Securing Public Space in the post-imperial age

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 O oman 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 indepen- dence—by definition, from imperial control. These ranged from countries such as Finland, Poland and Yugoslavia to Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. The badly defeated O oman Empire officially ended only in 1923, and in its stead arose as many as 30 countries. This process of imperial disintegration accele- rated a er 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 O oman 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 socie- ties 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, li emergency declarations and end the requirement for annual printing licences are guarded a empts to lessen the tension. 

The big challenge now is whether the country—and many other countries for that ma er— can gather enough courage to switch from existentialistic nation building mode to confident adulthood mode. The political ba les 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.

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