On moral panic, civility and the public square

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It is time for us to reclaim the ‘public square’ as a forum for responsible and civil discussion on crucial issues rather than allowing certain quarters to use it in a way that is detrimental to the nation, writes Christopher Chong.

Independence Square in KL - Photo credit: Wikipedia

One of the vital spaces that is important for any democratic society is the public square. This space (physical, print, broadcast or virtual) is important because it allows people to freely gather to discuss and identify societal problems so that such discussions will lead to political action for the good of society.

Unfortunately, it seems that Malaysians in general do not understand the function of the public square. More often than not, this space has been used by some quarters to propagate irresponsible and uncivil statements that seek to spark moral panic by claiming that the religious and racial values of one’s community are being threatened by the other.

For example, the recent Valentine’s Day farce is a typical example of the many derogatory (if not idiotic) statements that are floating in the nation’s public square. Certain quarters claimed that celebrating the day would only lead to immoral activities. What is more irresponsible was the claim that this celebration was being perpetuated by Christians who are immoral and would be a cause of moral decay in Malaysian society.

Worryingly, this trend reflects the poor health of our nation’s body politic. Rather than focusing on important issues such as the marginalisation of the poor from public goods and the rising suicide rate, we have allowed ourselves to be inundated by irresponsible and uncivil statements in the name of race and religion. Such statements only work to divide us on trivial issues rather than forging a common consensus to resolve pressing public concerns.

It is time for all of us to reclaim the public square as a forum for responsible and civil discussion on the social and political malaise that we are facing rather than allowing certain quarters to use it in a way that is detrimental to the nation.

Christopher Chong works in a private university.

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