Fahmi Reza on Visual Disobedience
Creating Artistic Resilience: Voices of Asia
Listen to Fahmi Reza, a Malaysian graphic artist and political activist, as he dives into his decades of engagement in the country’s political art movement. Sharing his experiences with social media censorship and run-ins with local authorities, Fahmi breaks down the connection between the country’s socioeconomic and political narratives, against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This episode is from Creating Artistic Resilience: Voices of Asia, a limited-run podcast brought to you by ARC, in partnership with the Mekong Cultural Hub and FORUM-ASIA. Throughout this series, ARC’s Asia Regional Representative, Manojna Yeluri, will speak with artists and cultural rights defenders about their experiences engaging with artistic freedom in their countries.
MANOJNA - I'm very curious to understand more about yourself, your background, and what motivated you to make the shift from being a graphic artist to engaging more deeply with protest art and dissent in Malaysia. Could you tell us a more about that?
FAHMI - I started doing graphic design 20 years ago and since the beginning I've always been creating protest graphics and designs -- more politically and socially conscious graphics. As a graphic designer, I see myself as a design provocator and a dissident designer, using my art as a weapon to fight against injustice. Throughout history, you can see that protest posters have always played an important role in protest movements and in the people’s struggle for social change. Graphic posters can inspire people and motivate people, and can be used as a tool to raise awareness and to wake people up. It can also move people to take action and, as a medium of protest, it can also be used as a tool to push for social change. I see my work as continuing this revolutionary tradition of graphic dissent and visual disobedience that has been going on for centuries.
MANOJNA - I really like the term ‘visual disobedience’ that you just mentioned, because I think it really captures the essence of things. Roughly how long, in terms of years, would you say you’ve really been able to immerse yourself in this space, specifically with dissent and protest art?
FAHMI - I started doing graphic design back when I was in college. I started designing posters for punk gigs - I'm really inspired by punk rock music. Most of my graphics, and also my political awareness, came from listening to punk music when I was a teenager. I started doing the design and basically taught myself how to design posters. This pre-computer, so everything is hand-drawn, cut-and-pasted and photocopied. But I started fully doing political design work back in 2001. So it has been 20 years, and in the beginning, I thought that doing design for free, doing pro-bono design work for human rights NGOs in Malaysia.
“Graphic posters can inspire people and motivate people, and can be used as a tool to raise awareness and to wake people up. It can also move people to take action and, as a medium of protest, it can also be used as a tool to push for social change. ”
MANOJNA - That's very cool. I'm curious how has the pandemic affected the livelihoods of people in the creative community? And more specifically people who are working with social justice movements on a pro-bono basis. Could you tell us about that?
FAHMI - Malaysia is currently in our third lock-down that the government calls the ‘Movement Control Order’ or the MCO. And, under the current MCO, it's a full lockdown. Everyone is forced to work from home. Only certain workplaces that are deemed essential by the government are allowed to remain open, where people are allowed to go to work. But people in the arts industry are not allowed to work. So a lot of people are struggling because of government failure at controlling the pandemic.
People on social media started this campaign called the ‘White Flag Campaign’ where anyone who needed help - who doesn’t have money to buy food - can just raise a White Flag outside your house so people can help you. This is all initiated by regular citizens. So everyone is struggling, not just the people in the creative industry. Some people have not had any income for the past one year! They have no money to buy basic needs like food for their families.
So it's really, really bad and right now the people's anger is being expressed openly on social media. Every single day you can see the hashtag “Kerajaan Gagal” or “Failed Government” trending almost on a daily basis. The number of positive cases right now in Malaysia has exceeded ten thousand cases per day. The conditions are really bad and people are in the mood to protest, but, because of the pandemic, they can only protest online on social media. If things are going to get worse, I won’t be surprised if people would start going down to the streets, regardless of the pandemic.
MANOJNA - You mentioned social media and how that's in many ways become an outlet for not just expression but even expressing critique and dissent. World over, and more specifically in Asia, the mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic by the authorities has become a big subject of criticism that the creative community has taken upon itself. At the same time, the creative community has found itself in a very difficult situation because of that. For example, in the Philippines, we know that there have been arrests for people posting after critical comments on Facebook and similar situations all across Asia.
