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‘Lepak’ culture: Once frowned on as social ill, now a family event?

While loafing about or 'lepaking' was once heavily discouraged by the government, even families with young children are now staying out until the wee hours of the morning.

Nur Hasliza Mohd Salleh
5 minute read
People zoom about on e-scooters despite the late hour at Dataran Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur.
People zoom about on e-scooters despite the late hour at Dataran Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur.

In the heart of the capital city of Kuala Lumpur, the sound of laughter and the shouts of children fill the air as they run and play – at nearly 1.30 in the morning.

In front of the Sultan Abdul Samad building and the iconic Dataran Merdeka, roads have been closed off to make way for the children and their families who are hanging out in the middle of the field.

Others race about on electric scooters, chasing each other in any open space available.

Checks by MalaysiaNow over the weekend found that people began coming at about 6pm and stayed out until the wee hours of the morning.

People of all ages were seen laughing and chatting, accompanied by their children – even babies less than a year old.

Children who grew tired while waiting to go home curled up on their mothers’ laps or gave in to sleepy tantrums.

A couple with a young child scroll through their phones as the night deepens at Dataran Medeka in Kuala Lumpur.

Here and there, groups of teenagers lounged with no parental supervision whatsoever. When approached by MalaysiaNow, they said they were there with their parents’ blessings to spend time with their friends. Some even said they had been given pocket money to spend while they were out.

Farhan, 13, made the trip from his home in Bukit Kemuning in Selangor together with three other friends aged 15 to 17. The four paid more than RM30 for an e-hailing ride to the capital city in order to play on their e-scooters.

He said his parents never asked any questions as long as he was home before 1am.

Speaking to MalaysiaNow beside the Sultan Abdul Samad building at nearly 1.30am, however, he said today was an exception.

“It’s crowded with people so my mum said it’s okay. If I can’t get a Grab ride home, my dad will come and pick me up,” he said.

‘Release stress’

Jeevan, from Batu Caves, Selangor, has brought his six-year-old son to Dataran Merdeka since the child was eight months old.

The area in front of Dataran Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur teems with life despite the late hour.

For him, bringing his son there gives him the space to meet and play with new friends. He also believes that spending time there helps the boy release some of the stress that he says he feels, even at such a young age.

“On normal days, from Monday to Friday, I don’t let him come,” Jeevan said.

“He needs to get his homework done and sleep early so that he can wake up for school the next day.

“But on Friday and Saturday, he asks to be brought here. Now, everyone is familiar with him and knows who he is.

“Children feel stressed too,” Jeevan added. “We can’t keep telling him just to study and to do his school work. Let them play as much as they want on the days when they don’t have to go to school. What’s wrong with that?”

For Jeevan and his wife, Anu, bringing their child to Dataran Merdeka also gives them an opportunity to explain to him the history of the location and its significance.

They enjoy holding hands and strolling along the river at the back of the Sultan Abdul Samad building.

City folk of all ages enjoy a ride on the e-scooters up for rent at Dataran Merdeka.

Jeevan’s friend Tamil Selvan, on the other hand, took a while to warm up to the idea of hanging out at so-called hotspots such as Dataran Merdeka.

Tamil, who lives in Shah Alam and has a five-year-old son, grew up associating the area with negative activities such as illegal racing. But when his friend invited him to come along one day, he found it difficult to refuse.

“When I came and I saw the atmosphere, I changed my mind,” he said.

“The children can run around and play. It’s such a big space. At home, they can’t play like this.”

It’s also safe as the roads are blocked off, he added. “We know no cars or motorcycles will come in.”

Eventually, even his wife came along. “She made friends with the wives of my other friends. She can rest and unwind from all the work she does throughout the day,” Tamil said.

Changing narrative

Jeevan, Tamil and their friends are part of a new generation that embraces the culture of loafing about or “melepak” instead of pushing it away.

Children zoom about on an e-scooter at Dataran Merdeka.

Not too long ago, in the 1990s, the government spent no small amount of money trying to curb such activities, launching campaigns and policies including within the education system.

In school, students were told of the dangers and negative effects of “lepaking” but today, sentiments appear very different.

With such crowds readily available, traders also do a roaring business selling drinks and snacks, weaving their way in and out with their trolleys and wheelbarrows.

Rabiatul, 41, told MalaysiaNow she could make up to RM400 a night selling drinks and fruit to families who come with their children.

She only does this on weekends and public holidays but even so, it is enough to feed and clothe herself and her two children.

“After the movement control order, I lost my job,” she said. “I couldn’t find any work. Even finding enough food was difficult.

“Now, I make enough to give my children pocket money to spend in school.”

A woman cradles a sleeping child as she scrolls through her phone at a drinks stall at Dataran Merdeka.

Izzat, who came to Kuala Lumpur in 2018 from his home town in Pahang, also lost his job when the pandemic hit.

He used to work as an assistant engineer, earning RM3,000 each month.

After losing his job, he used his savings and the money he withdrew from his EPF account to buy 15 scooters which he now rents out at the square.

“I charge RM25 for half an hour,” he said. “It depends on what type of scooter it is.”

These days, he can make as much as RM6,000 a month.

“I keep the money for the future,” he said. “I only use what I earn to pay the electricity bill which is quite high because I charge all of these vehicles at home.”

As the night drew to a close, Jeevan and Tamil’s sons played on, oblivious to the late hour.

When asked if they were tired or sleepy, they immediately said no. When asked what they would do after they went home, Jeevan’s son said he would rest the next day as he needed to help his mother at home.

Tamil’s son, meanwhile, said with the honesty of a child: “I want to eat McDonald’s.”