KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's bumiputera-only digital malls are struggling to stay open, just four years after they were set up to help the majority community enter and compete in a local technology market dominated by ethnic Chinese vendors.
These malls, set up by government agency Mara - the acronym for Majlis Amanah Rakyat - were first conceived in July 2015, after a brawl erupted in response to a Malay youth caught stealing a handphone from a Chinese retailer at Low Yat Plaza, Kuala Lumpur's iconic tech shopping centre.
A mob of about 200 people gathered outside the shopping centre the day after the incident, fuelled by race rhetoric and claims that the alleged shoplifter had been cheated into buying a fake phone.
The Mara digital malls were borne of these unfavourable circumstances to compete against Low Yat, and provide Malay tech vendors a leg-up in the sector and Malay consumers an alternative shopping venue for their tech needs.
The bumiputera, which means the "sons of the soil", include ethnic Malays and natives of Sarawak and Sabah that make up more than 60 per cent of Malaysia's population of 32 million.
Four years on, the Malays-only platform has shuttered in three states, after battling low shopper footfall and poor earnings.
Three outlets - in Pahang, Johor and Selangor - have shut down, while the future remains uncertain for the sole remaining outlet housed in Menara Mara, in the capital's Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman shopping district.
"The situation here is getting worse, we're barely making any profit and you can count how many visitors actually visit the mall every day. Even on weekends, business is slow," said 35-year-old Muhd Surhadi, a vendor at Menara Mara.
"We've even resorted to selling kerepek (tapioca chips) just so that we can generate a bit of income. There should be some kind of promotion for the building so that people know where we are. That would help to generate traffic," he said.
The smallest kiosk at the mall, measuring about 97 sq ft, costs RM2,425 (S$804) a month to rent. When the mall first opened, vendors enjoyed a rent-free period of six months.
Mr Surhadi said his sales revenue often did not even cover the rent.
Another trader, Mr Munir Aslam, claims that the building is badly maintained, with uneven tiling, dirty toilets and faulty air-conditioning.
"The lack of promotion eventually led to many shops on the premises to close their businesses. When there's no variety, no one really wants to come here. We're still grateful for the opportunity but it seems like Mara digital mall isn't something that was really thought through," said the 39-year-old.
Professor Madeline Berma, of Akademi Sains Malaysia, said she believed Mara did not succeed in its mission to groom Bumiputera entrepreneurs because its methods did not encourage an independent spirit.
"The help given caused entrepreneurs to depend on Mara. It made them less competitive. Furthermore, some of the assistance did not reach their targets," she said, as quoted by news site Free Malaysia Today.
Mara Corp chairman Akhramsyah Muammar Ubaidah Sanusi and Rural Development Minister Rina Harun did not respond to questions from The Straits Times.
In a media interview in November, Mr Akhramsyah had conceded that the malls started off on the wrong foot, as they were set up for political reasons, and not based on social or economic factors.
Still, efforts are under way to revive business, he said. These include engaging "new-generation tenants" such as e-sports stakeholders, establishing virtual reality parks and accepting non-Bumiputera vendors.
But these efforts may not bear fruit in time for vendors like Mr Surhadi.
"Worse comes to worst, I will have to return to Low Yat, where the traffic is guaranteed. We all have to move on some day," he said.