Poor kids are kids too, no?

NOVEMBER 7 — The reactions were telling.

No more than 13 years of age, he rammed into the only parked vehicle on an empty street in bright daylight. 

He was the only one from the crew to misjudge the turn. The bike’s speed — on a descent — knocks him off the side door like a bowling pin, to land flat on the kerb metres away. 

I can’t tell from repeated views how hard his face smashed into the concrete, but he picks himself up quickly. 

The immediate and only concern it seems is to avoid trouble — as the other bikers retrace back to him and one large lad runs up to grab the bent bike and they all flee. Over in less than a minute.

The comments were scathing and to be fair, funny. From the absurd to the inane. Of course, the CCTV recording resonated strongly in the wake of Sam Ke Ting’s recent acquittal over the death of eight underaged basikal lajak (modified bikes) riders in Johor Baru two years ago.

This footage was cold evidence of basikal lajak’s incomprehensible madness.

Sam’s case had race and class dimensions. People tended to back the driver or riders based on shared demographics rather than on facts. 

Children mauled by an overprivileged young lady in the dead of night, or reckless children raised badly by incompetent parents construct their own tragedy, you pick the version to believe based on your personal race, age and income bracket.

Which is why, the newer recording spoke for itself the menace of basikal lajak and as such resulted in no pity for the fallen child. 

He, the gang and their parents were laid bare, and chastised. A surrogate of sorts for the events two years ago which had no video to tell the tale. Just a body-count.

The video’s hilarity evaporates when it dawns upon us the pain felt by the lad, since as humans our conscience resents harm on anyone, even more when it’s a child.

Photo ops for the righteous

Police and politicians admonish the basikal lajak phenomenon. The police increase their patrols and bag a number of offenders, and ruling politicians threaten to act against the parents as proof of sincerity.

Yet, I can’t help but resent the adversarial approaches which seek to punish far more than understand the roots of social disrepair among the poor, where these bikers emerge from. 

Why do young people dare life and limb charging down slopes and stretches in bikes bereft of brakes?

Are poor people mindless and seek detriments for themselves? This applies to both the children and parents. Are they?

The one thing I want to avoid is to be an apologist. This is not to cover for bad choices made by poor people. 

Bad choices affect other people, and they are regrettable. Worse, bad choices lead to other bad choices and matters spiral till they spin off from the orbit of legal acceptance, and into cesspools — courtroom dockets, cramped prisons or single motherhood, for instance — which breed hopelessness.   

Still, there is no intention to defend the indefensible. People are responsible for their actions, young or old, regardless of their social class.

However, a society must look at the disease afflicting it rather than symptoms present, if it seeks to progress, as clichéd as it sounds. Otherwise, it is an exercise to ascertain blame and not to end misery.

The joys of middle-class

It used to amaze me how middle-class families plan their children’s time. My friends tell me what activities they’ve planned for their kids for weekends and school holidays. 

I had the impression growing up in the squatter colony of Kampung Pandan, that parents slogged the week to get us meals, clothe us and offer us beds under roofs, and the weekend was when they’d rest and we’d shush up. 

In my family, going out was limited to attending weddings, birthdays and funerals.  

That one time to the water park endures in the mind as the sweetest memory. Which is why, the commitment middle-class families and above have for their children’s emotional well-being astounded me when I started hanging out with classmates. 

For a poor kid, the idea of resources put to keep him socially involved, culturally exposed or sportingly encouraged sounds outrageous. Maybe not so today, as I’ve learnt potential needs to be realised.

B40 parents don’t have the time or disposable income to provide the emotional sustenance children seek. Which means, the gap is filled by other options, ones which offer escape from reality.

Drugs, violence, sexual abuse and thrill-seeking acts are synonymous with low-income zones.

I love it when people argue you can’t be poor if you have money to buy drugs, or to pay for the modification of cheap bicycles. 

The addiction comes first, the acquiring is the part they run off your property with the gas cylinder or knife the commuter in a back-alley.

As for the middle-class, social elevation of poor people is in their interest for it reduces the chances of them and their children being victims of thuggery, petty thefts or organised crime. 

Or at least not to chance upon a flock of young blokes careening down a lonely stretch in almost-weightless metal suicide units.

Waiting for Godot the policy maker

Poor kids are susceptible to poor choices because they are vulnerable. Even more when there are limited social supports inside the cemented residences of low-cost housing. 

Take the MRT from Kajang to the city and witness the mushrooming of concrete prisons for the people we expect to carry the city on their brawny backs. The blue-collar for a city needing Food Panda riders, clerks, waiters and factory workers.

And their children forced to fend for themselves inside the B40 compounds. The units are dismal but the waitlist to rent them is long. 

These lodgings provide bare essentials, they do not feed the souls of the people in them.

This is a plea for great societal ownership of the poor’s plight of raising children in squalor. To group basikal lajak along with other ills in poorer sections as part of society’s failings to plug gaps. 

Where are the sustainable sports and social programmes? A football training structure and competitions to accompany the futsal courts built. 

The arts and computer literacy programmes, for instance. Even farming projects can lift the spirits of those hardened by city living with long waits for the bus.

There are private initiatives, but they can only go that far. Government has to extend itself into these communities, via local councils, ministers and law enforcement agencies. Programmes will offer options and reasons to opt away from drug and bikes.

Arresting people from a community used to its members being arrested and then incarcerated does little to alter the equation. 

Threatening parents with financial penalties when they have no disposable income is cruel. 

What can you take away from people who have nothing to give? The thinking must turn to positive engagements which extend beyond the sporadic majlis makan (free dinners).

Perhaps the real criminals in this play are the policy makers — in their heads — who are still decades away — if not longer — from 2020.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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