Francis Loh discusses reclaiming public spaces, consolidating the autonomous public sphere and promoting new politics.
Dateline: 19 Sept 2015. It’s Park(ing) Day. What’s that?!
Park(ing) Day began in San Francisco in 2005 when an Art and Design Studio converted a single metered parking lot into a temporary ‘pop-up public park’. Since then, it has evolved into a global movement now held in over 100 cities, aimed at promoting public discussion about how our urban space is used and allocated.
As far as we know, George Town is the first city in Malaysia to celebrate Park(ing) Day.
What this means is, 44 teams of Penangites were involved in creating mini pop-up public parks on 50 parking lots scattered around the heritage zone. From 7am to 7pm, a small percentage of the 2,886 on-street parking spaces in the inner city, each measuring 144 sq ft, hence totalling some 10 acres of the city, were reclaimed and converted from parking lots into mini public parks!
Look at some of the results!
One of the lots in Love Lane was converted into a lovely garden with a pond!
Argus Lane had a garden with a pergola with overhanging creepers. One could sit below it, have a cuppa, relax, and perhaps read a book. Or watch the people and traffic go by.
And at the junction of Chulia Lane and Chulia Street, an overturned car, the universal symbol of Park(ing) Day, was decorated with flowers and plants, as though it was a massive flower pot.
and after …
Elsewhere, a fitness class, a still-life art session and a wood-working demonstration were held in the pop-up parks during the morning, when it was not so hot.
Congratulations to the Majlis Bandaran Pulau Pinang (MBPP) and to the Penang Institute (PI), specifically Stuart MacDonald, a PI Fellow and head of its Urban Studies Unit, for this refreshing initiative.
Yes, by nightfall, the pop-up parks had to be dismantled and the parking lots restored, to be filled the next morning and for the remaining days of the year by…a car!
But, no! 10 acres of the city do not need to be reserved for cars and other vehicles. Park(ing) Day shows that it can be turned greener.
Are Penangites interested to reclaim their inner city? Obviously they must rely on public transport, leave their cars at home, cycle, or walk more if they want to have more green in the inner city.
Indeed, why should there be so much built-up areas, not to mention the high-rise buildings, in the city? Ready for the debate? And the campaign to make the city greener not just for one day, but for real, throughout the year? No doubt, the clever little effort to green George Town instantaneously with pop-up parks has spurred discussion of longer-term plans.
At a different level, and on a much larger scale, Bersih 4 was also about the rakyat reclaiming the public space. On the one hand the hundreds of thousands marching down the main roads leading to Dataran Merdeka displaced the usual heavy traffic which characteristically zooms past and pushes aside the rakyat, especially the pedestrians.
More importantly, Bersih 4 was about reclaiming our right to assemble peacefully; to associate with one another as we wish, regardless of ethnic or religious background, age, gender – from all over the country; and to express ourselves by wearing yellow T-shirts, chanting and singing our criticisms of leaders who have misruled and abused their powers, and via social media if one was IT-savvy.
On this occasion, Bersih 4 was calling upon the BN government to address five pressing issues: free and fair elections, rescuing the economy, strengthening parliamentary democracy, upholding clean government, and recognising the rakyat’s right to dissent, all five demands, fundamental aspects of any democracy worth its name.
Put another way, the essence of the demands of Bersih 4 was for the expansion and consolidation of the so-called ‘autonomous public space’, which by definition is the space that is neither controlled by the state nor by big business, but by Us. It should be stressed that the rally occurred peacefully contrary to the warnings of the police that chaos and mayhem would occur. (On this see P Ramakrishnan’s statement.
Yes, over the years and decades, that autonomous space had shrunk as a result of coercive and restrictive laws viz. the ISA, the Official Secrets Act, the Printing Presses and Publications Act, the Universities and University Colleges Act, the Trade Unions Act, the Sedition Act, the Police Act, the Penal Code, and more recently Sosma. (On the use of these laws to arrest and silence critics, see Aliran’s Crackdown Watch. On the recent arrest of former Umno leader Khairuddin Abu Hassan under Sosma, see Hakam’s statement.)
The growing strength of big business as it buys up the mass media, introduces anti-worker rules in work places, erects security fences disallowing ordinary people from entering so-called private property has further hastened the shrinking process.
