through various stages of the Movement Control Order which began on March 18. Is this because Malaysians are civic-conscious, or do they obey because the enforcement was thorough?
Malaysia is generally a discursively divided country, and has been so from Day One, and the fact that it has stayed in one piece after six decades (excepting Singapore leaving, of course), is testimony to the peacefulness and openness of most of its peoples.
Covid-19 coming at a time of political uncertainty, and with a weak government that is dealing with the pandemic being greatly concerned with its own survival, should stimulate Malaysians to consider the nature and the essence of their country more seriously, and to understand why it is the way it is—a federation necessitated by diversities in culture, history, religion and ethnicity, but one that always has the cloud of authoritarian racialism and theocratic totalitarianism hanging over it.
Securing public space to keep individual space safe and the state on the democratic path is the unending Malaysian challenge.
Dato’ Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the Executive Director of Penang Institute. His latest book is “As Empires Fell: The Life and Times of Lee Hau-Shik, the First Finance Minister of Malaya” (ISEAS 2020).