Public spaces, selective solidarity and treacherous fault lines

Three articles in the Sunday Times today caught my attention. All three were positioned together, as you can see in this photograph:


The first article that drew my eye was one that was strangely titled “With no grand public square here, where will ET land?” While it looked like the most trivial of the three, closer reading showed that it actually had a pretty radical thrust. The idea of public spaces is not a simple one, as any human geographer will tell you. What counts as a public space, how that public space is used, who is excluded from that public space – these are all questions that have wide-ranging implications for citizenship. The article took a somewhat roundabout route to arrive at a trivial and self-defeatist point, but along the way it raised some very interesting (if embedded) critical points about the manipulation of public space in Singapore. The second article I read was the one entitled “The perils of selective solidarity”. This was not by any stretch of the imagination an interesting article, and its pedagogical punch was so obvious and predictable that most intelligent readers could probably see it coming from a mile away and duck, with plenty of time to spare. But what was noteworthy for me was how the point it was laboring to make could be understood very differently from how the writer had intended it, if viewed through the lens suggested by the first. The third article (“Thailand: cracks in the mirror”) I mention here merely as ballast for my point, and I hope that both this point as well as the role of the ballast will be clear by the end of my exposition.

Denise Chong starts by asking where an alien would land if it wanted to make a dramatic entrance. We cannot leave aside the fact that no science fiction movie or comic book so far has had the archetypal anthropomorphic IMG_00000328_editalien land amidst the entire population of a society and demand to be taken to that society’s leaders. In fact the humour in the “take me to your leader” meme arises from the irony of the alien selecting a small group of completely powerless individuals who have no direct access to their leaders anyway, and usually in some out-of-the-way cornfield, far from the centers of administrative and political power. I realise that Ms. Chong is trying to use the meme as a rhetorical device for introducing the idea of a public space where the whole citizenry could be addressed at the same time, and thereby to make the point that no such space exists. However there is added irony in the use of aliens as such a device – why would it take an alien landing to gather the citizenry? What has impeded the citizenry from gathering for their own reasons, apart from the lack of space to do so? Does it take a outsider, with the threat of invasion, to bring the citizenry together? Nonetheless, let us allow Ms. Chong her rhetorical device.

Unsurprisingly, Ms. Chong casts doubt on Singaporeans’ motivations to gather, suggesting that we would not bother to head to whatever  that public space is unless there is some materialistic incentive (goody bags, she says), anticipation of a spectacle (she mentions fireworks, but I’d think that an alien spaceship would be spectacle enough) or promise of comfort (because of the heat and humidity that we are apparently too ‘soft’ to cope with). These assumptions are then built into her argument, and form the criteria for her evaluation of gathering spaces in Singapore. The Padang she dismisses, because its ‘historical weight’ has been rendered invisible by the trivial pursuits conducted there. Also, too hot. Having somehow managed to blame both Singaporeans and foreigners for the trivialisation of the Padang (no suggestion that government decisions about the use of the space may have contributed to its depoliticisation in the minds of the citizenry), Ms. Chong then considers the Marina Bay area – after all, it is temperature-controlled, offers many spectacles, AND has many options for the avid consumer. All the criteria for the perfect gathering space for the spoiled Singaporean (as constructed by Ms. Chong) fulfilled! Yet she dismisses this place also – but interestingly, gives no reason for its dismissal, apart from her assertion that goods and ideas shouldn’t be exchanged in the same place. I find this gap fascinating. What is she trying so hard NOT to say? That very few Singaporeans can afford to gather in the Marina Bay or Orchard area? That it is a place that seems made for tourists and the rich elite while the rest of the citizenry should be happy in their various satellite towns that they never need to leave? Also, how can it be a gathering space when sheer logistics demand that people be split up into various malls and fenced-off spaces? Ms. Chong does not articulate any of this. We take her word for it that Marina Bay and Orchard Road simply won’t do, and follow her as she directs her peripatetic gaze to Hong Lim Park.

This is the point at which some critical questions about the manipulation of public space are raised, even if only implicitly, and even if not really by the writer. Making no mention of Pink Dot’s 21,000 attendance record, Ms. Chong talks about how 4000 people turned up for the Purple Parade (an event organised to raise awareness about the special needs community), and notes that her poor alien would not be able to count on a crowd there either, unless it could align its landing with an issue-driven event. There are so many questions that come to mind. For example, why is Hong Lim Park associated with issue-driven events? What does the history of Hong Lim Park tell us about the space for civil society action in Singapore? How did the idea for the Purple Parade come about, and is it linked to Pink Dot in its intentions to reclaim public space from issue publics that counter dominant ideologies? Does the contestation over this space hold some lessons for us about citizen responses to issues that matter to them? Why does Ms. Chong believe that an alien landing would not be considered an important enough event for Singaporeans to gather at Hong Lim Park? Really, all the alien would have to do is wait for a while before making its all-important announcement. Because, you know, you have to give people time to navigate the crowded trains so that they can get to the park.