Fortunately, for the past decade at least, some of those restrictions have been challenged, even rolled back. This is largely due to the consolidation of an educated multi-ethnic middle-class, nowadays globally connected via the internet, and hence able to access alternative sources of information. They, in turn, use the internet and social media to disseminate their own critical voices.
A large proportion of the people who marched during Bersih 4 on 29-30 August 2015 share such a socio-economic background. Thanks to them, that autonomous public space has expanded in size.
Nowadays, the powers that be, including Umno, do not have hegemony over the minds of most Malaysians, as they used to. The New Politics which calls for rule of Law and checks and balances, accountability, transparency and good governance has been challenging and clashing with the Old Politics anchored in ethnic politics, in money politics and cronyism, and in coercive laws such as the OSA, the PPPA, and the Sedition Act.
This brings us to the Red Shirts. Yes, they also took control of the streets and then claimed Padang Merbok on 16 September 2015. The demands of the Red Shirts, however, were laced with hatred for non-Malays. And their expressions of blind support for leaders even when they had betrayed the rakyat’s interests were simply sycophantic, completely uncritical, and caught in a time warp of Old Politics based on race, race and more race.
Unlike the Yellow Shirts’, the Red Shirts’ re-claiming of the streets was not oriented towards expanding the proverbial autonomous public sphere. How could they? They spewed venom and hatred, threatened violence, and were very exclusive. The numerous video clips of them were rather intimidating, even scary!
Not once on 16 September did the Red Shirts call for democracy or for good governance, for corrupt leaders to come clean, or for reforms to any of our institutions. (Look at the statement by Zaharom Nain and this statement by Bersih 2.0.)
Amanah and fragmentation
It is significant that Parti Amanah Negara, a breakaway party from Parti Islam SeMalaysia (Pas) was launched on 16 September 2015, on the same day that the Red Shirts were trying to turn the clock back towards Old Politics.
In fact, an important aspect of this New Politics is the fragmentation of the old-style ethnic politics. Just as about 15 years earlier, Umno had been divided down the middle with the sacking of Anwar Ibrahim as deputy prime minister and deputy Umno chief, leading to Reformasi and the formation of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (earlier, Parti Keadilan Nasional), now, Pas was breaking up too (and not for the first time incidentally).
Over 10 elected MPs and Aduns have left Pas, which they have found to be increasingly steeped in narrow and exclusivist Malay-Muslim Old Politics, to form a more inclusive and progressive Amanah; in their words promoting a more ‘compassionate Islam’ not a ‘compelling Islam’.
Put another way, New Politics is certainly about the rakyat reclaiming and consolidating the autonomous public sphere. They can come together in small groups as in the localised low-key Park(ing) Day event, or in larger numbers as in the massive 34-hour long Bersih 4 rally, that was reported in the global media. Little or big, both events essentially occurred outside of the formal electoral process and political parties.
But New Politics is also about transforming the formal electoral process and the political parties too. Indeed, it is not only Umno and now Pas that have witnessed break-ups. In earlier decades, the Chinese, Indian, Dayak and Kadazandusun communities had been subjected to intra-party factionalism and splits too.
Many parties, in and out of government, have variously claimed the support of these communities. Some do, some don’t. The point is, ‘fragmentation’ of the ethnic communities has taken place. For no one party can command a hegemony over any ethnic community any more.
Such political reconfigurations have allowed for two different coalitions to emerge – the Barisan Nasional versus the Pakatan Rakyat, now renamed Pakatan Harapan. Accordingly, voting during elections, has led to new results too – for although the BN continues to win at the parliamentary level, they no longer command the two-thirds majority that they crave. Moreover, the PR has defeated the BN in several states in the past three general elections.
My point is that we are in the midst of a changing political scenario. New local initiatives, massive-style Bersih 4 rallies, the break-up of Pas, and the formation of Pakatan Harapan are all part of the New Politics.
But be cautious. The journey forward is not all smooth. For the Old Politics, though on the wane, is being fanned by the Umno diehards, their Red Shirts, the media empire that they still control, Perkasa, Perkida and Isma supporters, not to forget the Ummi Hafilda types too.
More than ever before, our institutions – the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the SPR, the police and armed forces, the MACC, etc – must prove their neutrality and commitment to the 1957 Constitution. And one also hopes that the rump Pas will opt for New rather than Old Politics.