I think that this is a really interesting segue into something that you came up into the news for recently - which is your Spotify playlist and then sort of the accompanying social media furor around "This is Dengki ke?'' Could you tell us what happened there and your other experiences being pulled by the authorities for your political artwork?
FAHMI - This is still an open police case under investigation, so I cannot reveal too much about it, because whatever I say publicly can be used against me in court if they choose to charge me.
I made a satirical Spotify playlist and poster design that featured the Malaysian Queen and the words “Dengki ke,” which translates as “are you envious?” or “are you jealous?” After I posted it on my social media, 20 cops came to my house, kicked a hole through my front door, forced themselves in, handcuffed me, and confiscated all my devices - my laptop, my phone and even my modem and router. They brought me to the police station and locked me up in the police lock-up for one day, where I was questioned and interrogated over the Spotify playlist.
But this wasn’t the first time I’ve gotten into trouble over my graphics or social media postings. This year alone, 2021, I’ve been called in six times by the police. The police have opened investigations against my satirical and political graphics six different times, using our country’s internet law called “Communications and Multimedia Act. Currently all the cases are still pending and under investigation - they haven’t charged me yet so far. But just yesterday, another police report was lodged against another graphic that I posted yesterday, so this may be number seven. The police opened another paper and called me in for questioning - that will be the seventh time I'm being investigated. We are only in July, so on an average, I’ve been called in once-a-month over my political graphics. Like I mentioned earlier, a lot of people are expressing their protest and dissent on social media. Besides me, other people have been called in by the police for questioning over what they posted on social media, for their criticism against their government and ministers that they express online. For every case, the government has used the Communications and Multimedia Act to investigate and also charge some of these individuals.
MANOJNA - You spoke to us about the various ways in which you have had to deal with the authorities, and also mentioned that the larger graphic artist community is also having to deal with the authorities in several cases. It’s a form of censorship. So because you do have a certain amount of experience dealing with situations like this, and we have members from the artistic community who will be listening in, are there a few suggestions that you would like to share with our listeners on how they can manage themselves when they are faced with situations like this?
FAHMI - I think in Malaysia right now, a lot of people don't know what to do when they get arrested, when you get called in for questioning by the police, and I always try to inform people that, number one, you should not be afraid for speaking out. Because under the Malaysian Constitution, we have Article 10, which gives us the right to freedom of speech and expression. So whatever we say, including criticism against the government, the prime minister, and all the ministers, is protected under Article 10 of our constitution. But we also have other laws that are constantly being used by the authorities to infringe on our right to free speech.
Whenever we get called in for questioning by the police, we should know our rights as far as what to do when you're being arrested. One of the most important things is that we have the right not to answer the police. Always call a lawyer and have a lawyer present when you're being questioned by the police. Don't talk to the police. Don't answer their questions - just answer ‘I refuse to answer that question because whatever I say may be used against me in court.
The first time I got arrested back in 2004 was over a poster I designed against police brutality. In response, the police arrested me and brutalized me. They put me in police lock up over the protest poster. I always remind people that we should not be afraid of the government and the authorities because that is exactly what they want. They want us to keep quiet. Shut up, just obey and don’t say anything. As citizens, we have the power. The power over people who rule over us, the government - the people up there. Their power comes from us. Comes from our consent. And without our consent they have no power to rule. I think we should know that. The people should not be afraid of the government. The government should be afraid of us, the people.
“ I always remind people that we should not be afraid of the government and the authorities because that is exactly what they want. They want us to keep quiet. As citizens, we have the power. ”
MANOJNA - How connected do you think the creative community actually is, especially when it comes to those of you who are engaging with these kinds of subjects? And is there a specific reason why you think the authorities are actually attacking or targeting the creative communities in Malaysia?
FAHMI - The other people that have been called in for questioning are not necessarily coming from the creative community. These are just regular people who are expressing their anger and outrage in protest against the government on social media. In the past, authorities have issued warnings and taken severe actions, even court actions, against graphic designers and even political cartoonists. Sometimes writers and even theatre directors - even YouTubers - for producing a satirical work that they considered to be offensive or disrespectful against the government. And right now, we are currently under a state of emergency that has been declared in January this year, you know, using the excuse of combating the pandemic. But one of the first few laws that they created was this Fake News Law, that makes it against the law for you to post anything that can be considered as fake news or false. But the danger with such a law is that they can go after political graphic designers and cartoonists and satirists, labeling the parody work or satirical work we produce as being false or fake.
