Why the political and media persecution of the Mat Rempits is based on improper reporting and the first step to tackling them in a sustainable and sensible manner.

If the criminal flavour of the year 2005 was snatch thefts, then 2006 is the year of the Mat Rempits. Hardly a week passes that we are forced to read some report or other about the irredeemable menace of the Mat Rempits. In The Star (Page N4, 3rd Column) today, Sultan Ahmad Shah of Pahang was reported to have ‘recently had an unforgettable close encounter with this menace of society.’ And just what did these menacing chaps do to him? His Majesty’s complaint was reported to be, “It was really a close shave as both motorcycles had no lights on. I had to drive my vehicle on to the road shoulder to avoid them.” That’s all the report said. There was no report as to whether the motorcycles were racing or doing stunts at the time.

There are few points I would like to make about this sorry excuse of a news report. First, this news report is generous with assumptions but stingy on facts. All that happened was that there were two motorcycles that were driving around without their lights on at the time and the Sultan of Pahang had to avoid them. What was it that made the Sultan of Pahang think that the men on motorcycles were Mat Rempits? Nothing. Just because somebody rides a motorcycle carelessly or negligently does not necessarily make them a Mat Rempit. By definition, a Mat Rempit is an illegal racer that conducts their racing on public roads or a motorcyclist that does dangerous stunts on his motorcycle. An uninformed guess does not turn into a fact simply because the Sultan thinks so.

What is also clear from the report is that the Sultan does not know of what it is like to be actually driving on the road. If his Majesty did then he would know that a lot of these motorcyclists, Mat Rempit or not, tend to not only drive without their lights on, but also on the wrong side of the road, run red lights and pile their entire family on to their little motorcycles. If his Majesty did most of the driving himself, he would also encounter motorcyclists hogging the fast high way lanes, swerving in and out of traffic, breaking the speed limits, clipping his side view mirrors, denting and scratching his vehicle as they weave their way to the front of traffic and their general utter disrespect to everybody else on the road. In sum, his Majesty would have realized that those two men he narrowly avoided are no different than the majority of the motorcyclists in Malaysia and that they are the true menaces on the road, not the Mat Rempits.

These common motorcyclists tend to think that traffic laws do not apply to them and that for some reason they are entitled no matter what to be able to weave their way between cars and perch themselves at the head of the traffic. They do not pay tolls yet think that they have the right to take up an entire lane to themselves. And the traffic policemen do nothing about them except for the occasional roadblocks when they are broke or need to make the statistics by holding road blocks to catch illegal modifications done to their motorcycles, expired road taxes or driving licenses. Politicians will not want to deal with the problem because since a majority of their potential voters probably ride motorcycles to crackdown on them would be political suicide.

What I find insidious is this trend in the media to categorize every crime on a motorcycle or done by motorcyclists as the work of Mat Rempits. Just not long ago, I come across a news report about how a woman was robbed by 7 men on motorcycles. The newspaper headed the news report as ‘Mat Rempit robbery’ or something to that effect. Again there was nothing in the news report or from its quotation of the victim about what made them think it was carried out by Mat Rempits. That these mainstream newspapers are so careless in their use of the term is negligent if unintentional and downright fraudulent if otherwise.

Attributing fictitious crimes to a marginalized and economically deficient part of the community will only heighten their incense and frustration. They have already been hounded, hung up and demonized by the politicians, media and now even royalty on a daily basis. They are already in the much lower income groups and suffer frustration from a career, political and monetary point of view. Flashpoints of violence have already erupted as a result of this continued media persecution; on 17 October 2006, in Bukit Mertajam, some Mat Rempits threw rocks at the district police station there. Because of this social claustrophobia these Mat Rempits are only able to feel free and express their creativity and themselves with the motorcycles, for that is the only thing they are able to take control of.

Taking a hardline approach to a segment of society already disadvantaged in terms of education, finance, opportunities and being easy prey for corrupt policemen is not a sustainable or sensible. Not only would it result in the Mat Rempits banding closer together to fight their common enemy but it would lead to an escalation of violence between the two groups. The Mat Rempits would not back down because, what is also often left unsaid in the media is that, most, if not all, the Mat Rempits are Malay youths. Being Malay they have also inherited the notion of having a right to wealth and opportunities that their richer politically connected counterparts constantly spew in the media. However, as they are deprived of both through systematic corruption and place no more hope on it, they have unconsciously transferred that right towards freedom to do as they like with what little they have.

So what is to be done with them? I am surprised that nobody has turned to our beloved Prime Minister for advice. After all, he is only too good at giving them daily in the newspapers. I would have thought that everybody would be quick to quote his ‘solution’ on terrorism – look for root causes. As an aside, I find it funny that the Prime Minister can turn up at forum after forum telling everybody to look at the root causes of terrorism as if it were some kind of brilliant revelation he conceived and yet coming up with nothing of his own. And that is what the Royal Malaysian Police Force, Education Service Commission, Ministry of Transport, Ministry of Youth and Sports, and Ministry of Education should be doing – studying the problem collectively and coming up with sensible, sustainable long term solutions instead of media vilification and half baked ideas from quarter baked politicians and civil servants. But I am sure that they will not do that for they will find that once their research is complete, the finger of blame would be pointed quite resolutely in their direction.

Fahri Azzat practices the dark arts of the law. Although he enjoys writing and reading, he doesn't enjoy writing his own little biographies of himself. Like this one. He wished somebody else would do it...