KL events hold lessons for S'pore

Low Yat Plaza after the brawl on July 12, 2015.
Low Yat Plaza after the brawl on July 12, 2015. PHOTO: CHINA PRESS

The riot at Low Yat Plaza last weekend would not have escalated with the pace and ferocity it did, were it not for the speed with which rumours spread through social media.

Footage of the fight, taken shakily with a myriad of smartphones belonging to spectators, spread like wildfire, reaching millions of viewers in a matter of days.

The videos, which showed a large number of Chinese vendors chasing away a much smaller group of Malay customers after the altercation, prompted many responses, some of which took on racially charged overtones.

The hashtag #LowYat started trending immediately on social media site Twitter for users within Malaysia. Many called for calm. "It's an issue between buyer and seller, not between two races!" read one tweet.

But there were also those who took the opportunity to seemingly further their agendas.

A prominent blogger allegedly claimed a badly injured man was a victim of the July 11 attack. But the man depicted was hurt during a robbery in another state.

The blogger, Wan Mohd Azri Wan Deris, also known as Papagomo, took down the tweet shortly after his claim was debunked, but the damage had been done - less savvy users had taken the information as fact.

More videos began to surface as mobs gathered outside the mall last Sunday. In one clip, a military veteran called for Malays to "unite, and attack the... Chinese who are rude". Such videos, posted on Facebook and forums, drew hundreds of responses, online and on the ground.

The riot, which broke out last Sunday, left several people injured and caused thousands of dollars worth of damage.

On Monday, popular forum started removing all threads relating to the incident because of "rumour mongering".

Police and politicians alike have since taken issue with the spread of false information via social media, which they blame squarely for the incident, and have gone as far as to call for reform. "We need to review and look at the freedom of social media. Most of the time, 20 per cent is the truth and 80 per cent are lies," one government minister reportedly said.

The events unfolding in Malaysia hold lessons for Singapore. The Republic boasts the highest smartphone penetration rate globally, and its citizens are among the most active on social media.

Every day, netizens latch on to new photographs and videos, which go viral. Every now and then, the content focuses on the inter-racial relationships in a multicultural society.

This may be an opportune time to note that while Singapore lives in relative harmony now, this was not always the case.The Maria Hertogh riots in 1950 and the 1964 race riots left dozens dead and hundreds more injured.

In an era of instant information, where the lines between fact and fiction can sometimes be blurred, Singapore would do well not to take the peace its races enjoy for granted.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 19, 2015, with the headline 'KL events hold lessons for S'pore'. Print Edition | Subscribe