Taking Physical Space or Making Cultural Space? Multicultural Peace Depends on Which We Prefer

By Dato’ Dr. Ooi Kee Beng

February 2024 EDITORIAL
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SPACE: The final frontier…

Good slogan. Classic. Melodramatic, evocative. And totally anthropocentric; to be sure, Space is after all 100% of the Universe, minus this negligible and infinitesimally small pebble we call Earth. But the opening line of Star Trek does work though. Suggestive, bold and inspiring, even if silly.

It is a placemaking attempt though. Space: The final frontier. Definitely placemaking writ large. Couldn’t be larger. Pure physical extension.

We can then come closer to home and envision our own galaxy. There is The Milky Way, in the Latin and Slavic languages following the Greek picturing of it as spilled motherʼs milk. The Scandinavians and Vikings know it as “Vintergatan—The Winter Way”; the riverine Chinese call it “The Star River”, or “The Silver River” like the Vietnamese do. Close to home, the Thais call it “The Way of the White Elephant”, revealing their own cultural preference. In the Nusantara, the galaxy is named Bima Sakti, after a character from the Sanskrit epic, Mahabharata.

Clearly, with a culturally comforting phrase, humans gain some sense of control and understanding over things too big to grasp. We can shrink these things into comprehensibility, and we make them accessible and mentally manageable. We freeze them, we make them predictable.

What surprises me, as we reverse in space towards the Earth, is that the solar system does not seem to have had much place-making done to it. The planets stand out in different cultures as significant places and unique characters much more than the whole system as such does. Maybe this is because the Sun is too prominent a feature for the system to be anything other than “The Solar System”.

Now, letʼs come down to Earth. Things begin to get really interesting now. As land creatures, humans have tended to be territorial, especially once they began settling. Whichever the case, fighting for a place on Earth, and the resources and advantages that that space provides patterned much of human history.

This fight naturally gets worse as we run out of physical space, we assume.

But that does not appear to be the whole story. Today, we have cities crowded to the brim where once small towns would have already been deemed overpopulated. A definite piece of land appears malleable as living space over time.

It appears to me that there are spaces not open to sharing, and there are spaces very much geared towards common use. What seems to make the difference are the ideational attitude of the population and the chosen function of the place.

When Hitler managed to sell the idea in the 1930s that Germany was for pure-blooded Germans, the relative multidimensionality of traditional German culture quickly disappeared, and a cleansing began to rid the place of any notional challenge.

The unrelenting fight for Lebensraum—for living space— already ongoing all over the modern world accelerated into world war.

Between Physical Room and Cultural Space

This cultural flattening—and conversely, expansion—are what I find highly interesting as a general observation of societal flexibility. Defensiveness in most forms, be it extreme nationalism or ethnocentrism, or simply economic struggle or a wish for safety for oneʼs family, minimises the willingness to allow for cultural— or acculturating—space.

At one end of the scale, we make places and consider spaces as physical, geographical and mathematical, while at the other end, we imagine spaces to be expandable, multi-tiered and organic—at least when we are not defensive but instead, are curious and confident.

It is possible to think of spaces—of places—as cultural creations rather than physically determined phenomena. Humans, as individuals and as societies, seem to negotiate these two notions of space in order to survive or thrive.

Where and when should I consider a space to be rigid, static and unshareable, and when should I allow novel dynamics to decide “the lay of the land”, as it were?

When am I in a physical, measurable room, and when am I in a dynamic, cultural space? And what if I get it wrong?

To illustrate this serious dimension in how we manage the world, we can, of course, immediately talk about nation states and holy lands, about Nusantara and Tanah Melayu, and such spatial claims; we can also remember how we often feel unwelcomed at a foreign countryʼs border, but once within that country, we can suddenly feel extremely at home and welcome. Spaces can fold their arms in defence, or they open them to embrace… and every stance in between, depending on time and place.

For further clarity, allow me to use two examples from Penang to illustrate the difference in how space is managed, negotiated and perpetuated. We have the Street of Harmony, happily titled to highlight how different races and religions not only inhabited the little port of George Town in the early days, but did so intimately and peacefully.

Along what was called Pitt Street can be found The Goddess of Mercy Temple, the Kapitan Keling Mosque, Sri Mahamariam-man Temple and St. Georgeʼs Church, all within walking distance of each other. There are two dents in this lovely façade of historical harmony, however. Firstly, Pitt Street has, in modern times, been renamed Jalan Masjid Kapitan Keling, and secondly, these places of worship are in themselves not necessarily welcoming of people of other faiths. They are like nation states. However, the street itself—and the hustle and bustle of daily economics that take place there—is much more welcoming, inclusive and embracing of all walks and talks of life. On one side, we have the safe havens and comforting asylums of worship, and running parallel to them all, and connecting them, are spaces and places that are technically accessible to all, even if only as pedestrians.

Perhaps, if we think of Hin Bus Depot, this new creative hub in Penang where all generations, all faiths, all races and all tastes are welcome to partake of the fluidity and spontaneity that culture creation offers, we perceive a good expression of a space that is not merely physical, but expansive and multidimensional.

The two ends have to co-exist, no doubt, and we should not deny that places are what we make them. They can be inclusive and expansive, or they can be exclusive and defensive. The scuffle is in each of our minds, everywhere we go.

Dato’ Dr. Ooi Kee Beng

is the Executive Director of Penang Institute. His recent books include The Eurasian Core and its Edges: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World (ISEAS 2016). Homepage: wikibeng.com