Fahmi Reza is to the Southeast Asian nation of Malaysia what Banksy is to the UK, except that Reza is less elusive. This makes the graphic artist more vulnerable to authoritarian leaders, especially those belonging to the same structures of power that have dominated the country’s political sphere for more than six decades.
But Reza did once help bring down Malaysia’s ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional, in 2018. He painted the then premier Najib Razak as a clown, an image which was swiftly taken up as an icon of protest. If Razak hadn’t already been plagued by links to 1MDB (the world’s largest corruption scandal), then watching people march the clown caricature through the capital on placards surely would have added insult to injury.
Reza’s most recent lampooning was aimed at even higher powers: the country’s queen, who’s allegedly protected from ridicule under its constitution. He created a Spotify playlist full of songs about jealousy and used a picture of the queen, Tunku Azizah Aminah Maimunah Iskandariah, on its cover with the tagline “Dengki Ke?” (translation: “Are you jealous?”). This captures the queen’s recent Instagram comment directed at a follower who questioned rumours about the royals’ access to the Covid-19 vaccine when most Malaysians, including those who are deemed vulnerable, are yet to be booked in for appointments. “Are you jealous?”, the queen allegedly replied before temporarily deactivating her account.
This was a dangerous game even for Reza, who is no stranger to arrests. But he was caught off guard when around 20 police officers showed up at his house without warning and kicked a hole through his door on 24 April. They detained him for a day, then released him on bail. He is currently under further investigation. Even Spotify had tried to censor him.
Reza’s reaction to these events? A Twitter post on his @kuasasiswa account with a printout of Jack Nicholson from The Shining appearing to cover the hole in his door:
— Fahmi Reza (@kuasasiswa) April 28, 2021
Malaysia has draconian laws against freedom of speech. They’re presented under the Sedition Act, which is notorious for its use in gagging political opponents and journalists and silencing critique of Malaysia’s government, judiciary and royalty. It was a law introduced by the British government in 1948, prior to the country’s independence, in its crackdown against local communist insurgents.
The very message the Malaysian government and Spotify tried to censor, however, has since snowballed into international headlines, with many major outlets covering the events. Reza’s #DengkiKe hashtag is now spreading on social media; and he has also transferred his controversial playlist over to Apple Music.
One Malaysian Twitter user compared Reza’s playlist curation to another done previously by Know Your Meme of “songs that would kill Prince Philip”. She points out that this list was a more severe form of lampooning, but that the British audience could distinguish it as satire.
This echoes much of the support Reza is receiving online, alongside some fierce criticism from his opponents, many of whom are staunch royalists. “Loyalty to the King and country” is one of Malaysia’s written “national principles” which are recited in many official ceremonies and schools.
A message of defiance
Reza’s increasing influence, especially on social media, is clearly viewed as a threat. He said in a statement through his lawyers that “such artistic expression – parody and satire as a form of protest – should continue to be allowed to be practised and defended” especially “in a country where a graphic artist is being censored, arrested and locked up for his artwork”. The fact that he particularly gained momentum and has been making even more noise since his arrest is a clear sign that the government’s plan to silence him has backfired.
“Dengki ke?” is not only lighthearted satire, but it’s ringing loud and clear as a message of defiance.
Main article image via screenshot