22 December 2005

Wednesday December 14, 2005
Closing the gap

A young boy gets slashed in the stomach and dies. Another young man gets beaten unconscious and needs a blood clot removed from his brain. All of a sudden, parents have even more to worry about than usual.
Life in Kuala Lumpur is violent as it is. Every day we read about bag snatchings, robberies, assaults, rapes and murders, all within the few square miles that make up this metropolis many of us call home. For the most part, we hope that the police do something about it. But these two recent incidents are causing a lot of talk among parents.
Let me correct that, they’re causing a lot of talk among middle-class parents who are wondering how safe is it to let our kids out clubbing at night. Before, it was unsafe enough and to be called up in the middle of the night to go to a police station to rescue them after some club raid was a very real possibility. But at least they were not going to be hurt. But now the likelihood that it is actually dangerous out there is a chilling thought.
We need to look carefully at why these two incidents happened. In both cases, these young men were escorting young women. This is exactly what we tell our daughters to do – never walk the streets alone at night. And no doubt parents of sons also tell them to ensure that their girlfriends and sisters are always safe when they are out.
In both cases, they encountered other young men who, perhaps emboldened by their numbers, decided to demand attention from the young women. To which, being the gentlemen they have been brought up to be, their escorts reacted – with disastrous consequences. So what do we tell our sons to do in these circumstances? Don’t escort your female friends? Make sure you have other male friends with you? Always be armed and ready to fight?
This will only cause the violence to escalate. Instead perhaps we should take a close hard look at the Kuala Lumpur social milieu and identify where the potential triggers for violence are.
I think that these incidents are ultimately rooted in the social inequality that is rampant in Kuala Lumpur. The wealthy educated young, those with the bright futures, are increasingly living side by side with the ones who feel there isn’t much hope at all. Kids spill out of clubs in their designer clothes, speaking their MTV-accented English straight into the turf of the Mat Rempits hanging out at mamak stalls in their tatty jeans and slippers. Our Mat Rempits aren’t all that poor, at least not on a global scale, but they do feel left out of things because they cannot afford to have the clothes, cars and girls that their wealthier counterparts can. Unsurprisingly resentment builds up.
Resentment, however, isn’t an excuse for slashing or beating up somebody. Nobody deserves that. But if we understand that underneath it all, there is an underclass that is seething with frustration because they cannot attain even half of the things they see others having, then perhaps we can take measures to at least diffuse these tensions.
Malaysia makes much of promoting harmony among the different ethnic groups. But we should also think of promoting harmony among the different classes of people. That can only be done by actually trying to remove the barriers between the classes, by promoting equality and greater opportunity for those who don’t feel they have any.
Violence in society is just symptomatic of some deeper trouble. People don’t steal from others if they feel that they all have the same amount of wealth. The yakuza notwithstanding, look at Japan where everyone feels they are middle-class and where street crimes are rare. People don’t slash someone and then coolly walk into a convenience store to buy cigarettes, unless they have no empathy at all for their victim.
In the short term, we need to educate young people to be more alert and conscious of their surroundings and be more sensitive to people around them. Roaring up in expensive cars to eating places is bound to elicit negative remarks. Looking condescendingly at those who don’t have as much is going to stir resentment. We need to teach our more privileged kids to respect others as equals.
At the same time, we need to find ways to ensure better opportunities for those who feel left behind. We need to give people hope that they too can enjoy life but in a legitimate way. The desire to be materially equal to others is also what leads to people taking shortcuts to wealth, including corruption, get-rich-quick schemes and drug trafficking. We need to emphasise that wealth and achievement comes through hard work, not luck and connections.
If these violent expressions of frustration can be reduced through religious education, then let’s have religious education that teaches young people to value other people’s lives and how to deal with conflict, not just about how they should dress and what sex lives they should not have.
It’s not easy; social transformation never is. But unless we are resigned to live in an unsafe environment, we’d better take a good, hard look at our society and take action.