News analysis

Why theft case escalated to race brawl

Inflammatory postings on social media, distrust among ethnic groups to blame

Security was beefed up around Low Yat Plaza (above) yesterday following rumours of some groups planning unrest there. PHOTOS: SIN CHEW DAILY, YOUTUBE
A mob smashing and jumping on a car last Sunday in a video that went viral. PHOTOS: SIN CHEW DAILY, YOUTUBE

KUALA LUMPUR * On closed- circuit television footage, a man was seen running off with a phone from a shop in Kuala Lumpur's popular technology mall Low Yat Plaza, with the salesman in hot pursuit.

What appeared to be a simple case of petty theft on July 11 soon escalated into a racial brawl, requiring riot police to step in and Malaysia's leaders to condemn the violence in a bid to defuse what threatened to spiral into riots, pitting the Malay majority against the economically better-off Chinese.

Even Prime Minister Najib Razak and former premier Mahathir Mohamad were singing the same tune on this incident, despite being locked in battle over alleged graft at state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad, for which Tun Dr Mahathir is pressuring Datuk Seri Najib to resign.

After seven Malay youths returned to Low Yat that same Saturday evening in what appeared to be a revenge attack against the Chinese salesmen who had apprehended the suspect and his alleged accomplice, social media did the rest. One narrative that quickly gained traction on the Internet was that the unemployed suspect, Shahrul Anuar Abdul Aziz, 22, had been conned into buying an imitation phone by salesmen at the Chinese-run shop, and returned to obtain an authentic replacement.

On Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms, incendiary postings about how this was an example of Chinese traders profiteering by cheating Malays, and of videos of violence by members of one race against the other, spread like wildfire.

With half of the country's population on Facebook - according to studies which rank Malaysia as one of Asia's top 10 countries on the platform - the often graphic images were like fuel to fire. Things quickly escalated, climaxing in last Sunday's late-night mob of about 200 who injured at least five people, including three journalists, and attacked a car and its three occupants, badly damaging the vehicle that happened to be in the vicinity. ''One gang of Malays... opened my car (door) when I drove past them and asked whether I am Chinese,'' the driver of the car, Mr Patrick Lim, recounted to The Malay Mail Online news website.

Since last Sunday's mayhem, there have been no flare-ups in the Bukit Bintang shopping district, a popular tourist spot where Low Yat Plaza is located.

Police beefed up security around the area yesterday following rumours that some groups were planning unrest there, although nothing happened in the end.



    Two young Malay males are caught by workers from an Oppo kiosk at Low Yat Plaza after they allegedly try to flee with a smartphone from a neighbouring shop. One is arrested and the other released.


    The released man returns with six others to assault the Oppo workers, causing RM70,000 (S$25,200) in damage to the kiosk. Images of the incident, some fake, spread on the Web . Stories about how the alleged shoplifter was duped into buying a cheap imitation spread.


    A mob gathers at Low Yat, claiming to be from groups such as pro-Malay Pekida. They want justice for the suspect, alleging that police are biased towards ethnic Chinese businessmen.


    The mob, now grown to about 200, tries to enter the mall but are stopped by 30 policemen.


    Scuffles break out that last for over half an hour. At least five people are hurt.


    At least five Federal Reserve Unit vehicles arrive on the scene.


    Some of the crowd head towards nearby Berjaya Times Square mall but are dispersed by police. At nearby Jalan Imbi, a mob attacks a car and its occupants.


    Calm returns to the area but most shops in Low Yat Plaza remain closed as operators are concerned over their safety.

But a palpable sense of trepidation continues to cloud the country, as debate over the fracas persists a week on.

In explaining the incident, opinion pollster Merdeka Centre's chief Ibrahim Suffian said the relationship that the majority of Malaysians have with other races is mainly ''transactional'' and not deep social bonds.

''From previous polling we've done, we note that stereotypes and prejudices are still strong underneath the layer of civility,'' he told The Sunday Times, adding that decades of living as a nation have failed to erase ethnic distrust.

For three-quarters of the nation's 58 years of existence, pro-Malay economic policies have been in place to ostensibly narrow the gap between Malays and the wealthier Chinese. But Malaysia has been ruled only by a coalition of mainly race-based parties that observers say have each cultivated a siege mentality to entrench their own importance among constituents.

This distrust may have spurred the spread of fake images of assault and injuries, and of CCTV footage of individuals making off with phones that appeared not to be of the actual incident.

But the obfuscation of what really transpired has only increased anxiety, as the idea that the entire incident was engineered by certain individuals or groups lends credence to the possibility of further violence.

Despite Mr Najib, the national police chief and scores of political leaders insisting there was no reason to view the incident along racial lines, and various news agencies playing up stories of Malays and Chinese getting along, messages of perceived injustice continue to spread among Malays on phone messaging apps and social media. The Chinese are spooked and sharing alarmist pseudo-information about police being on alert as Malay gangs are planning to descend on Kuala Lumpur and start bloodbaths in Chinese areas.

The Low Yat brawl has caused ripples far wider than it should have. A 200-man protest is not large by Malaysian standards, and scams or petty theft are a regular occurrence anywhere in the world. But it was an unhappy situation in which the principal actors were grouped along racial lines.

Malaysians tend to surround themselves with people of their own race, likely due to latent mistrust, Mr Ibrahim said.

It paved the way for the Low Yat incident to be seen along racial lines. Pro-Malay activist Mohd Ali ''Tinju'' Baharom accused the Chinese of insulting Malays, while controversial blogger Wan Mohd Azri Wan Deris continually posted race-baiting messages, including allegedly a photo of an injured Malay victim which turned out to be from an unrelated robbery.

Both men have since been arrested, but this has only fuelled the notion that Malays have been unfairly persecuted by the police.

A leader of last Sunday's mob claimed to be from pro-Malay group Pekida, whose president has disclaimed responsibility, admitting only that some members could have participated of their own will.

But the term ''Pekida'' has taken a life of its own outside the organisation's official status as a Muslim welfare body. It has become a catch-all label, used by both supporters and critics, for pro-Malay activists who are not averse to using physical tactics.

The group was set up in the aftermath of the deadly May 13, 1969 riots, which saw bloody clashes between Malays and Chinese after the ruling coalition led by the Malay-based Umno suffered unprecedented losses in a general election. It has come into wider prominence after the 2008 polls where Umno, which has controlled the government since independence in 1957, performed even worse than in 1969.

French political anthropologist Sophie Lemiere, who has done extensive work on pro-Malay activism and its links to Umno, wrote in the wake of the Low Yat incident about ''the ambiguous nature of Pekida, its link to the political arena, the service rendered to Umno during political campaigns and the potential violence of its members''.

Given the perceived wealth of the Chinese, young Malays in Pekida ''switch from NGO (non-governmental organisation) activism to political action and violence'' easily, ''empowered by a quasi-sacred mission to protect their own, and to restore justice at any cost'', she said.

It hardly helps that in 2013, Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi proclaimed Pekida friends of Umno, despite police revealing the organisation's part in secret society activities.

Little wonder then that Shahrul Anuar and his accomplice - chalking up between them the dubious honours of being unemployed, charged with theft and testing positive for drugs, according to police, and being allegedly involved in assault and causing damage to property - are seen by some people as martyrs, if not heroes.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 19, 2015, with the headline Why theft case escalated to race brawl. Subscribe