For over 30 years, Pekida has been one of the shadow allies of the ruling party, UMNO; emerging in the media only in 2008. The election results of 2008 were seen as an awakening of political consciousness among the majority of Malaysians. Facing this new wave of awareness, certain UMNO leaders felt even more threatened, fearing that their power and the accompanying benefits might be jeopardised by the growing discontent emanating from Malaysians, particularly the Malays. The strategy of the gangs and the party thus changed, and new NGOs and gangs mushroomed in the public sphere, forming what is often seen as a new ethno-nationalist “ultra-Malay” movement.
Pekida is often referred to as Tiga Line (or the 3 Lines) alluding to the colours of its official flag: red, yellow and green. The use of these three colours signifies Pekida‘s allegiances: to the Malay community (red as in blood), to the Sultan (yellow symbolising royalty) and to Islam (green). But Pekida’s nebula cannot be reduced to a set of colours: the NGO is in fact an umbrella for a nationwide network. Pekida is a complex and loose network of discreet NGOs created by gangs for which political militancy is a business. Pekida is indeed a generic name used to describe this network, but in reality the name “Pekida” is the name of one of those numerous NGOs created by this network to offer political support and to legalise parts of their activities.
Pekida, in its widest meaning, is a polymorphic entity: a thousand headed hydra, none of which talk to each other nor look in the same direction. Pekida groups share the same roots, hierarchy, codes of honour and similar introductions rites, while bearing different ethnic compositions (exclusive or inclusive), nature of business (legal or illegal: drugs, clubs, racketeering), level of political involvement and degree of violence. Leadership rivalries have sealed these differences and led to a political split. Each network is composed by several sub-groups, which may answer to different names. Names and logos, if any, are often representing numbers and animals – tiger, dragon, eagle, etc. – inspired by the names of kongsi gelap[i]. The name Pekida, often wrongly used, thus became a generic term, a label that embraces a very large national network of gangs spread across the country.
The popular perception of Pekida is disparate: a militia, the arm of UMNO, the Malay mafia etc. In fact, categorising Pekida as a gang or a mafia is difficult. Most members of Pekida identify themselves as “gangster”, hence the term gang was chosen to describe the organisation. The definition of Pekida as a nebula of gangs is based on the work of Hagerdorn (2008)[ii] and has been substantiated by fieldwork observation.
I define gang as: (1) a hierarchical group federated under a leader; (i) that may exists on its own, (ii) belong to a larger network, or (iii) be allied to other groups of different leadership allegiance. The credibility and longevity of the group is reliant on its level of institutionalisation; (2) The main objective of the gang is to make profit, and increase its power through various means. Members are involved in illegal activities and may use different degrees of violence. This basic ambition is often reshaped into pseudo-ideological terms in order to facilitate recruitment, group cohesion, and justify the use of violence; (3) The sustainability of the group is ensured by its potential for adaptation to political and social changes. A gang’s political and sociological identity, and discourse, may change according to opportunity. This means that gangs are entities that transcend space and time. Gangs are neither the exclusive products of cities and urbanisation nor a consequence of industrialisation: gangs may be grounded in rural or semi-urban areas, and pre-industrialised or industrialised societies; (4) Authoritarian or transitional political contexts are favourable to the development of an opportunist relationship between gangs and political parties. In this context, gangs may become an entrepreneur of politics or connivance militants to whom political actions are sub-contracted too in order for certain political parties to sustain political power.
While I chose to describe Pekida as a “gang”, interestingly the older generation of members often used the term “mafia”, or “Mafia Melayu”. These expressions were found widely on blogs and i-chat room in English and in Malay. I believe the use of the term mafia by Pekida members and outsiders have two origins: first it lies in the influence of stereotypes and fantasies conveyed by the idea of the mafia, and secondly it reveals a generational gap between members: the elder using the term mafia and the younger, the term gang. American, Asian and Malaysian movies and TV series[iii] and Malaysian and/or American inspired Hip Hop music[iv] have had an influence on the younger generation, while the older generations have identified with the classical themes presented in Italian mafia movies where being an outlaw typifies sophistication and masculinity, based on idealisations developed since the 1970s (Larke-Walsh 2010)[v].
