(This story first appeared on Sin Chew Daily on April 19, 2018.)
There is a Malay snack stall selling goreng pisang and goreng ubi beside Jalan Mahmoodiah at the back of Johor Bahru’s Sultanah Aminah Hospital.
A young man wearing a cap stared at the food on the customer’s plate, his index finger hitting the buttons on his calculator, asking the customer whether he wanted to order a drink.
“Total RM7.80. Thank you.”
He took the money and dropped it into a small cash box.
The young man was obviously very busy at this hour of the day. So I went back to the stall during the afternoon tea break, and saw that he was still sitting there but I was unsure whether he had moved his position during these few hours.
When he finally managed a short break. I opened my mouth and asked, “Can you share with us how you lost your legs racing your bicycle…?”
August 10, 2008, Mohamad Saad was lying flat on his bike in a superman posture swooping down the slope.
His bike had been modified, the brakes removed. On that long and broad slopy road, he could feel the passing wind and the speed, just before the bang!
“I really could not remember what happened at that instant. I lost my consciousness. By the time I woke up, I found myself lying on a hospital bed. All I knew was I broke my spine!”
Many cars were parked along JB’s inner ring road that day, probably because of a wedding ceremony there.
Mohamad’s bike hit one of the parked vehicles.
At the very same spot in the early morning of February 18, 2017, a large group of youngsters were assembling on the road and were hit by a passing car. Eight people were killed and eight others injured.
Along the inner ring road there are many flyovers that form long and broad slopes where youngsters used to have their fun.
After the accident, Mohamad broke his spine, was paralysed from waist down, and became wheelchair-bound.
More than ten years now, the rebellious teenager is today a 24-year-old grown-up man sporting long hair and wearing a cap. With a sarong covering his lower body, he is collecting money from customers at his family-run goreng pisang stall.
Having received media interviews before, Mohamad was not much taken aback by our visit, and was in fact happy to talk to us.
As he was unable to move his legs and had to sit on a wheelchair all the time, his left leg became necrotic and had to be amputated. He even showed us pictures of the ulceration of his hip on his phone.
Teenagers’ toy: modified bike
Impressionable young lads are crazy about modified bicycles with ultra low frames, treadless tyres and no brakes. In Malay, such bikes are called basikal nyamuk or mosquito bikes in English. This is because when the rider lies flat on the bicycle, he looks like a blood-sucking mosquito. A more popular name is basikal lajak, meaning superfast bike.
Mohamad used to be that type of speed-chasing youngster. After all this, sure enough he knows very well today how dangerous bike racing could be, for it has taken away his legs, and the lives of other ignorant youths.
“We wanted to challenge the extremes. We wanted to be in the limelight. We wanted to be famous!
“We thought it was a lot of fun. We wanted to prove our gallantry. We feared not even if we knew it was dangerous!”
I asked him whether he was keen on bike racing because he dreamed of carving his place in the Olympics.
No, in their circle, they don’t actually care about the techniques. All they want is outspeed the rest of the pack.
To them, bike racing is different from school sports, as their competitors are not confined only to school mates, but contestants from other villages.
While Mohamad was living in JB, he had rivals from faraway villages, places as far as Kota Tinggi 40km away.
“We had people from different places. I was the fastest in my village and was therefore the village representative, pitted against the fastest in other villages. We were fighting for our village’s honour.”
Father’s warning falling on deaf ears
He recalled that he started racing as early as in 2001, when baton-armed police going after his friends racing in the street.
“They just needed to turn back at the sight of a police patrol car. How was the police car going to turn back and give us a chase?
“We had nothing to fear. Imagine a bicycle could go alongside a big car and even block the car in front. We wouldn’t give way even if they honked,” he continued, adding that bicycles over ten years ago were not so elaborately modified as they are today, although they did not have their brakes installed, too.
Mohamad’s mother recalled what happened ten years ago: “That afternoon, his father warned him sternly that if he went out racing again, he would kill him.
“He told me he would go out to repair his bike, and should be back by the evening.
“I had a headache after preparing the lunch and went for a rest. His father was also having a nap. The boy just sneaked out of the house…”
She said she had tried to stop the boy many times but to no avail.
“All parents care about their children’s safety. They didn’t persuade them not to go out in the middle of the night? It’s the problem with the youngsters themselves,” Mohamad rebuked public allegations in agitation. “Look at me. I’ll blame myself because my parents did tell me not to do it but I still went ahead in defiance.
“Even if I were to behave like an obedient son in front of them, I would still sneak out of the house the moment they were not watching.”
He asked, “Most parents would be dead tired by the time they get back from work. What can they do if the child quietly sneaks out of the house when they are deeply in sleep?”
A dangerous passion lives on
A racing event doesn’t have to be planned beforehand. When the mood is right and there’s someone coming along, it will be on!
Mohamad related that after his mishap, there were still many youngsters continuing to race their bikes in his village.
He said calmly even if this generation of street racers have come to pass, there’s always a new generation of daredevils joining the game.
I asked him whether modified bicycle enthusiasts were mostly poor or performing badly at school, and he told me the hobby had nothing to do with family background or academic performance, as anyone could join in, poor or rich.
“Those without money to buy a bike can join the club and secure used parts from other members to assemble their own.
“You’re poor and see that your friend has an expensive toy which you cannot afford. As you want to have one very badly, you’ll start saving, one year or two years perhaps…”
His mother interrupted, “He used to help sweep the tombs to earn some pocket money which he then spent on the parts.”
What about the idea of putting these young people at a safe cycling circuit so that they can race there?
“Everyone knows street racing is illegal in Malaysia, but they cannot resist the thrill, and the fun of challenging the authorities. This makes people feel excited and proud. Racing in the circuit lacks competition, and no one will be there cheering for you. No fun at all!
“In conclusion, we’re after the fame!”
How did Mohamad feel when he learned that he would be paralysed from waist down at such a tender age of 14?
“Sure enough I felt devastated. I couldn’t imagine how I could go on with my life unable to walk again. I used to help out at the stall since very young, but couldn’t do anything after that accident.
“I asked myself why I had gone out racing again. I knew it was dangerous and I shouldn’t have don’t it, but why did I go out again?
“After the mishap, I came to realise that the hobby didn’t benefit anything other than the fame among fellow young racers. But again this fame wouldn’t go with me for the rest of my life.”
How should we stop such illegal and dangerous bike racing activities among the teenagers?
“I guess the parents, government departments and political leaders have their roles to play. They need to put in a lot more effort. Of course, those young people, too, must have the awareness.
“I had a serious accident, and I used to love street racing. Perhaps I can share my experience with the youngsters. Perhaps I can assemble them here, without their bikes but with their parents coming along, so that I can share my story with them.”