MANOJNA - Artistic freedom or freedom of speech and expression and specifically censorship, as much as it comes from authorities and governments - a lot of it also comes from communities and private organizations or funders, for that matter. And you mentioned something along the lines of how people are afraid to engage in certain activities because they are also afraid of losing that financial support. Is that something that you feel needs to be addressed in Malaysia? How do funders and sponsors think about this, or do they prefer to play safe and not touch certain sensitive topics?
FAHMI - If you're doing something that is political in nature and content, it'll be harder for you to get funding locally. But it's not impossible. We have art-collectives that have done more politically charged content in the past. And they’ve managed to create their work and not get into trouble for it.
I can only share my own experiences. Right now, I'm self-employed. I'm not tied to any organizations or any companies. So in order to be able to continue to do my work - which is to produce daily political graphics on social and political issues - I started a Patreon page, where I asked people who see value in my work, who want to see me continue to post political graphics on a daily basis, to support me on Patreon. I started it in October last month and right now, I’m surprised at the amount of support that I'm getting, and partly because I've been doing this for the past 20 years, I think people can see the value of my work. And I think it's not hard for someone like me to get support. That’s maybe one way to show that there is support out there. People do want to support creatives and people in the arts community - they are creating and producing more politically charged work. That’s just one example.
MANOJNA - That's actually very interesting to know because a very common question that we have to deal with is understanding how creative people can find a sustainable source of livelihood and finding multiple revenue streams. If you talk about political art, you’re adding a different layer to that challenge. So it's actually very interesting for us to hear that your Patreon page is actually doing well, that it's being quite supportive of your efforts.
Do you find that a large part of your support is coming from Malaysia or is it also coming from outside of Malaysia?
FAHMI - I think 99.9 percent of people who subscribe to my Patreon page are from Malaysia. Because if you look at my work, I exclusively use Bahasa, Malaysia - the Malay language in my graphics. I think that's partly why I get into trouble a lot of the time. Because my graphics, my political art and posters exclusively use this language that has a wider appeal in Malaysia.
MANOJNA - Language is something that can definitely become a barrier sometimes. We have a lot of members of civil society who will be tuning in to these episodes as well. Would you recommend that civil society organizations and non-governmental organizations, if they're keen on engaging with this kind of work, that they should think about communicating in different ways, in different languages, so that they can have a better reach to people?
FAHMI - Definitely. Besides using different languages, I think it's also important to use different mediums as well, and not just being stuck using the Tax medium. Visuals are also a form of language, meaning that it is more universal, even for those who speak different languages. Most people can understand your message through visuals, and especially if you’re reaching out to a younger audience, you need to use more multimedia, not just visuals, but even videos, in order to communicate our message to them.
“Visuals are also a form of language, meaning that it is more universal, even for those who speak different languages. ”
MANOJNA - That’s very useful advice for civil society members who are engaging in this kind of work. You don't just need very complex language -- a lot of the time, the simpler the message and the more relatable the format -- something like a meme can be a powerful tool of resistance. That’s just how the creative community has been evolving - almost like a different language of resistance. What role do you think the international community can play when it comes to issues of artistic freedom in Malaysia?
FAHMI - One way the international community can support is by giving moral support through expression of solidarity and protest. Especially to someone like me who is a graphic designer. It would be interesting to have other graphic designers, international graphic designers, expressing their solidarity through their graphics.
One instance, this is also regarding the clown case back in 2016, I got into trouble for posting the clown caricature of the ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak on Instagram and I received a warning from the Police three hours after I posted a poster. As a response, other local graphic designers, as a show of solidarity and protest, they started designing their own versions of the ex-Prime Minister as a clown and posting them on their social media using the hashtag “kita semua penghasut” (We are all seditious) - referring to Malaysia’s Sedition Act that has been used by the government to go after their critics and dissidents. Within a span of a few days, over 100 posters of Najib Razak looking like a clown were posted and spread on social media. That’s one example of solidarity by other designers. Because if I am considered as seditious for posting a caricature of the ex-Prime Minister as a clown, then they are also seditious - and the government cannot go after everyone. What, like they are going to go after and arrest every single one of the hundred graphic designers for posting this? That’s a way for other people to express solidarity and also protest using the same medium.