Diego Gambetta’s (1993)[vi] analysis of the Italian mafia’s organisation gives a precise idea of how the study of criminalised phenomena raises stereotypes that will ineluctably lead to scientific solecisms. His work disentangled some “beliefs” regarding the mafia’s organisational structures. These beliefs echo the rumours spread around Pekida’s nature and to some extent has shaped the fantastical narratives of gang members about their own organisation, to quote Gambetta’s words:
- Mafia families are bound by well-defined organisational arrangements which coordinate their action to the point that the mafia can be treated, at least some of the time, as a single agent (the most plausible version in this claim is that the mafia is a sort of overarching secret society).
- Mafia arrangements include a set of well-defined norms, which regulate behaviour across families.
- The organisation is fully Sicilian but has national and international ramifications
- The organisation has a name, a language, and a style of its own.
- Membership status is precisely defined, possibly by an initiation.
The striking points of this comparison are: first the fact that the stereotypes usually convey a concept of the mafia as “a single agent” or a “secret society” possessing “family laws” which has often been noted as a similar characteristic of the stereotypes concept of gangs. Secondly, mafia and gangs are seen as different forms of “organised crime” or criminal organisation”. These expressions bear the idea of a rigorous hierarchy, uncompromising codes and a deeply bound “family”.
Pekida’s structure is what distinguishes it from the classification usually conveyed by gang stereotypes (and stereotypes of mafia) in terms of its organisation, norms and codes; invalidating the idea of universality – without discrediting its strong sense of brotherhood. Despite possessing a common hierarchy, norms or regulations are in fact defined by leaders and thus an internal constitution or code does not exist. Pekida can be described as a union of firms that use the same brand name “Pekida” and occasionally associate among the different groups. In the same vein as the mafia as described by Gambetta, Pekida’s dark chapters are in fact many individual “firms” united by a “brand name and, intermittently, a cartel” forming an “industry of protection” or connivance militancy. Secondly, despite the existence of several codes –signs and strategies of communication-, and similar rituals the norms existing within the groups are often breached and manipulated and should not be seen as part of a fixed and universally agreed-on rule.
Pekida gangs are mostly local or national organisations; international connections may exist but they rely mostly on personal relationships rather than being a result of “family” ties. The membership status in gangs is well defined and initiation rituals are used to demonstrate the potential of violence as well as being a means for imposing the gangs’ order and hierarchy onto new recruits.
The members’ beliefs express a reformulation of dogmatic religious-inspired stories (like the return of Imam Mahdi[vii]) and the ultimate goal of safeguarding the Malays: rhetoric embedded in the ethno-nationalist discourse usually found in UMNO’s propaganda. Interestingly, and despite the fact that all respondents were of Malay descent, Pekida and its satellites should not be seen as an exclusively Malay organisation. Pekida’s gangs form an ethnically diverse nebula organisation where Malays are the majority. As such, these gangs mirror Malaysian society and its political environment: its sociological mix and political rivalries.
Despite the rumours and the fact that most members believe in a very strong brotherhood-link and network; Pekida gangs are not a homogeneous entity but a nationally spread nebula. Each branch and group share similarities to each other but remain independent in loose alliance. These gangs may share their history but are marked by different evolutions and may eventually, as opportunist groups, change their political allegiance in a timely manner.
Sophie Lemière is the Jean Monnet Postdoctoral Fellow at the European University Institute, Florence, Italy. She holds a PhD and a Masters in Comparative Politics from Sciences-Po (France). She is the author of Misplaced Democracy: Malaysian Politics and People.
[i] Colloquial term referring to Chinese organised crime. [ii] A World of Gangs: Armed Young Men and Gangsta Culture, University of Minnesota Press, 2008. John Hagerdon has made a valuable contribution to the field of gang studies by comparing gang’s behaviour in America from a sociological perspective. [iii] American movies like the Godfather or the TV show the Sopranos ; Hong Kong, Korean, Japanese and Thai gangsters movies like ┬л Internal Affairs ┬╗, ┬л City on fire ┬╗, ┬л The Killer ┬╗ …etc. [iv] American ┬л gangsta Hip Hop ┬╗ or East and West coast (of the United States) rap, as well as Malaysian hip-hop singers mostly from the label Kartel produced by Joe Flizzow. [v] Screening the Mafia: Masculinity, Ethnicity and Mobsters from The Godfather to The Sopranos, George S. Larke-Walsh, McFarland 2010 [vi] Diego Gambetta is one of the world’s leading experts on the Italian Mafia. He is based at the European University Institute. The Sicilian Mafia: the Business of Private Protection, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993 [vii] Imam Mahdi the prophesied redeemer of Islam, who upon Christ’s return, aid him in cleansing the world of evil and uniting humanity.