The signs are bad – experts say the young Mat Lajak are very likely honing their bicycle stunt actions and racing skills for the ‘big league’. And they’ve got the research to prove it.
ALL of Malaysia was shocked to hear the tragic news of the eight teenage cyclists who were killed – six on the spot – when a car ploughed into them in the wee hours of Saturday over a fortnight ago in Johor Baru.
But not Prof Madya Dr Rozmi Ismail.
He has been working on the issue for more than a decade.
“In my studies on Mat Rempit, I often met 12- to 13-year-old children hanging out with illegal motorcycle racing groups. The biggest age group is 17 to 18 but many that I have interviewed said they started out at the age of 12 to 14.
“So yes, the JB accident was an accident waiting to happen,” says the psychologist from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia who is also the former head of Kem Perkasa, the Government’s intervention programme for Mat Rempit.
And like what people are saying, these Mat Lajak, as the teen cyclists are dubbed, are junior Mat Rempit, Dr Rozmi attests – they are using bicycles simply because they cannot get their hands on a motorbike or don’t know how to ride one yet.
“Basically, there are two kinds of junior Mat Rempit – those who ride bicycles because they cannot ride a motorbike or because their parents keep the motorbike away from them by hiding the key, et cetera, and those who ride motorbikes without a licence, and most times without helmets.
“Either way, they all want the thrill of speed, so they race.”
It is a nationwide phenomenon on weekends, especially during the school holidays, he notes, with the respect of their peers, prize money and the losers’ vehicle on wager in the races. They are bored and just want to have fun. The main issue, he stresses, is that they are using public roads at ungodly hours, posing a danger to themselves and the public.
Like their “seniors”, the junior Mat Rempit also perform the same daring stunts on their bicycles, from the Superman to the Wheely or Willy, where the rider lifts the front of their bike and cruises on the back wheel.
“The bicycle is a ‘transition vehicle’, used to develop their skills before they move on to a motorised ride,” says Dr Rozmi.
But why racing?
“When I interviewed the senior Mat Rempit, many told me they love the sound of their bikes speeding – the vroom vroom is music to their ears,” he says.
When speeding on bicycle, the woosh of the wind can also be deafening to the rider.
Maybe these people just love “loud noises”, he half-jokingly muses.
“Take the other thing some of these kids are notorious for – mercun. Firecrackers are a tradition for the Chinese but they only play for a few days during Chinese New Year. And you never hear of accidents happening with kids losing fingers,” he says, adding that he feels that some of these teens are obsessed with thrill seeking.
And then there is the misplaced creativity.
Like the homemade cannons where some have used dangerous materials like steel pipes, most of the junior Mat Rempit have modified their bicycles – by removing the brakes and installing smaller wheels – which is illegal.
Dr Rozmi says it is a socio-demographic issue and not a racial one.
“Most of the Mat Rempit come from the lower income group or the bottom 40%, a majority of whom are Malays, so automatically this becomes a Malay issue.”
As his research shows, the Mat Rempit largely come from families who live on the outskirts of the city or in sub-urban areas, Felda settlements and “left-behind” villages.
A high number is in Kuala Lumpur, Kedah and Terengganu, he adds; the number is actually not that high in Johor.
Ten years ago, Dr Rozmi estimated there were over 200,000 Mat Rempit nationwide; now as they say – “you do the math”.
The then Umno Putra chief, Datuk Abdul Azeez Rahim, had even conceded that they were difficult to stop: “You cannot solve this problem for a few generations to come.”
It is a vicious cycle, echoes Dr Rozmi.
“For example, you can rarely find Mat Rempit at housing estates. If there are any, they are usually from another place or come from squatter families who have been relocated to low-cost housing projects.
“Life is hard for most of these families – the parents may have moved from the kampung with nothing and lived in poverty. When they are relocated to ‘new houses’, their lives are still the same and their status is unchanged.”
This social immobility, he says, is inherited by their children.
Their living environment is usually cramped – with families of eight or more squeezed in two-bedroom flats.
“When they are in that situation, the children usually have no space and money for leisure and entertainment, and no way of releasing their tension or exploring their interests.
“For many, the cheapest and exciting entertainment available is motorcycling, cycling and racing on the public roads.”
Suriana Welfare Society Malaysia chairman James Nayagam shares the same findings from a survey on Mat Rempit the child protection organisation conducted in 2010.
“In all cases of persons interviewed, the teenager came from low-cost housing areas, so they lived in tight conditions with limited space. Meeting friends, playing and relaxing have to be done outside their homes.
