Art As Res Publicae: A Word on Uncommon Spaces

Alfian Sa'at

June 23, 2017

Image courtesy of Angelo Macapinlac Easy Resize.com

Image courtesy of Angelo Macapinlac

In Singapore, we are used to the discourse on common spaces. This discourse probably intensified in the wake of what has been called the ‘Tudung Incident’ in the year 2002. In January that year, four Muslim primary schoolgirls went to school wearing the tudung, or Muslim headscarf. The reaction from the state was swift and firm: The girls were barred from entering the school, and government statements were issued which emphasised the importance of maintaining what was referred to as a shared ‘common space’. 

This ‘common space’ is practically a secular space, though there is some hesitation in calling it that. This is probably because the state recognises that various forms of religious practice cannot be completely erased from public space. This includes the placing of altars under trees, the burning of joss paper by the roadside, the use of roads for foot processions and the release of animals into waterways. Furthermore, there is often confusion between a secularist space, which involves the absence of religion, and the kind of secular space where the state recognises the freedom of religion yet maintains a neutrality towards, or an equidistance from, each particular religion. 

Furthermore, the term ‘common space’ also needs to capture the realities of living in not only a multifaith but a multicultural or multiethnic society. In a speech delivered in December 2013, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong described what he saw as particular demands from each ethnic community. According to him: “The Chinese community wants more Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools where Mandarin is the first language and more public signs and train announcements in Mandarin. The Malay community wants women to be allowed to wear the hijab with uniforms, and more government help for madrasahs. The Indian community wants the wider use of Tamil in public signs like at the airport, and support and status for other Indian languages besides Tamil.”

It is worth noting that many of these demands do not, in effect, result in policies that disenfranchise other communities. Incorporating the hijab, or headscarf, into uniforms does not impinge on the rights of other women, both non-Muslim as well as Muslim, not to wear it. Also, it is possible to have public signs that are written in both Mandarin and Tamil (as well as Malay); many countries already feature multiple languages on various signboards. 

But this kind of formulation is strategic: it positions the state as an arbiter of what is framed as competing demands. But it is the state that demands various degrees of cultural effacement and neutralisation by each community before they are deemed eligible to participate in a ‘common space’. There is something deeply infantilising about this discourse, as if the different communities are somehow unable to be mindful of the sensitivities of others when they request certain provisions. 

Invoked time and again in speeches and interviews, the idea of this ‘common space’ has become dogma. Because of its utility, it has also become a useful rhetorical tool that can be employed in arguments against diversity. For instead of celebrating diversity, the ‘common space’ insists on conformity to certain social norms, and one would argue even assimilation into a dominant culture. It is our tendency to speak of the English language, or Western modes of dressing, as cultural practices that ‘belong to no particular community’ that makes us overlook how they are manifestations of a particular kind of Anglophone, Western-oriented, capitalist hegemony. 

The ‘common space’, that guarantor of both ‘racial harmony’ and ‘national security’, is therefore not a space for the negotiation of difference, but for the disciplining of difference. And thus, for the sake of a more progressive politics, I would like to propose a counter-theory: that of the ‘uncommon space’. If the ‘common space’ is one where social norms are observed, the ‘uncommon space’ is one where these norms are suspended. These are spaces of exceptionalism, open to the public but which operate with their own ‘closed door’ system of rules. 

It is important to emphasise, however, that the law of the land still applies to these spaces. What they are exempted from are the kinds of behaviours – mutual surveillance, the outward expression of taking offence, such as heckling on-site or complaints off-site, intervention and obstruction by dissenting persons – that regulate what is often termed ‘public morality’. There are already forms of uncommon spaces in society; they include the church, the theatre, the brothel, the gallery, the mosque, the discotheque, the temple, the prison, the beach music festival, the army barracks, the bathhouse, the courthouse. 

In some of these spaces, public morality is over-regulated; in others, it is under-regulated. The most important thing to note is that the uncommon spaces I have listed do not often overlap. But their existence is crucial, especially the ones which are under-regulated. It is this margin of freedom which allows us to have extra-daily encounters, often with those who are radically different from us. And through their otherness, we will find our own values challenged, our consciences troubled, our thresholds tested. 

Our common spaces must be nurtured, but our uncommon spaces must also be protected. Instead of always thinking of how the public should be protected from certain ideas or images, perhaps it is time to look at how we can protect these uncommon spaces from the public, or rather from certain vested interests – be they authoritarian, theocratic or reactionary – that act under the guise of the public.

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  • 2017