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School CP - March 1999
New Straits Times, Kuala Lumpur, 27 March 1999
Entering gangster territoryBy Nirmala Raghavan
FOR 20-year-olds, the two men looked a lot older, probably due to the unnatural, dangerous lives they had lived, smoking and drinking since pre-teens. They were also very physical, tall and muscular, and were a trifle startled when I proferred my hand.
How did it all start?
At 12, it seemed like a privilege to be invited to join a group of older boys, if only to fight. No provocation was too small for fighting in school or outside. An accidental knock, indeed even a rub, was sufficient. "Beating - with anything at all in the hand - was a powerful vent for seething anger," explains Thomas. Not that he was ever beaten at home. Thomas has no memory of his deceased parents or anything specific that made him aggressive. A young, childless widow had cared for him. "With love - only, I didn't understand it then."
He sports neat, long hair and wears three earrings. The private college where he is pursuing a professional course on a full scholarship has no objections to this, he says, laughing. At school, though, the system was punitive. Once, he was caught by the school authorities for fighting outside the school compound. He was asked to bring his guardian.
Xavier, listening with a knowing smile, laughs and chips in with his characteristic lisp: "We always get some drunkard sitting in a toddy shop to act as a big brother. All it takes is two bottles of cheap liquor. The bloke will play his role commendably, scolding and even beating (us) in front of the headmaster!"
It has been argued that young boys should not be labelled "gangsters". Nevertheless, they are unwittingly trained to be so, from early in their lives. Xavier, at nine, sought the help of some adults drinking beer at a nearby stall whenever he was bullied by older boys while playing. He felt protected when they scolded the bullies. This happened several times over the next few years. Even his father's beating failed to steer him away from those adults.
While in Form One, he beat up an older member from another gang in school. He felt "prestigious", and began to extort money, as urged by his adult friends. He began to drink cheap liquor at least or twice a week. ("The head felt hot, and I went home and slept. No one suspected anything.")
Thomas became a mandai (head, in coarse Tamil) when he was in Form Five, with 15 schoolmates under him. He discloses how prospective members are identified: "From teruk (terrible, weak) classes. They are the ones with no interest in studies, and are also easily bullied." Not all readily agree to join gangs, though. Some are beaten up, failing which, they are lent money with interest. When they are unable to repay, they are forced to join the gang.
Fighting and extortion are what gang members do initially. Once some boy is spotted with money, a group of three beats him up and snatches the money. Or, more sophisticatedly, a bag is inverted over his head as a hood, and the string tightened at the neck so that he cannot identify the culprits. This is not a foolproof method, though, as Thomas has often been caught. It was embarrassing to be caned at the school assembly but he soon learnt to shrug it off as biasa (usual), as he was not the only one to be punished.
Before he reached 15, Thomas was escaping from school daily, by jumping over the fence. But he and the other boys always returned to school when it was time to go home. ("Did not want to upset the parents.")
These escapades were for meeting the gang leader. He was in his 40s, managing a gang of 10 aged 16 to their early 20s. If the older man was on the police "wanted list", he frequently changed the meeting place, and they contacted him through his handphone or his assistant. The members paid him a monthly fee, based on their ages (RM10 for Form Five and RM6 for Form Four).
"Some association it was," interrupts Xavier bitterly. He was in another gang, in another city, but they are all basically the same. "We destroyed our childhood for him, and he owns a Mercedes, lending out money for huge interest!"
The gang leader makes his money mainly from outsiders who seek his services to avenge someone. "The fee is less than RM1,000 for a minor case."
A minor case?
Oh, beating to find out something, to "get the truth". And the "big case" means "ending the story altogether", as Thomas euphemistically dismisses murder.
During his upper secondary school years, Thomas was fully involved in gang activities, attending school only twice a week. No doubt, the school sent letters to report his absence for three or more consecutive days, but the usual practice was to give a friend's address as one's own. The letters were intercepted and burnt.
On successful completion of school, Thomas became a close friend of the gang leader, drank liquor with him every night and went to discos. "No women," he laughs shyly, at my prying. "But I tease women on the road!" I assure him that it is something every man does.
Thomas represented Malaysia in several international sports events. And he attends church regularly. ("Once a week, I was a good, religious person"). It was at a church youth camp that he met another gang member who was studying at university. Over a year, they talked about their lives, while still engaging in gang activities. It resulted in confession to a priest, who made them see things in the right perspective.
The first step was to admit his wrongdoings to his adoptive mother. "She was sad, but understood." Understandably, his gang leader feared exposure, and refused to let him go. "I don't want to waste my entire life," Thomas kept pleading, and the leader gave in after a year. Now he nods when he meets his protege, whom he loved enough to set free.
"You have to learn to solve your problems as they arise, by discussing with someone confidentially. I tried, but the school counsellors were not properly trained. Could never trust them, as they invariably spread your secret," says Thomas, with disgust. But he has no intention of holding on to the past.
Xavier has also reformed. He trained to be a mechanic, but so far, has held three different jobs.
"Not once since I turned 13 have my parents beaten or scolded me. 'I know you are not interested in studies. What do you want to do?' my father asks'," he says gratefully. Some of his friends, who were beaten up by their fathers in an attempt to correct them, left home to continue with their old ways. But with family support, Xavier is on his way to becoming a trader.
© Copyright 1998, The New Straits Times Press (Malaysia) Berhad. All Rights Reserved.
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