THE political landscape in Malaysia has long been marred with allegations of corruption and scandal.
In the last few years alone, accusations of graft have flooded the global media at an embarrassing rate for the ruling Barisan Nasional party. But sadly, these claims have often been met with disappointingly muted responses from the authorities in charge of investigating them within the country itself.
The most prominent of these is undoubtedly the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal that allegedly involved the misappropriation of US$3.5 billion of public funds and implicated Prime Minister Najib Razak when US$681 million was found in his personal bank account.
Within Malaysia many of the people, tired of the abuses of power they recognise in their leaders, have risen up to have their voices heard. The annual Bersih rally saw thousands of people take to the streets in protest, and the quiet voice of dissent is omnipresent on social media. But thus far none have been listened to and little action to combat the problem has been taken by those in power.
The stage is set for a radical voice to shout through all the rhetoric and connect with the youth of the nation, the same people who will one day have the power to change the stagnant swamp that is the Malaysian political system.
Enter Fahmi Reza – a Malaysian-born political activist, documentary film maker, street artist, graphic designer, and all-round outspoken man of the people.
Fahmi is these days most notorious amongst the ruling elite for his clownish sketch of Najib.
The image went viral around Southeast Asia in 2016 and can still be found being distributed, especially amongst the youth of Kuala Lumpur, on t-shirts and stickers that pop up in the most unlikely of places.
The success of the now-infamous drawing, Fahmi believes, was down to timing.
“I think as a visual protest symbol, the clown image of the prime minister came out at the right time,” he told Asian Correspondent.
“Three days before I posted the first clown, news about the Malaysian Attorney General clearing Najib from any wrongdoing or any corruption over the 1MDB scandal just came out. A lot of people were outraged by that news.”
The image struck a nerve with a frustrated population and quickly became an icon of the anti-corruption movement in Malaysia.
But Fahmi’s taste for rebellion didn’t start there. He has a long history of dissent against those in power, being a regular face at rallies and protests across Malaysia.
His more high profile incidents include his arrest following the 2012 Occupy Dataran gathering at which 500 tertiary education students camped out for eight days in Independence Square, in the capital Kuala Lumpur, in protest to the National Higher Education Fund.
Unwilling to take the charges lying down, Fahmi challenged the arrest in a case that saw him take the Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) and the police to court. His efforts were successful with the High Court ruling in 2015 that the arrest was unlawful and ordered both DBKL and the police to pay compensation.
In a tongue-in-cheek move and nod to the corruption allegations levelled at Prime Minster Najib, Fahmi promised “Like our wise Prime Minister, I’ve made the decision to return the money – not to the Saudi royal family or to DBKL, but to the rakyat (people),” according to Free Malaysia Today, and donated every sen of the compensation to causes supporting activism in the country.
He has since turned political heads with his controversial colouring book “ABC Politikus Malaysia”, listing figures from Malaysian political life with titles such as “Dictator”, “Clown” and “Opportunist.” Needless to say, it was not popular in the political sphere.
But it was the release of the aforementioned Najib clown sketch, and the legal proceedings that followed, that really thrust him to the fore.
As Fahmi explains, “a lot of people here didn’t even know who I was until news came out that I was being charged in court for posting and spreading the clown-faced Najib images online. There was a total media blackout in the mainstream press in Malaysia about the clown image and the grassroots #KitaSemuaPenghasut (#WeAreAllSeditious) protest movement that was sparked by it.”
The image gained traction when further details of the 1MDB scandal emerged and when the Malaysian police took action to ban the image. The police issued Fahmi with a warning over Twitter just three hours after it was initially posted online.
“This must have produced a Streisand Effect, enhancing the popularity and virality of the clown image on social media,” Fahmi said. “The investigations, the arrests, the court charges and the travel ban that they’ve placed on me only added fuel to the fire, amplifying the popularity and prestige of the clown image as a protest symbol even more,” he continued.
Following the widespread recognition of the image, Fahmi was charged under Section 233(1) of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 in June 2016, a charge for which he is still awaiting trial.
Despite the pending legal proceedings, he remains undeterred in his efforts to fight against the system.
“I’m driven by my desire to see real social and political change in Malaysia and to fight for our freedom and our right to dissent…This is not the first time I’m being targeted by the authorities,” he said.
“I have been openly critical of the government in my work for the past 15 years, and have been arrested, banned and prosecuted for my art and activism before this. I don’t see any reason why I should stop now. I won’t be cowed into silence.”
It is this defiant approach and his unwavering commitment to speak out against injustice that has earned Fahmi a nomination for a 2017 Freedom of Expression award.
The award ceremony, to be held in London in April of this year, is organised by Index on Censorship, a UK-based non-profit organisation. It celebrates artists, writers, journalists and campaigners for overcoming censorship and fighting for freedom of expression against immense obstacles. Past winners include education campaigner Malala Yousafzai (2013) and assassinated Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya (2002).
Fahmi himself is “humbled by the nomination” but is sure that it won’t change him.
“Even if I win, I will continue to be the same rebellious graphic designer and visual activist that uses his art to push for change in Malaysia, and continue to fight for causes that I believe in.”
His only hope from the award is that this recognition of his “defiance and disobedience against a corrupt government will inspire others to do the same.”
Nominated in the Arts category, Fahmi sees the importance of visual imagery in the protest process. “As a graphic designer, one of my roles is to visually express the people’s outrage against this corrupt government,” he said. “It shows people that they are not alone in their anger.”
Despite the prestige associated with the award, Fahmi prefers to look to the future, and refreshingly he doesn’t see all doom and gloom for Malaysian politics.
“I hope to see the future of Malaysian politics heading towards a more grassroots citizens-based democracy instead of the current elitist democracy”
But he stresses “social movements do not win overnight, we need to continue the process of raising consciousness, getting organised, mobilising citizens, taking actions, building networks, creating alternatives, and many more.”
“We need to empower the citizens towards building a ‘people power’ movement for social change in Malaysia.”
And he intends to make this a reality as part of his ongoing work.
“I hope to see more artists and designers getting involved in the struggle, with the courage to stand up against injustice, to speak out against corruption, to use their art as weapons for change. I plan to work towards seeing this happen,” he said.
In a country in which many feel the government is taking an increasingly heavy hand towards freedom of expression and dissent, Fahmi’s unwavering drive warrants a high level of recognition and respect. His unapologetic approach has earned him that, not only in the eyes of the award judges, but in those of much of the Malaysian people too.
But Fahmi knows better than anyone that the fight is far from over and will keep striving to “mobilise the people to put more pressure on the government.”
And as for his future approach to Barisan Nasional, “I believe in ‘people power’ and the power of social movements to affect change through collective actions, demonstrations, marches, strikes, direct actions and civil disobedience.”