Tellingly, the following is written:

“Perhaps the rationale is to move away from having sensitive rallying points like Cairo’s Tahrir Square which was the scene of  the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, or the Democracy Monument in Bangkok, which saw anti-government protesters surging around it recently? With an estimated 100,000 people taking part, it was then the largest protest since nationwide elections in 2011. The Thai location had in earlier years been the focus of mass demonstrations calling for a return to democracy.”

WHOSE rationale? The rationale for WHAT? These have to be guessed by the reader. The paragraph neither connects with what came before (the alien visitor having to land on a specific date to be greeted by purple-clad people) nor does it segue smoothly into what comes after –

“Where does one go to see the heart of Singapore?”

One can’t help but wonder if this insidious little paragraph is really the heart of the whole essay, and actually renders the rest of the tortuous justification moot. We don’t have public spaces for people to gather, because public spaces (and the agency to use  them) tend to encourage citizens to exercise and demand to extend their democratic rights. It is hard to tell which side of the fence the writer stands on, because the way she has positioned it, you can either blame Singaporeans for being apathetic and spoiled, or you can blame the government for manipulating public space discourse. This little paragraph sticks out like a sore thumb precisely because it introduces a counter point that forces one to take a stand. NOT taking a position (and indeed not even attempting to address the ways in which the two may be related) is a political position in itself.

The article ends with a cop out.

“Meanwhile, it looks like the best way for ET to make its demands to most people in Singapore is by reaching for the phone… We gather together in that mobile virtual public square, holding our battery-operated smartphone hearts in our hands.”

First of all, she’s getting her sci-fi in a twist. ET was NOT a crowd-lover. And he WANTED to use the phone – not to meet any leaders, but to get home. Secondly, whether you blame the apathy of the citizenry or the manipulation of the government, mobile phones are not magical. If you don’t want to get involved in public issues, you can just lose yourself in consumer-oriented apps. If the government wants to direct public attention and control it, mobile technology offers wonderful tools for surveillance and manipulation. Thankfully, neither the citizenry or the government works exactly in the way that Ms. Chong imagines. Civil society actors are engaged in the task of opening up more public spaces – whether physical or virtual, the government is making some attempts to engage democratically, and the citizenry is gradually being socialized to understand the implications of these negotiations.

IMG_00000330_editThe second article, by Chua Mui Hoong, puts forward the idea that people may be so united by their common interests that they may see anyone outside of that circle as being undeserving of their concern. This is not really a point worth spending too much time on. For one thing, it is a false binary. People can and do identify with multiple groups. It is not a simple ‘us’ versus ‘them’, except in the minds of Straits Times writers. For another thing, her entire exposition is based on quite dubious political assumptions. I will quote only her ending here:

“When the rich can feel empathy for a down-and-out man who resorts to stealing, and when parents of kids who struggle in school can feel pleasure at the success of other people’s children, then we would begin to have a society based on genuine solidarity, where we understand that, in the end, there is no Them and Us; there’s just Us.”

There is complete oblivion here regarding the inequalities in society and even regarding the government’s attempts to handle some of these inequalities in politically sensitive ways. One cannot just drag examples in willy nilly to force a point across. But what is interesting for me in this article is how it appears after reading the first one. Seen through the lens of public spaces, citizen action and contested narratives, one cannot help but see that Ms. Chua’s little social studies lesson smacks of fear – not of selective solidarity, but of solidarity itself. That which she describes as true solidarity is nothing more than feel-good libertarian brotherhood, which may be nice as a sermon for the rich, but does little to alleviate the worries of those on the lower end of the economic spectrum.

This brings me to the third article – Nirmal Ghosh writes about political battles in Thailand that “have shattered the carefully cultivated homogeneity  and congeniality, exposing treacherous fault lines.” He highlights the economic differences that underlie the division of the citizenry into two factions, and describes the political conflict as being the result of Thailand’s feudal past coming into conflict with its democratic future. I mentioned in my introduction that this piece provided ballast for my argument. To recap, my argument is that public spaces are not simple things, and cannot be spoken about as though they are landing strips that are just inherently there. They are constructed, manipulated, contested and claimed. Mr. Ghosh’s article adds the extra point (perhaps without meaning to) that they are also necessary to tip the balance of power in favour of a citizenry that is eager to chart its own course, however difficult the process may be.

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