By Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz. First published in The Malay Mail on 17 July 2015.
I used to frequent Low Yat Plaza quite regularly during the school holidays to obtain computer software and hardware for friends in England, before the days when fast downloads and Internet shopping eliminated our competitive advantage. On numerous occasions I would enter a shop and be spoken to in Chinese, which I found amusing, until I realised that the ability to speak the language was probably linked to getting better prices. I found that less amusing, and had to be persuaded that discrimination based on language proficiency is not necessarily a cover for racism.
An alternative to getting a discount is simply to steal, and last week one youth’s theft of a mobile phone threw the city centre, and subsequently online Malaysia, into a frenzy. I have watched the videos and read the testimonials, and the level of violence – electronics being smashed, a car being battered, passers-by pummelled by motorcycle helmets – is flabbergasting. The sequence of events seems clear enough: the suspected thief’s accomplice (who for whatever reason was quickly released by police) concocted lies that were subsequently spread and attracted an audience who were sufficiently enraged by them. (In this connection, one interpretation specifically targets social media and calls for its muzzling, but one can’t help but detect an ulterior motive in that idea.)
But why did so many people respond to those stories? How come so many people were inflamed to the point of destroying property and attacking strangers? Who were the instigators, and why did they justify their actions with reference to a racial identity?
Many observers have tried to explain the underlying motives of these individuals – socioeconomic status, educational background, job opportunities, geography and demography – but the role of racialised political institutions has received particular attention. As per Malaysian politics 101: because our political parties are defined (internally or externally) by race, they seek to win votes by appearing to protect or advance racial interests (or prevent potential voters from supporting other parties through scaremongering). The race argument provides superb cover for cronyism and corruption, and this leads to the degradation of national institutions as well as the proliferation of sycophantic individuals and organisations who offer services and profess loyalty in the hope of accessing some of the bounty. In exchange, in times of political difficulty, such groups enjoy tacit support from political parties.
That many people think this is an acceptable situation is a hurdle in itself. But even for those who see it as a destructive force, reform is a monumental task because (apart from the priorities of daily life) so many stakeholders are locked into patron-client relationships woven by the promises of favours and contracts or the threats of sabotage and blackmail. It is in such an environment that citizens – especially those projecting bleak prospects for themselves – can be persuaded to justify abhorrent acts of violence in the name of protecting one’s supposedly beleaguered race; even to shout the takbir (“Allahu Akbar”) before forming a trail of destruction. In such a mob the deeds and misdeeds of individuals become irrelevant, and normal standards of morality or compassion disappear; the only thing that matters is defending the so-called honour of the group.
Thankfully our justice system was designed to hold individuals, not groups, accountable for their actions. And in this case, apart from a slow initial reaction, the approach of the police has been praised, especially the unequivocal statement that this was about theft, not race (though I am not enthusiastic about the use of the Sedition Act since there are other laws that can be used).
As I write this, peace has returned to Low Yat and the police are confident of closing the case, but some people are sceptical about this whole event, believing a theory that it was staged to shift news away from 1MDB. If so it would be a futile effort, as the upcoming open houses will be hotbeds of political discussion anyway. Furthermore, the moral message resonates widely: for if a thief is a thief regardless of their race (or indeed, any other type of group identity), then it is also true that a thief is a thief regardless of their profession and their proximity to power. The rioters might not understand this logic, but there might yet be hope that the special task force, police and the courts do.
During Aidilfitri, Muslims are also reminded of their individual responsibility: to God, from whom we always seek repentance, but also to family and friends, from whom we ask forgiveness, prompting voluntary exchanges of compassion, humility and love. I pray the rioters hear a beautiful takbir this morning, and are moved to better understand its true language.
Tunku Abidin Muhriz wishes everyone Selamat Hari Raya Aidilfitri.
Tunku Abidin Muhriz is the Founding President of IDEAS