‘Poverty, not race’: Understanding the causes of gangsterism

Secondary school days are confusing. From day one, you are subjected to a social hierarchy of “The Cool” and “The Lame”.

You need to find your place: Wear your trousers low in seluar londeh to earn the title of “swag”, wax your hair in the style of Robert Pattinson or Rain, carry your bag only on one shoulder, and never use a Tupperware bottle – cool kids don’t use Tupperware.

I take the longer route to the toilet to skip as much of Ms Saanvi’s class. I walk downstairs and the smell of cigarettes rushes up to my nose.

It’s them, I say to myself. I try to walk away but my footsteps are already audible to them. One boy shouts, “Who’s that? Come down here!”

I walk down to them. I put on a calm exterior, but cold sweat forms inside my shirt.

“Oh it’s you,” they laugh at me. “Why are your shirts tucked in? Good boy – teacher’s pet!” They laugh and pull my clothes out of my trousers, slap me on the arms, and hit my crotch all at once.

I resist only slightly lest they beat me up – they are the gangsters of the school. They call themselves “The Duck Brothers”, named after their gang leader, Duck Boy.

One of the boys blows cigarette smoke into my face. “Let me tell you something,” he says and points the cigarette bud at me, “If you ever tell anyone what you see here, I’ll put this bud into your bones.” His bloodshot eyes pierce mine, and when they push me away from them, I pick up my pace and leave.

Over the years, it wasn’t clear what the Duck Brothers did. We only knew they hung out in pubs and snooker bars where they drank, smoked, and spent money. Rumour had it that they beat many, including teachers.

In the secondary school hierarchy, they were “The Cool”. They defined what was cool with their new earrings, popped-up collars, gold jewellery, unique hairstyle, and odd way of speech. While we feared them, there was silent admiration of their glamour and pomposity.

But after leaving the secondary school ecosystem, we realised that the Duck Brothers were from very poor and broken backgrounds. For example, Duck Boy’s father sold newspapers in Klang. Duck Boy’s right-hand man, Samy (or Sam) was from a family of cleaners. Both of their parents were divorced.

Their days at home were filled with arguments and resentment; their gangs provided them with an escape.

Poverty and broken families

This isn’t a coincidence. Gangsterism is a magnet for the poor and broken. These poor boys didn’t start off with violent intentions or vile motives. They simply wanted to find a place of belonging and validation – a place to fill a void they found humiliating and unbearable.

The gangs first give them the material luxuries: new bags, new clothes, a new way of life. Then they give these boys the intangibles: validation, appreciation, and purpose. With new roles in the gang, they have responsibilities, and upon execution, they have rewards.

No more dirty clothes and broken pride. In return, these boys give their lifelong loyalty. They’ll do anything – anything at all, without limits. They are appreciated here; this is their family.

The retired deputy commissioner of police A Paramasivam knows this, having said that young children join gangs to make up for their acute poverty and insecurities. Reporter Joe Killian of Greensboro’s News & Record, who spoke to 40 gang members in North Carolina, came to the same conclusion.

Gangsterism has most to do with poverty and broken families, not race. So it comes as a surprise that the Terengganu police chief Aidi Ismail suggested a racial reason for the lack of gangsterism in the state.

If the suggestion was that non-Malays are more prone to gangsterism, then upon the mention of high-profile Malay gangs like “Double 7” and “Tiga Line”, the premise of his suggestion falters. The Chinese have gangs like “24”, “Ang Beng Hui”, and “Wah Kee”; Indians have “360”, “04”, and “21”. Race doesn’t cause gangsterism; poverty does.

Protecting society’s conscience

By understanding poverty and household instability as the main causes of gangsterism, we do not provide justifications for the extortions, money laundering, and violent crimes these gangs commit.

Instead, it helps us know what structure sustains these gangs, and to know that having harsher punishments and sterner warnings against them will only solve the problem superficially.

If we want to solve gang problems in essence, then we must solve poverty and broken families. I want to give Aidi Ismail the benefit of doubt because I believe our police are trained to be impartial and are orientated towards problem-solving.

He was simply suggesting that Malays have better access to support systems like religious institutions and village communities, which in turn helped fill the gap of belonging, control, and care.

That this may be true is owed to the fact that our society is coordinated succinctly along racial lines, and Aidi Ismail simply did not frame it correctly.

If that is the case, then the solution must be to distribute support systems like after-school programs, mentorship programs, family support systems, and rehabilitative institutions more broadly across all other races, so that they target poverty rather than race.

This requires a more comprehensive treatment that attracts higher cost and efforts. But this is the best way to protect the conscience of our society so that we don’t punish the poor.

JAMES CHAI works at a law firm. His voyage in life is made less lonely with a family of deep love, friends of good humour and teachers of selfless givings. This affirms his conviction in the common goodness of people: the better angels of our nature.


Artikel disiar pada November 16, 2017 - 2:40 pm oleh Susan Loo

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