Malaysia's "hell riders" plague city streets

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Dozens of young Malaysian men hurtle through late-night city traffic on small motorbikes in a race that could easily end in death.

It’s a typical Saturday night in cities and towns across the country as thousands of bikers, calling themselves Mat Rempit (hell riders), take to the streets, racing at up to 160 kph (100 mph) and performing hair-raising stunts.

A split-second misjudgement can be fatal while weaving through cars and trucks at such speeds, but these youths run this risk every weekend in the hope of winning money or a girl for the night but, above all, the respect of their peers.

Mat Rempit is a fraternity of jobless and lowly paid men for whom cheating death is a path to glory, a way of earning respect.

“They are in their own world,” said Abdul Azeez Rahim, a leader of the youth wing of Malaysia’s main ruling party, which has tried to engage Mat Rempit with an outreach program. “They will die for each other.”

Mat Rempit, in their trademark tight blue jeans, do more than race. They also risk death or serious injury with stunts like the reverse wheelie -- riding downhill on only the front wheel - and the “superman,” hurtling along while lying flat on the bike.

“It is exhilarating to race down a road. All I need is just a few ringgit for fuel and I can have the time of my life,” courier Amir Fairuz told Reuters as he prepared for an illegal street race on a recent Friday night.

Mat Rempit races can also turn violent.

Recently, a 21-year-old man was killed after two groups of Mat Rempit clashed over a minor accident during an illegal race in Kuala Lumpur. Last year, bikers clubbed a motorist to death.

In October, a group went on a rampage in the trendy Kuala Lumpur suburb of Bangsar, smashing car windscreens after a resident yelled at them for making noise early in the morning. In the same month, about 20 Mat Rempit stoned a police station in northern Penang state after police arrested two from their gang.

“Mat Rempit, the 21-century challenge for our sociologists, politicians and law enforcers, are now public enemy No.1,” the pro-government New Straits Times daily declared recently.


Rozmi Ismail, psychology lecturer at Malaysia’s Universiti Kebangsaan, met some 100 Mat Rempit for a study into the subject. He attributes their behavior to a “show-off” culture.

“Some of the Mat Rempit are school dropouts. They are bored and they need to find cheap thrills,” he said. “With just 10 ringgit for petrol, they can race until dawn.”

There are an estimated 200,000 Mat Rempit, some as young as 16. Most are factory workers, couriers and office assistants, many earning about 1,200 ringgit ($333) a month or less.

They ride on small Yamahas or Hondas, often with girlfriends on pillion, and race under their respective “clubs” whose names include “Kamikaze” and “Apache.”

Some of them use a potion known as “fearless water” -- a mixture of palm wine and turtle blood, according to local media -- before opening the throttle on their souped-up bikes.

Malaysians are afraid of challenging or approaching them.

A grocer said he had been beaten and robbed by seven Mat Rempit in mid-September near his home in northern Kedah state.

“One of the Mat Rempit lost control and hit my car from behind,” 30-year-old Sung Cheah Seong told the Star newspaper.

“I quickly got out of the car to help him but his friends turned back and stopped to curse me. Before I could say anything, they hit me with their helmets and sticks,” he said.

The phenomenon has dominated TV talk shows and even spawned a local box-office success, with a movie produced by David Teo.

Teo used a former Mat Rempit as the lead actor in “Remp-It.”

“The message is that if you are a Rempit, you can die anytime,” Teo, who is producing a sequel next year, told Reuters.

With Malaysia’s hell riders now on the big screen, police are frustrated at what they see as the glorification of Mat Rempit.

“To me, these Mat Rempit are an undisciplined bunch of youths who do not hesitate to run into officers at roadblocks to escape punishment, creating a lawless situation,” Malaysia’s police chief, Musa Hassan, fumed recently.

But police face an uphill task to tame the bikers.

One former “hell rider,” asked by police to talk about the perils of Mat Rempit culture at a recent youth forum, ended up extolling the thrills of street racing, to the obvious delight of his audience and the dismay of the forum’s organizers.

“Each scar sustained from falling off motorcycles is like a feather in our caps as it earns us bragging rights over our endeavors on the road,” Wazi Hamid, father of four, told the forum.

The authorities, declaring an all-out war against the menace, plan to tighten laws to enable the police to seize the machines.

“We are amending the laws, whereby we will confiscate the motorbikes and impose more severe punishment for these people,” Deputy Internal Security Minister Johari Baharum told Reuters.

But UMNO’s Abdul Azeez says new laws are not the answer. The party has instead called on the sports ministry to provide race tracks so that Mat Rempit can at least move off the streets.

“You cannot resolve this problem for a few generations to come. This is their hobby and you can’t stop them.”