Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Low Yat Plaza riot: KL events hold lessons for Singapore

By Daryl Chin, Social Media Editor, The Sunday Times, 19 Jul 2015

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 LowYat.net 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.

Why theft case escalated to race brawl
Inflammatory postings on social media, distrust among ethnic groups to blame
By Shannon Teoh, Malaysia Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 19 Jul 2015

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.

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.



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.

Main players
By Shannon Teoh, Malaysia Correspondent, The Sunday Times, 19 Jul 2015


The controversial blogger was held by police for four days after allegedly posting a picture of an unrelated robbery victim on social media and linking it to the Low Yat incident. During and after the Low Yat fracas, he has continued to post racially tinged messages online. He has previously been found guilty of defaming former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Although he has denied blogging under the pseudonym Papagomo, the courts in the Anwar case had decided otherwise.


Popularly known as Ali Tinju, the leader of the little-known Malay Armed Forces Veterans Association claimed trial last Thursday for the charge of uttering seditious remarks during the Low Yat brawl. In a widely shared video, he is alleged to have said: "We want justice. This is for the dignity of Malay youth, not because one Chinese boy attacked many Malays. We will not forgive Chinese youth who insult Malay youth. This is Malay land. Unite and fight the insolent (Democratic Action Party) Chinese."


The Penang-based leader from the ruling Umno was arrested under the Sedition Act on Wednesday for allegedly criticising police chief Khalid Abu Bakar's handling of the Low Yat incident in a closed phone messaging group. It is unclear what the offending comments were, but he was released the day after. Penang Umno secretary Musa Sheikh Fadzir told reporters: "Shaikh Hussein asked why the national police chief arrested young Malays but the Chinese who assaulted the Malays were not arrested. Is this an offence?"


The national police chief had previously come under attack over the force's alleged failure to act against those linked to the ruling establishment. This time, the police's stern and swift action against alleged instigators of the Low Yat brawl has instead led to accusations of bias against Malays. But some quarters have praised the police for quickly restoring peace to the Bukit Bintang area, a key tourist hub in Kuala Lumpur.

New national harmony Bill to be tabled after KL mall riot
The Straits Times, 23 Jul 2015

KUALA LUMPUR • A brawl earlier this month at a downtown IT mall at the heart of Malaysia has prompted the government to push for a new law to address concerns over racial and religious hatred.

Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Joseph Kurup said that the new law would focus on preventive measures, education, moderation, harmony and rehabilitation.

He said it would be a new form of the National Harmony Act proposed years earlier but shelved along with plans to repeal the Sedition Act.

"The incident has helped us realise that we need a law which will help preserve harmony among Malaysia's multiracial and multi-religious communities," said Tan Sri Kurup in his speech after a walkabout at the shopping centre on Tuesday.

A petty theft at a mobile phone shop in Kuala Lumpur's Low Yat Plaza on July 11, fanned by incendiary posts on social media, snowballed into days of fighting and racial riots, pitting Malays against Chinese.

Calling the incident in the Bukit Bintang shopping district an isolated one that was sensationalised, Mr Kurup said: "This is what happens if we allow our emotions to take over. Violence should not be the means to solve an issue."

He added that no one should take the law into their own hands.

Mr Kurup, who is in charge of national unity, said if the situation was left unchecked, racial intolerance could get worse and hamper the country's effort to achieve developed-nation status by 2020.

"We need to find the best possible way to resolve our problems without the need to shout words that carry hatred or extremism."

Speaking to reporters later, Mr Kurup said that the proposed law was not aimed at replacing the Sedition Act.

In July 2012, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak had announced that the Sedition Act 1948, which allows detention without trial, would be repealed and replaced with a National Harmony Act as part of the country's political transformation plan.

"The Sedition Act is on its own, it is a punitive law. The National Harmony Act will be an entirely new Bill," Mr Kurup said.

He added that the Bill would be tabled during the next Parliament meeting between October and December this year.

He said discussions were being held with the various stakeholders and non-governmental bodies to gather views on what should be included in the new law.

The minister added that feedback and the impact of social media on race relations would be brought to the attention of the relevant ministries.


