When it comes to politics in Malaysia, no politician is safe from graphic artist Fahmi Reza’s skewering.
The outspoken designer, who rose to prominence in 2015 for depicting then-prime minister Najib Razak as a clown, has been a key figure in the country’s online activism scene – bringing attention to social injustices and drumming up support for political causes.
“When it comes to Malaysian politics, I’ve always held on to the belief that you cannot trust politicians in general on all sides. [My art] doesn’t just feature ruling party politicians from the government. Even opposition figures get lampooned,” he said in the VICE World News original series Censored.
“No one is spared by me,” Fahmi said. “It’s important for me not to bow down to pressure or intimidation from the authorities because it would just make it easier for them to silence dissent and go after their critics to keep themselves in power.”
In the episode, Fahmi also speaks about his use of art and satire, as well as his experiences dealing with government persecution and censorship.
Those very issues have ironically hit home in recent days, after police brought several charges against the graphic artist over his work. While he is no stranger to arrests, he admitted that he was caught off guard on April 24 when 20 police officers showed up at his home without warning. He said they kicked a hole in his door and forced their way in, seizing his laptop and smartphone before leading him away in handcuffs.
His alleged offence? Creating a Spotify playlist that allegedly “insulted” the Malaysian queen, the subject of ongoing controversy after she directly responded to an Instagram follower who grilled her about rumours surrounding royal access to vaccinations. “Are you jealous,” Queen Tunku Azizah Aminah Maimunah Iskandariah replied, before she swiftly deactivated her official account and a public backlash ensued.
Fahmi Reza on set with VICE. Photo: Joshua Paul / VICE World News
The playlist, titled “This is Dengki Ke” (Dengki is the Malay term for resentment and jealousy), was a play on the queen’s comments and featured her image. It also carried various songs whose titles contained the word “jealousy”.
Screenshot of the playlist cover created by Fahmi Reza. Photo courtesy of the artist
In emails seen by VICE World News, more than a hundred Spotify “removal notices” were sent to Fahmi, who said that the queen’s photo had been repeatedly removed from his playlist despite re-uploading.
VICE World News reached out to Spotify for official comment but a representative in Kuala Lumpur said that the company had no statement to make on the matter.
As a result, Fahmi spent one day in jail and was released on bail Saturday evening. His lawyers said they had argued against an initial four-day remand as requested by the police for further questioning.
He admitted that he was still “trying to process” the bizarre ordeal.
“I like to think that my art and activism shines a spotlight on the wrongdoings in our country. But what was my crime? Creating a Spotify playlist. And now I’m being censored for it,” Fahmi said days after his release.
“It was clearly a show of force on the part of the authorities who came down harder on me this time round, using the kind of tactics reserved for serious criminals.”
Authorities confirmed that Fahmi’s latest arrest fell under Malaysia’s sedition and communication laws. It comes amid increasing concern from rights groups over a crackdown on dissent by Malaysian prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin.
“I’m not going to change what I do and if the authorities want to make an example out of me, they are making a big mistake,” he said.