“With many of their parents working long hours and at odd times to support their families, many were free to hang out in groups late into the night and get involved in daring and dangerous forms of activity and with disregard to law and life,” says Nayagam, highlighting that when asked, 80% of their parents did not know where or what their children were doing or who they were with.
Quite a number of the Mat Rempit they interviewed came from dysfunctional families, he adds.
“The mothers or fathers were divorced and remarried. Some new ‘fathers’ or ‘mothers’ refused to accept them as their own children. There are also those whose parents were single parents.”
According to criminologist Dr Geshina Ayu Mat Saat, studies show that neglectful and permissive parenting style can prompt later delinquency.
“My team’s research on the psychosocial and criminogenic profiles of juveniles, for one, indicates that early involvement in pro-criminal behaviour and juvenile acts were influenced by parents who are too permissive or neglectful. It was only one case out of over 70 cases, that a child admitted to having an abusive father.
“The rest of the children admitted that their parents knew and allowed them to behave badly and get involved with the wrong crowd. Other than verbally saying that such and such behaviour was not good, the children were not disciplined to stop their bad behaviours,” says the Universiti Sains Malaysia lecturer.
The lack of parental monitoring is a major problem, Dr Rozmi agrees.
“First, they have no business being out that late at night. Midnight is still acceptable, but 3am, 4am?”
Parents have the responsibility of making sure their children are home at night, he stresses.
“Second, from a cognitive psychology perspective, children aged five to 15 are not mature enough and are not capable of thinking rationally like adults. They are not able to fully identify risks, what more estimate possible risks – such as the possible risks on the road.
“The most important thing for them is to have fun.
“So parents play a crucial here to guide them and help them learn to identify and cope with risks and dangers.”
Unfortunately, most of these parents are struggling to meet their children’s basic needs – with many taking on a second, third job just to feed, clothe and shelter their children.
“Many of the parents have no time and money to care for their children properly, and sadly, many also lack the initiative,” says Dr Rozmi.
Deprived of the attention and some, parental love, at home, many turn to their peers and outside “adults” for care, acceptance, self-esteem and respect.
Says Nayagam, when they measured the Mat Rempit’s self-esteem, they found many initially had low self-esteem, but their self-esteem shot up after they joined the Rempit gang.
“This indicates that as individuals they could be experiencing neglect and low self-esteem, but as a group they have a sense of belonging and unity to the point they can ride their bikes fast and dangerously – death-defying and challenging the police on duty,” says Nayagam.
This low opinion of oneself could also come from their difficulty in coping with school, he adds.
“Our survey showed often the Mat Rempit were poor performers in schools and preferred to play truant. There was no motivation for the teenagers to do better in school and found no link between education in relation to their future. In fact, the teenagers found it a strain to attend schools.”
A number of them, says Nayagam, were slow learners or had learning disabilities.
“The children were never assessed as to their level of disability. The children very innocently got themselves involved in the wrong company of friends.”
Education is an important factor, Dr Rozmi concurs.
“Many of those who are involved in Rempit are school dropouts.
“We need to review our education system. Our schools are too exam-oriented and put too much focus on top students. Those who have learning difficulties or are not interested academically are neglected,” he says.
He believes we need to provide vocational and technical training for those who are not academically-inclined so that they will not drop out of school.
“Or at least, if they leave school, they will have a useful skill set that they can use in life.”
Dr Geshina Ayu agrees, pointing to studies involving delinquency that show that being in school and being in a protective environment can reduce the likelihood of a wide range of delinquent acts and pro-criminal behaviours.
“Consistently, comparisons between school-going children and children who do not go to school (for example, dropout and truancy) show that children who do not go to school commit more delinquent acts, exhibit more pro-criminal behaviours, and are more likely to be in conflict with the law,” she says.
Concurring, Dr Rozmi notes that when it comes to racing, the risk factor is heightened when the youth spends his lack of school time playing computer and video racing games.
These games also breed this need for speed among the young, he says.
Many then try to manifest the excitement of the game in real life and it becomes their way of affirming themselves.
“They feel ignored and bored, with nothing to do and nowhere to go. Riding in packs and racing make them feel like they are somebody, and that people are noticing that they exist,” says Dr Rozmi, adding that there are many, including girls, who are just “groupies” and don’t ride or race.
Contrary to popular belief, only a very small number of Mat Rempit or their groupies get involved in other vices like drugs.
Dr Rozmi notes: “For many, the high comes from the adrenaline rush from racing and just cruising fast on the public road.”
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