Matter made worse by activists turning mobile phone disputes into race issue
Posted by The Straits Times on Friday, December 25, 2015

* Mall brawls symbol of a fractious Malaysia
Matter made worse by activists turning mobile phone disputes into race issue and fuelled by lack of govt action
By Trinna Leong, Malaysia Correspondent In Kuala Lumpur, The Straits Times, 25 Dec 2015

One of Kuala Lumpur's older malls, Kota Raya, is seeing few customers this week, a change from the usual throng of migrant workers who fill the place. At Mara Digital Mall with its Malay-only traders 2km away, the place is just as deserted.

These two venues are linked by recent violent mall brawls - Kota Raya became empty after a fight, and the Mara mall was born following an earlier dispute.

The fights between Malay men using sticks and helmets and Chinese phone sellers have become the latest symbol of Malaysia's fractious society. The matter is made worse by activists turning disputes over cellphones into a race issue, and fuelled by the authorities' lack of action and seemingly slow intervention from top politicians.

"There is an undercurrent of distrust between races. Put that together with a slowing economy, a weaker ruling government, it all adds to a layer of insecurity," said Mr Ibrahim Suffian, director of independent pollster Merdeka Centre.

In July, a group of several hundred descended upon popular gadget mall Low Yat Plaza in a gathering that nearly turned into a riot against Chinese traders, after social media rumours of a Malay man being sold a counterfeit phone.

And on Sunday, some 20 Malay men attacked cellphone sellers in Kota Raya after allegations that a store had cheated a Malay customer.

The incident at Low Yat Plaza turned out to be a case of thievery, with friends of the accused rallying others. In Kota Raya, the store that was attacked has been reported to have cheated many customers, but the brawl spiked communal tensions anew. Both incidents spiralled into violence after activists used racially charged language.

Before the Kota Raya incident on Sunday, Malay rights activist Mohd Ali Baharom told reporters that if cheating cases were to occur again, "the Malays will rise and oppose Chinese traders in Malaysia".

Mr Mohd Ali, a former soldier, had also given a racially charged speech in July outside Low Yat Plaza. He was charged then with sedition, but the charges were dropped a day after the so-called Red Shirt rally to defend Malay rights in September in which he was one of the leaders.

Following the Kota Raya brawl, Mr Mohd Ali was arrested on Tuesday but released a day later on bail.

Analysts say the racially charged incidents are symptomatic of Malaysia today, as the multiracial country becomes more divided and the government is seen as slow to react. "There is a view that those in power can't punish those whom they share a common belief with, those speaking up for Malays," said Mr Ibrahim.

The fractious society was partly caused by a government plan to grow a Malay middle class following race riots in 1969. The bumiputera policy of promoting Malay rights grew the pool of educated Malays and Malay businessmen. But analysts say the policy also created a culture of entitlement among some Malays.

After the Low Yat incident, Umno leader and Cabinet minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob started Mara Digital Mall, a Malay-traders only information technology mall. It opened earlier this month and occupies a floor in a government-owned building. Mr Ismail now wants to set up similar IT malls nationwide using Mara, a government agency for helping bumiputera businesses.

Those who set up shop in the Mara mall are given rent-free kiosks for six months, followed by below- market-rate rents thereafter. On the ground, there are worries that small business disputes are twisted and infused with a racial slant.

"It's not about race," said jeweller May Choo, who operates in Kota Raya, referring to the cellphone fracas on Sunday. "It's unfortunate that some people are using the race card and painting things badly."

Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said on Wednesday: "If there is a misunderstanding or unhappiness that arises between them, then it should be dealt with as it is and nothing else. Racial or religious factors should not be dragged in."

A carpark attendant was jailed for four days for the Kota Raya brawl and fined RM1,800 (S$600) and two others are being held.

Other Malay groups have now jumped in and are blaming Chinese traders for "cheating". They include Islamic group Isma and the Muslim Consumers Association. This could worsen the multi-ethnic cracks, analysts say. "Of course, if left unchecked it would certainly escalate," said Dr Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

There are worries that the more aggressive Malay voices are becoming louder, as mainstream Umno leaders keep to the sidelines.

"Whenever there's a power struggle at the highest level, you'll see racial politics being played," said Dr Oh. "It distracts people from the political troubles at the top."

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