Water cannon being used during the 1 Aug anti-ISA rally (Pic courtesy of Merdeka Review)
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?
We can always agree to disagree on laws and policies, but we cannot agree to disagree on the use of violence.
Water cannon being used during the Songkran festival (Pic by Takeaway; Wiki commons)
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?
It’s not just about whether to keep the BN in power, for in the Pakatan Rakyat, too, are Members of Parliament who have threatened violence to terrorise a civilised forum. It’s about whether the government is given unchecked powers to terrorise the population, whether by torturous interrogation, deaths in custody, extra-judicial killing, selective prosecution, water cannons and tear gas, roadblocks, or the threat of riots.
Public rallies are but a form of political advertisement. Malaysians have read and heard enough about 1Malaysia in the traditional media. Why does Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak still spend our money to popularise his political slogan? Should his advertising agents be beaten up and put behind bars for repeating a message that may be pointless to many?
Apply this logic to the protesters on 1 Aug — why were ordinary Malaysians assaulted and locked up simply because they chose to repeat a message that the government sees as pointless?
Empirically, there were 2Malaysias on the streets of KL on 1 Aug. There was the official 1Malaysia of violence, of 1,805 custodial deaths since 2003, and of 589 arrests in a single day. Then there was the unofficial 1BLACK-and-REDMalaysia, fighting against detention without trial, deaths in custody, and other forms of violence.
These are separate nations, both related by blood. That’s why Najib’s 1Malaysia army charged into the Abolish ISA Movement (GMI)’s 1BLACK-and-REDMalaysia.
Never mind that Najib has promised us interethnic equality, or that he would do away with institutional racism. The fact is, institutional sadism is here to stay. The Inspector-General of Police has defended his force’s brutality as its standard operating procedure.
What good is ethnic equality if it means that regardless of ethnic, religious, linguistic, cultural or other differences, Malaysians now share the equal opportunity to be beaten up by the police? To be shot at with tear gas when we shop in the wrong place, or to be found dead after interrogation or in custody?
Tear gas used to disperse the crowd (Pic courtesy of Merdeka Review)
I don’t have any confidence that Najib can bring any real reform because his 1Malaysia is very much built on Malaysia 1.0, the electoral one-party state secured by electoral manipulation and state-sponsored violence. Can the country have real progress and true stability when its guarantors are manipulation and violence?
Two types of liberation
A few days before 1 Aug, a non-Malaysian friend told me that Malaysia has become much messier since 8 March 2008, and the political turmoil has hurt Malaysia’s tourism. He lamented the loss of the peaceful and harmonious nation Malaysia once was. I am sure this young Middle-Easterner would be even less impressed after reading the post-1 Aug coverage, especially in the government-linked media.
I, on the other hand, can only admire those brave Malaysians on 1 Aug, as well as those in the Hindraf rally on 25 Nov 2007, who defied tear gas and water cannons to reclaim their right to peaceful assembly and political participation.
They remind us that there are two types of national liberation struggles. The first is nationalist, which aims to replace foreign rulers with domestic ones. But the people often remain enslaved, as is evident in many post-colonial Asian and African states. The second is democratic, aiming to overthrow or phase out colonial rulers not because of ethnic, religious, linguistic or cultural differences, but because the colonial government is unrepresentative and undemocratic by nature. Countries that have seen success in this type of liberation struggle — from the United States of America to Austria to Canada — are free nations.
Malaysia 1.0 was built on the ousting of foreign, colonial rulers, but it was not about real emancipation of citizens. That’s why we are still enslaved by state violence. Our independence is in fact unfinished business. But in the midst of the tear gas fired on 1 Aug, I saw the founding leaders of Malaysia 2.0 marching on.
A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat uses the Federal Constitution as his “bible” to fend off the increasingly intolerable evil called “state”. On 1 Aug, he believes he saw King George III‘s redcoat army terrorising the streets of Kuala Lumpur.