In the past, the government has always abused local activists and even local NGOs for being funded by “other countries.” By agents from the outside. They always like to blame the U.S. Sometimes, solidarity and support from outside can be used by the government as evidence that I’m being funded by foreign agents as a way to discredit me and my work. Sometimes, when you have international solidarity and support, it can give pressure to the government. But it won’t work if you have a government that doesn’t care about human rights, doesn’t care about free speech, and doesn’t care about its image internationally - especially in countries like Myanmar. Look at what’s happening in Myanmar. There’s a lot of international solidarity for the civil disobedience movement and uprising that is still happening right now in Myanmar. But the Myanmar military government, the Junta, just don’t give a sh*t. They continue to harass and even kill their own citizens, the protestors.
MANOJNA - I think that's true. I think at the end of the day it also boils down to how important is human rights protection in that particular country or in that particular region. Otherwise, all the solidarity efforts face a tough challenge because of the way in which the government's steps in, the way media steps in, and the way in which these walls are created.
I'm very interested in knowing whether the social media platforms themselves - did they take down any of the images? Did they respond in any way? Or did they prefer to stay out of the conversation.
FAHMI - One way for the government to censor their critics and dissidents is for them to get their cyber troopers to lodge multiple reports against your postings and also your social media platforms. Sometimes it works but sometimes it doesn’t. Just recently, the Spotify playlist, the one that got me in trouble and arrested - people actually lodged multiple reports to Spotify that caused Spotify to take down the graphic. On Spotify, because I own a Premium account and we can create our own playlists, and customize it by having our own picture on the playlist along with our own custom title and description.
But because my playlist received so many reports by other Spotify users, Spotify took down my playlist’s image and also took down and erased the playlist title and description. So it was just a hundred songs with no title and no image - they didn’t take down the playlist but they took down the image and the title - so people cannot search for it. Everytime they did that, I’d put up a new one and the cyber troopers would continue to report - so it’s like a cat and mouse. Put it up, people report and Spotify takes it down. It happened more than 15 times until the media started covering the story and sent an email to Spotify for them to answer why they continue censoring my playlist. Only then did they stop censoring it.
The other way is that if you are investigated under the Communications and Multimedia Act, the authorities have the power to confiscate your account - meaning you have to give them your username and password for them to investigate your account. What they usually do once they get your password is that they change your password and lock you out from your account and they will only return it back to you after they've done their investigation. It happened to me several times already. Once they have access to your account, they will download every single posting that you’ve created since you started that account up to today and all your private messages. They will go through it and find anything that they can use against you if they charge you in court.
MANOJNA - It sounds like a nightmare situation where as you said your privacy is being compromised and your security is being compromised. That’s the thing about social media - it doesn't just extend to an individual, it will also extend to everybody else in that network also. It isn't just one person's problem, it is very much a community's problem, a country's problem.
I do want to end our conversation by asking you if there is something that you would like to share with other artists and activists - not just in Malaysia but in other parts of Asia as well. A message of resilience, if you will.
FAHMI - As artists, designers and creatives, we are citizens too. We should see ourselves as a part of social movements that are pushing for change. We need to remember that social movements do not win overnight. We need to continue the process of raising awareness, consciousness, getting organised, mobilising citizens, taking action, building networks and also creating alternatives, and so much more!
We need to nurture more activists among the artist, designer and creative communities and develop more rebels and dissidents to fight for change. Not just in this country but anywhere in the world. I hope to see more. I hope to see more designers and artists getting involved in the struggle, with courage to stand up against injustice, to speak out against corruption and to use their art as a weapon for change.
MANOJNA- Thank you so much Fahmi for taking the time to sit with us and have this conversation with us, to share all these powerful insights and information, to really just help contextualize hope and how the creative community is capable of doing so much in these challenging times. Thank you so much. We are very happy to have had you on this podcast.
To learn more about Fahmi and engage with his activism, follow him on social media: