A nation of ‘kap chais’

JANUARY 22 — I do not ride a motorbike. My father, himself a wild rider in his youth — complete with a scrambler bike — forbade his sons from ever riding, for reasons we did not bother asking.

My memories of riding pillion on an underbone bike, which we call kap chai, are about hitching a ride to Friday prayers, either with my late grandfather in Johor back in my high school days, or now with my father-in-law in Kelantan.

Living beside a main road in Putrajaya, my sleeping hours are punctuated by kap chai bikes; the shriek of their puny engines magnified tenfold by their vulgar exhaust mufflers as they go by, keeping me worried that the wee baby would be shocked into waking up (fortunately, she never did).

There are dedicated motorbike lanes in most parts of Putrajaya, especially accompanying the wide four-lane roads that go between precincts. They, of course, remain ignored by riders who choose instead the wide roadways.

Still, the bikes remain essential to the working class who needs to cross the massive administrative capital on a day-to-day basis. It is a similar situation for university campuses. Malaysia likes to build things big, but never with any consideration for the humans who would live in it.

The kap chais are synonymous with developing Asian countries, where the equatorial weather permits riding even in the flimsiest shirt and shorts (except when it rains). Jakarta’s traffic jams or macet are filled with them, they dominate the traffic lights of Ho Chi Minh City. And Bangkok, and so on.

The ‘kap chai’ is very much a part of the city’s DNA and a proposal to ban it really riled up the citizenry. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
The ‘kap chai’ is very much a part of the city’s DNA and a proposal to ban it really riled up the citizenry. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

The dirt-cheap prices of bikes, which could even be 1/10th of a car here, make them great choices for lower-income households and those who just started working. You can roughly discern the economic status of a country by the number of kap chais you see on the road.

In the capital Kuala Lumpur, it has been a vital part of our lifestyle and culture for decades... so much so we even have a local slang name for it. But it is also a testament of our traffic, and by extension, public transport.

Kap chai bikes are immensely versatile: it can traverse villages along rural lanes, sometimes even off-road trails. But in a crowded city, it is essential as it allows slick manoeuvring in between traffic, as well as navigate the backlanes.

The kap chai is popular because our public transport caught up with our rapid urbanisation too late to matter. Rumours persist that this was done as a way to boost our national car-making industry. Which of course led to that traffic jam in the first place.

So, I can imagine how a proposed ban against the kap chai would mortify KLites, and rightly so.

Early this week, Federal Territories Minister Tengku Adnan Mansor was reported suggesting that the government may consider banning kap chai bikes from entering KL when public transport becomes cheap enough, believing such a move may reduce carbon emission and snatch thefts in the city.

Such a remark is a symptom of a bigger endemic problem: that there is no local council elections, and none for Kuala Lumpur, which hosts an estimated population of 1.6 million, making up the 7.2 million people living in the Klang Valley, out of the 28 million in the whole country.

It is not the first time Tengku Adnan and Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) have made throwaway unilateral suggestions, and sometimes decisions, that clash greatly with the interests and welfare of KLites.

In recent memory, there was the destruction of the late National Art Laureate Syed Ahmad Jamal’s Lunar Peaks art structure, and the overt Islamisation with signboards saying “Ya, Allah... Berkatilah Kuala Lumpur” (Oh Allah, bless Kuala Lumpur) at the town’s entry points (the same also happened in Putrajaya).

As a federal territory, KL is instead placed under a ministry headed by a Cabinet member of the ruling coalition that won the federal polls, elected not by the people, but by a political leader.

Tengku Adnan’s careless remarks betray his privilege, and how out-of-touch he is with those who inhabit the capital city — those he claims to represent.

After all, this was the same man who suggested early last year that certain roads in the city centre be closed at night to allow “mat rempit” bikers to race, in what he thought would be a solution against illegal racing.

Tengku Adnan had failed to comprehend that “mat rempit” and illegal races happen not because of the lack of circuits, but because of broken homes, lack of community support for such families, and the cramped public housing units shared by huge families — leading youths to seek freedom and fun on the streets. Why not tackle the root cause?

The kap chai ban was shot down by DBKL and Tengku Adnan backed down, but only after intense public protest. Imagine if instead of the kap chai, the elites and their luxury cars and minivans that boss other motorists around were the target of the ban.

Kap chai riders do not have it easy, even outside KL. In Terengganu, Muslim couples who are not married are targeted by Islamic authorities for “immoral acts in public” if they ride together.

It is not just the political elites who are blinded by privilege. Even Islamic enforcers can be out-of-touch with reality once religious fervour clouds their heads.

Terengganu Islamic authorities commissioner Wan Mohd Wan Ibrahim was quoted warning pillion riders against putting their hands into the jacket pocket of their partner, hugging and leaning against each other, and sitting too closely on motorcycles. These acts will lead to illicit sex and pregnancies out of wedlock, he claimed.

This is a country of contradictions. The administration wants to help uplift the working class, and yet they face so many obstacles, even to move around.

The kap chai is a mainstay presence in the heart of the city. As long as the working class is kept poor and downtrodden, the kap chais are here to stay, ban or no ban.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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