Mob justice in Malaysia: Where and how do we draw the line to prevent violence?

How is it that ordinary people, normally peaceful people, can forget themselves and turn violent when in a crowd?

Shadow of two men fighting, depicting mob justice in Malaysia.
How is it that ordinary people, normally peaceful people, can forget themselves and enacting mob justice, turning violent when in a crowd?

I am disturbed by a couple of incidents that happened recently.

Civic conscious members of the public chased and caught a man who allegedly rubbed himself against the back of a seven-year-old girl at a supermarket in Kompleks Bukit Jambul, Penang, on 7 March.

They then handed him over to the police. But not before giving him a beating.

Police said the girl and her mother were queuing at a checkout counter when the man, a foreigner, allegedly rubbed himself against the girl’s back. The mother’s cries caused shoppers to beat up the man, who sustained injuries to his face and was treated at the Penang Hospital.

However, another man was not lucky enough to escape with his life.

Man dragged from car, beaten to death

A 42-year-old man was allegedly dragged out of a car, tied up and beaten to death in Semenyih 2, Kajang, Selangor, on 20 February.

I was very disturbed when I read the news.

It is not clear what exactly happened. What is clear though is that a man was pummelled to death apparently by some members of the public about 10pm on 20 February.

Malay daily Harian Metro reported that a video clip was circulating on social media with a message saying the deceased had refused to stop after crashing into a delivery motorcyclist.

It said the two were involved in a crash at a traffic stop in Taman Pelangi Semenyih 2, and that some motorcyclists had chased the car after the crash. When the car crashed into the fence of a house, the driver was allegedly dragged out, tied and beaten. He died.

The 70-year-old father of the dead man told newsmen he hoped the perpetrators would be caught and punished by the law.

On 23 February, Selangor police chief Hussein Omar Khan said they had received a report from two vehicle owners about the incident.

Five charged with murder

He was quoted as saying: "It is understood that during the incident, the victim hit two other vehicles before being found dead, believed to be the result of an assault."

On 27 February, five men aged between 22 and 52 were charged in the magistrates’ court in Bandar Baru Bangi with the murder of the driver in Kajang.

They were charged under Section 302 of the Penal Code, which allows for the death penalty or imprisonment of up to 40 years and whipping upon conviction.

Only the court can say if these five are guilty or not.

However, it is sad that a life has been lost due to anger over a road accident.

Around the same time, on 26 February to be exact, I read a BBC report that said an angry mob had turned on a young woman in Pakistan, accusing her of blasphemy for wearing a dress with Arabic words which they mistakenly thought were verses from the Quran.

Pakistan mob turns on woman wearing dress with Arabic words

The crowd chanted that she be beheaded while shouting at her to remove her dress.

Fortunately for her, a brave woman police officer risked her life by wading through the 300-strong crowd and pleaded with the angry mob to let the police handle the situation, before escorting the woman to safety.

It turned out that the calligraphy on her dress represented the word "halwa", which means "beautiful" in Arabic.

It just shows how dangerously unthinking a mob can be.

For her courage, assistant superintendent Syeda Shehrbano was awarded Pakistan's highest law enforcement honour on 3 March. And rightfully so.

Pakistan, of course has numerous cases of mob justice, many of them ending in death, mainly due to religious sensitivities. For instance, a 11 February report said a mob in eastern Pakistan stormed a police station and lynched a man under custody for allegedly desecrating a copy of the Quran.

Mob justice in Malaysia

Although mob justice in Malaysia is not as frequent as in Pakistan, it does happen.

Last October, for instance, a thief who failed to steal jewellery from a jewellery shop in Kota Tinggi, Johor, was chased and beaten up on the street by members of the public.

In June 2014, a mob attacked and killed a man who had been accused of exposing his genitals to a woman in Seksyen 17 in Shah Alam. Here too, the man’s hands were tied before he was beaten.

In May 2007, a suspected thief was chased and beaten to death by a mob – including stallholders – at the Jalan Meru market in Klang.

In May 2009, a tragedy of greater proportion happened when a handcuffed robbery suspect was beaten to death by a mob at Tanjung Harapan in Port Klang.

According to news reports, four policemen patrolling the area arrested the suspect after being informed that two men had been involved in an attempted robbery.

While interrogating the suspect who was handcuffed to the car, they heard that the second suspect had been spotted nearby. So they left him and went looking for the second suspect.

When they returned, they found the suspect badly beaten. He was admitted to the hospital but died the following day.

In October 2008, a mob of about 20 to 30 men beat up a suspected motorcycle thief at Km135 Jalan Kuala Terengganu-Kuantan. They stopped when a policemen arrived. However, the suspect died at the Kemaman Hospital the following day.

There have also been several mob justice cases where the victims did not die. In some of these cases, the mob was careful not to go overboard.

Citizen’s arrest is okay but where do we draw the line?

Citizen’s arrest is to be encouraged but mob justice can never be justified.

Are we then to remain quiet when a crime occurs or someone is bullied in public? Certainly not.

But what are the limits of the public's response to a crime? For example, if I have the opportunity to ram a snatch thief's motorcycle with my car, should I do it? What happens if the person dies?

I suggest the police use the latest mob justice incidents as an opportunity to educate the public on what they can and should do.

Perhaps police officers who are school liaisons can impart this to students. Perhaps a video clip can be produced and shared. Perhaps television channels can be used to get the message across.

Why do we easily turn violent when in a crowd?

I am troubled by something else too: How is it that ordinary people, normally peaceful people, can forget themselves and turn violent when in a crowd?

The main reason probably is because being part of a crowd gives them the courage to drop their inhibitions against doing something bad. They give in to their primitive impulses, instead of holding these back, as they normally do.

Could it be that responsibility for their actions does not fall on them alone because it is dispersed as a group? Shared blame does not hurt so much.

Even though these are the probable reasons, I still find it difficult to fathom how someone can hit or kick a stranger – whether once or several times.

If he had been the victim, I can understand. But most of those involved in mob justice are not victims.

How do we lose ourselves in that split second? That is disturbing too.

A.Kathirasen is a veteran Malaysian journalist/editor who has been writing columns, with breaks, in newspapers and online since 1981. All views expressed are the writer's own.

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