What does it mean when we have had two similar episodes of violence and intimidation this year that targeted employees of cellphone shops in Kuala Lumpur malls?
Each case involves allegations of wrongdoings by the retailers, indignant calls to boycott and act against them, and a bunch of men turning up at the shopping centre looking for trouble and indeed finding it.
And here is an unsavoury and dangerous element that both episodes shared – the less-than-subtle racial theme of Chinese traders victimising Malay consumers.
In July, Low Yat Plaza was the scene of a brawl, which the police said was in retaliation against shop employees catching a smartphone thief.
Still, there was a lot of careless talk in cyberspace about cellphone shops treating customers badly and the racial tension mounted. There was rioting near Low Yat Plaza and several people were hurt.
An unemployed youth was later charged with stealing a handphone at the mall, while three smartphone salesmen were fined for assaulting him.
Ex-soldier Mohd Ali Baharom, better known as Ali Tinju, was brought to court for sedition and accused of making inflammatory remarks in his speech before the riot in front of Low Yat Plaza. However, the charge was withdrawn in September following a review of evidence and witness statements.
The second incident happened days ago at the Kota Raya shopping complex, and Ali Tinju was in the picture as well. Who can blame us for having that sinking feeling again?
On Friday, Ali Tinju led a group of red shirts to protest against an alleged incident in which traders detained a customer in a room for four hours because the customer had refused to pay for overpriced cellphones.
A few days before that, the Muslim Consumers Association of Malaysia had urged a boycott of the cellphone shops at the shopping centre, saying many customers had been cheated.
On Sunday, about 20 men with sticks and helmets showed up at Kota Raya and attacked employees of cellphone stores. The police arrested a parking attendant that day, while Ali Tinju is being investigated under the Sedition Act.
Mob justice is a lousy term because there is really no justice in men banding together and resorting to mindless violence as an outlet for frustration and opportunism. Yet what happened in the Low Yat Plaza and Kota Raya incidents are sometimes portrayed as examples of what people do when pushed too far.
That cannot be so. To subscribe to that, we must believe that the government is on the blink and that the people have no choice but to take the law into their own hands.
Malaysia does not fit that description. We have legislations, regulators, enforcement agencies and courts. They have their flaws – such things are never perfect anywhere in the world – but they can surely handle complaints of cheating and illegal detention.
We cannot have people thinking that two wrongs make a right. They need to have faith in law and order.
And there has to be consistency and transparency in how the culprits are investigated and prosecuted. If not, the perceived imbalance will continue to fuel the cycle of suspicion and discontent.
The Low Yat Plaza and Kota Raya violence is not about race or impotent authorities. It is about selfish people exploiting the weaknesses of others for personal gain without considering the overall consequences. This has to end or we will risk being branded a lawless nation of brutes.