Learning to share public space

In the wake of the disturbance caused by Central Provident Fund rally protesters at Hong Lim Park, outraged citizens have urged the authorities to bar multiple gatherings and all "social or family-oriented" events from being held there when there is risk of a clash. Whether or not special needs children were heckled, the protesters' overall conduct was so egregiously bad that few would think the public censure that followed was overdone. However, the corrective measures that have been suggested warrant deeper reflection as they invoke larger considerations.

An argument for "Speakers' Corner" to be reserved for just speakers and protesters would ironically make a public space with a long history less public by progressively limiting its uses by fiat. Bequeathed to all by a philanthropist, it is a space that all should be free to use, in the spirit of greater inclusion, access and participation. This would create room, too, for the expression of alternative ideas and the projection of non-mainstream movements.

Yet when taken to its natural conclusion, any public space so conceived could become an arena of conflict when all choose to act as they see fit, with scant regard for others. The incident at Hong Lim Park last weekend, as an instance of a descent to the lowest common denominator, highlights the need for agreement on how and who should set certain limits to and resolve the dilemmas of the shared use of a public space.

Public order and safety, of course, are always overriding concerns whether a park is made available for gatherings or a street is pedestrianised. There is no question that some rules will have to be drawn up for these purposes and enforced fairly so one person's or group's use is not to the detriment of others.

Beyond these rules are social norms of sharing public spaces that should be made more explicit and not be taken lightly. Mutual respect and reciprocity are paramount if citizens are to avoid the brutish interactions that can follow when social callousness goes unchecked in such spaces. It is not asking too much to expect unvarying civility whether airing strong views or promoting a deeply-held cause. In sum, there are roles the law, the community and the individual must all play to safeguard the appealing characteristics of a shared commons.

A parallel dilemma in cyberspace has proven to be stubbornly vexing given the difficulties of effectively curbing hacking, flaming, trolling, rumour-mongering, harassing and bullying via the Internet. In both cases, those using these shared public commons must learn that they have a duty to protect the space for all, if everyone is to continue to enjoy access to it.