Walking out of the door of a nice little restaurant in Kuala Lumpur is very much like traversing between two worlds. It is a journey from a world of no worry to a world that almost qualifies as a dystopian science fiction.

There are plenty of nice restaurants which are not necessarily posh but are appropriately organized to fit certain appealing themes. It targets the relatively well-off middle class, especially the relatively well-paid young adults. That makes the crowd well-educated and armed with proper etiquette. Not too many speak too loudly over the cell phone, or leave their kids to run around unleashed. Everything accommodates for low-decibel conversations.

Being inside one of these restaurants makes me expect to come out to a grand boulevard of some great cities of the world. Yet the truth is that these restaurants are an oasis in the middle of an ugly suburb sprawl. The walls of the restaurant isolate patrons from the harsh reality of many parts of Kuala Lumpur. Inside, it is just nice. Outside, it is hot, humid, chaotic and dirty.

Sometimes the road barriers put up by the communities in these neighborhoods can remind you that it can be unsafe as well. Then news reports of snatch theft suddenly flash through in your mind. The effect of the blue pill you had as an entrée earlier is now gone after the goodbyes, hugs and kisses. You just had the red pill as dessert and now you instinctively walk faster, hands clutching your bag, all alone and scared for something that might or might not happen.

That reminds me of Robocop’s Detroit. That picture of Detroit is not one of hot and humid but it is still chaotic, dirty and unsafe. It is an almost believable dystopia—minus the cyborg of course—and it almost describes the commercial centers of Damansara, Bangsar, Hartamas, Subang Jaya, Petaling Jaya and who knows where else. It is one that many live in and others frequent.

Drawing parallel between the dystopian Detroit with these commercial centers is an exaggeration. Admittedly, it is a rhetorical device.

Nevertheless, even without the concerns for crime, there is a contrast between public and private spaces.

If money can really buy the good things in life, then surely these neighborhoods can afford and should have a better environment for themselves beyond the restrictive four walls of their homes or some restaurants. The contrast between the world inside and the world outside—between private and public spaces—should not be too great. But it is.

Perhaps this is a reflection of an overly individualistic community in the city. Most of us are so concerned with our small private space that most of us ignore the commons that we share. We jealously maintain our private space against nature but left the public space just beyond our private boundary at the mercy of nature. We use the commons almost daily, so we do care for the commons but none of us have enough incentive to take upon ourselves to make the commons as orderly, clean and safe as our private space.

Although I hold that the individual is the most basic unit of any society, I do find the individualism that I see proliferating in our society as too much for my liking. Besides, seeing a fat rat or two tip-toeing across the pavement in the evening in Bangsar and Damansara does not paint a great picture of a community that enjoys a kind of welfare that is well above the median. I think it is a damning symptom of the excessive individualistic attitude that we have. I think the excessive individualism is adversely affecting the viability of public space.

Individualism can be a force of good. A healthy dose of individualistic culture provides a bulwark to tyranny. It is also a fertile ground for creative thinking among others. A society cannot really progress far with a hive mind that will never challenge the status quo.

That, however, does not negate the fact that there are costs to excessive individualism. One of the costs can be the unviability of the commons.

Thankfully, the setup of our society and institutions are designed partly to address problems arising from individualism. We have our local authority funded by public resources to take care of the commons. The establishment of the local authority is in line with the liberal rationale for the establishment of the state: we establish the state to provide crucial services to us all which we cannot individually provide for ourselves. And the local authority is part of the state.

Yet, there is significant a contrast between private and public space. The private space is well taken care of by private individuals and firms while the commons—the commercial centers of Kuala Lumpur’s suburbs—are a dump.

I take this as a sign that the local authority is not doing its job well. If the viability of the commons is a benchmark to a working local authority, then the local authority is broken.

It is possible that the local authority is failing its job as the janitor of our commons because it is not responsive to the community it is supposed to serve. By that I mean to refer to the fact that most of us already know. Our local authority is unelected and so it is unaccountable to the beneficiaries of the commons, which is us.

The unelected and unaccountable local authority can afford to fail at its jobs without any real repercussions. That the commons are chaotic, dirty and arguably unsafe is linked directly to the unelected and the unaccountable nature of our local authority. The beneficiaries of the commons can complain but the local authority really has no incentive to take it seriously.

If we do care about the stark contrast between private and public space, if we do care for our commons, then we need to make local authority responsive. We need our local election back.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved
First published in The Malaysian Insider on October 11 2012.

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