By Wong Chin Huat
A FRIEND asked on Facebook: "[The Barisan Nasional] (BN) insists [on keeping the Internal Security Act (ISA)]; do you want to keep the BN?"
This question is spot on. It simplifies many issues into a single concern. It almost frames for Malaysians a referendum question — that is, a public vote over a single issue. Do we want to live in a country like this?
Metaphorically, the 1 Aug 2009 pro- and anti-ISA protests were a referendum waiting to be put to the vote. But as it turned out, it isn't just about the ISA anymore. The BN may have disagreed with the call to repeal the ISA, but did it need to make 589 arrests in one day? Did it need to rough up the elderly, women and children? Did it need to fire tear gas on Masjid Jamek as if it were another Gaza? Did it need to spray water cannons on Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman as if it were Bangkok during the Songkran festival?
Violence is exactly what 1 Aug was about, and it's what tens of thousands of us who were fired at with water cannons and tear gas in central Kuala Lumpur will remember, whether we were there to demonstrate or to shop.
Like 7 May, the day democracy was brutally raped in Perak and Malaysia, and 16 July, the day Teoh Beng Hock was found dead after 11 hours of interrogation by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, 1 Aug has become a day to determine the nature of civility. Never mind that the anti-ISA rally was less organised and successful than the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih)'s rally on 10 Nov 2007.
In every country, people quarrel over politics. In every marriage, partners argue. But in most nations today, political violence, like domestic violence, is no longer tolerated. You quarrel, but you don't beat people up. It's called being civilised.
Thus, the referendum on 1 Aug is really about our nationhood. Is Malaysia a civilised or barbaric nation?