Meet the Malaysian Artist Fighting Government Corruption with a Cartoon

Fahmi Reza's political art has been getting him in trouble for decades. His latest work, a giant clownish take on the Malaysian PM's face, has become the icon for the country's anti-corruption push.

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Apr 5 2016, 12:00am

Image courtesy of Fahmi Reza

This article originally appeared on VICE Australia.

Right now, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is embroiled in a corruption scandal so massive, it will make you nostalgic for the days when politicians were dumped over one too many helicopter flights or an expensive bottle of wine.

Razak allegedly funneled public money from the country's future fund into his personal bank account to the tune of $638 million. There are other allegations too—darker but less concrete—of bribery and extortion to the murder of a young woman. Under normal circumstances, this would be enough to topple a country's leader. But this is Malaysia—a country plagued by political corruption, where press freedom remains dismally low.

That's why few Malaysians were surprised when the country's attorney general cleared Razak of any corruption in January 2016. Instead, the official line is that the unexplained hundreds of millions flowing into the prime minister's account was a donation from the Saudi royal family. Many Malaysians don't believe this for a second—pointing out the former attorney general, who first launched the investigation, was removed by Najib.

Enter Fahmi Reza, a Malaysian artist whose political art has been getting him in trouble for decades. Reza's latest work, a giant clownish take on Razak's face, went viral throughout southeast Asia and has become the icon for an anti-corruption push in Malaysia. VICE sat down with Reza to talk about going up against the most powerful man in his country, getting arrested, and Kuala Lumpur's DIY punk scene.

VICE: Tell me about your poster of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak as a clown. I'm seeing it everywhere on Twitter.
Fahmi Reza: The original clown-faced Najib Razak artwork was my reaction to two issues. First, to the news that the Malaysian attorney general cleared Najib of any corruption relating to the long-running financial scandal, absolving him from all wrongdoing. The level of absurdity that the government used to cover up the scandal and corruption is astounding.

Second, it was a reaction to an Amnesty International report, which states that in 2015 alone there were 91 instances of the Sedition Act being used by the government to arrest, investigate, or charge individuals. In Malaysia, the government is very intolerant of dissent.

Fahmi Reza pasting up his first Najib Razak poster

I heard the police got in touch with you just three hours after you released the first poster of the prime minister. Did they really tweet at you?
The original clown-faced Najib artwork was posted on my Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts on January 31. Within three hours after I posted the artwork on Twitter, I received a warning from the police cyber unit, PCIRC, telling me that they've placed my Twitter account under police surveillance and warning me to use it "prudently and according to the law."

In defiance, I immediately wrote a response on Facebook in Malay, which translates to, "In a country that uses laws to protect the corrupt and oppress those brave enough to speak out, it is time that we stop being prudent when fighting against corrupt rulers."

How have Malaysians responded to the poster?
Not only have they responded favorably, but they have also played an active role in creating and disseminating the image. As a show of solidarity, a graphic design collective called GRUPA started flooding Facebook and Twitter with its own pictures of a clown-faced Najib along with the hashtag #KitaSemuaPenghasut, which translates to "We Are All Agitators." They produced close to one hundred posters in total.

What started out as a single act of defiance had suddenly turned into a "social media protest movement" led by graphic designers. This is something completely new and out of the ordinary for Malaysia.

Malaysians have posted Reza's T-shirt designs on social media.

Has this movement only been online? I can understand why, given how strict the government is about protest.
Within a week after I first pasted the giant sized clown poster in the streets of Kuala Lumpur, others started emulating this act by pasting the same poster in their own towns. To date, the posters have appeared in twenty different cities and towns all over the country.

The clown image, along with the slogan "Kita Semua Penghasut," has also been printed on protest T-shirts. Currently there are forty DIY T-shirt printers around the country printing and selling the T-shirts. Within three weeks they've sold a combined total of two thousand four hundred T-shirts.

People who have bought the T-shirts are sharing their photos wearing the T-shirt on social media, along with the hashtag #KitaSemuaPenghasut as a way to express their protest and dissent. The clown image has now been transformed into a Malaysian symbol of rebellion against this corrupt and authoritarian government.

Malaysians wearing Reza's T-shirt designs on social media

The police are investigating you as "an intentional insult to provoke a breach of peace" for the clown poster. What happens if you're found guilty?
If charged and convicted for this offense, I will face up to three years in jail or a fine of 50,000 RM [about $12,800] or both. Both the police and the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) have questioned me and recorded my statement. They did not say anything. My case is still open. The police and the MCMC are still doing their investigation. We'll just have to wait for their next move. The worse case scenario is that I may be charged and convicted for two "offenses" and jailed for five years.

I heard that you got your start as a political graphic designer making posters for punk bands. Your work has always had a political aspect, but is this the first time you've got in trouble?
I started listening to punk when I was fifteen, in high school, during my rebellious teenage years. I taught myself graphic design when I was making all these flyers and posters for punk gigs during my college years. My first ever proper graphic design work was for an American hardcore punk band called From Ashes Rise back in 1998. I designed the artwork for the band's second 7" EP titled Life And Death. They gave me a bunch of records as payment.

This was not the first time I've received such a warning from the authorities over my work. In the past, I have been banned and arrested for my work. In 2004, I designed the posters, placards, and banners for a protest against police brutality. I was beaten and trampled on by police officers who arrested me during that protest. One police officer slapped me in the face while I was in handcuffs and threw the banners and posters that I designed right in my face. I spent a few hours in Pudu Jail that day before I was released on bail.

The 'From Ashes Rise' album cover that started it all, circa 1998

Has Malaysia become less free since Najib Razak became prime minister in 2008?
I think the ruling elite of this country has always been intolerant of dissent, even before Najib Razak took office. We've had the same political party in power for almost sixty years. So they're always afraid of losing their power. But the people have changed.

How do you think this will end? Can the Malaysian people tolerate Razak staying on as prime minister?
I'm not sure how it will end. It's evident that the people are no longer afraid and docile. Two days ago, a twenty-four-year-old man was arrested, detained, and investigated under the Sedition Act for pasting a clown-faced Najib sticker on a police car. Today another man was arrested under the Sedition Act for an article that he wrote online. The spirit of resistance and rebellion is spreading, and the massive crackdown on dissenters could only mean one thing: The Razak administration is in panic mode.

Reza with the original clown poster

For you, though, it could end with five years in prison. Does that scare you?
I am not afraid. One shouldn't be afraid to stand up to fight oppression because it instills courage in others to stand up alongside you. I will continue to fight against this authoritarian and corrupt regime using my art as my weapon. They can jail a rebel, but they can't jail the rebellion.

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