WHY NOT? By WONG SAI WAN
The recent riots in Britain have given this nursery rhyme new significance about all that is wrong, but sadly it is nothing new.
THE world was shocked to see thugs, many barely in their teens, rioting and looting in various cities in England, which many Malaysians consider a heaven, with some unabashedly saying that going there is “balik kampung” (going back to the hometown).
The horror of the whole thing was brought even closer to home by the video clip of Malaysian student Mohd Asyraf Rafiq Rosli being robbed by the rioters after he had been assaulted. It was uploaded onto YouTube for the world to see, and then picked up by all TV stations.
The assault and robbery of Asyraf and the burning of a century-old furniture shop in Hackney were the main haunting images of the riot.
British Prime Minister David Cameron was quick to recall Parliament for an emergency session, where he condemned the rioters and at the same time dismissed the mid-summer nightmare as greed and thuggery.
He rejected any suggestion that his government’s budgetary cuts was the cause of the riots, and declared “all-out war” on gangs, which he blamed for fuelling four nights of frenzied looting, saying they were “a major criminal disease that has infected streets and estates across our country”.
“This has been a wake-up call for our country. Social problems that have been festering for decades have exploded in our face,” he said, adding that a redoubling of efforts to tackle broken families, welfare dependence and educational failure was needed.
“Do we have the determination to confront the slow-motion moral collapse that has taken place in parts of our country these past few generations?”
But has this come a little too late?
Well-known London social worker Sheldon Thomas, an ex-gang member who runs a mentoring programme, pointed out that British society is “broken” and the government action may be too late.
“People like me have been saying this for decades,” he said. “People are angry, people are frustrated. There are no jobs, there is no aspiration.”
Thomas and many of his fellow youth leaders said Cameron’s government was only reacting to the visuals that were seen all over the world, especially when the rioting and looting affected the wealthier part of the cities.
Youth and social workers have been sounding the warning for years but successive British governments were more interested in projecting the growing materialistic part of Britain while the inner city problems were swept underneath the proverbial carpet.
People like Thomas are right. Go to YouTube and type “Moss Side” to see hundreds of CCTV video clips by the Greater Manchester Police on gang problems there.
National Geographic produced an excellent series on Manchester’s underworld, titled Gunchester. It seems there are more guns in this former industrial centre than in any other city in Britain.
Moss Side, the centre of these violent gangs, is one of many inner city projects started in the 1950s after World War II that have turned into a social mess. There used to be thousands of council flats in Moss Side and neighbouring Hulme, where hundreds of Malaysian students stayed in their student days.
Among these, almost 30 years ago, was yours truly. Moss Side then was filled with blacks from the Caribbean and Africa. And they still form the majority today.
It was here in 1985 that the first race riots occurred, and spread to the rest of Britain. As a consequence, the British government decided to do away with the flats, blaming them for the inner city problems.
The truth was that Moss Side and many such inner city areas were a different country from the rest of Britain. They were improvised areas with many unemployed. Moss Side was – and still is, I am told – a bastion of drugs, vice and gangsterism.
A colleague, a fanatical Manchester United supporter, said he had been to the city many times, but he never ventured into Moss Side.
“Be careful when you see a boy wearing a hoodie (a sweatshirt with a hood) walking towards you. I will normally cross the street when I see one,” he said.
I don’t blame him because records show there had been more than 800 gang-related murders in Manchester in the past decade.
About five years ago, a 14-year-old boy was killed by a rival gang in Manchester.
His was not an isolated incident. There have been scores of teenage murders up and down England, especially in the inner cities, like Moss Side.
But to blame the gangs alone for the recent riots is a convenient excuse at best, or political naivete at worst.
Morality is not a word with any meaning in places like Moss Side, where the social structure has broken down. In this kind of place, one competes to be the youngest mother or grandmother.
Most parents do not know where their kids are at any time of the day. Anyway, most fathers and mothers have criminal records or had served time at the nearby city prison.
I recall being in a newspaper shop in Moss Side and the local postman strolled in and greeted the woman shopkeeper, who replied: “What can I do for you today, Mick?”
He said: “Can I have a 12-year-old virgin, please?”
To this, the elderly woman replied: “There are no such thing as 12-year-old virgins here. This is Moss Side.”
This conversation has stayed in my mind for the past 30 years and, of course, it was an exaggeration by the shopkeeper and the postman, but not by much.
We in Malaysia must be aware that we are also building inner city estates all over Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya. Tall council or public housing flats are a sure-fire formula for such problems as in Moss Side.
The Women’s and Family Development Ministry must study these areas carefully to ensure that social problems are solved before they become tinder to a highly inflammable situation.
Executive editor Wong Sai Wan was kept awake for three days in Moss Side by Bob Marley’s No Women No Cry when he died on May 11, 1981