The History of Comics and Cartoons in Singapore and Malaysia Part 1: Introduction

To write about the global history of comics, especially for former colonies like Malaysia and Singapore, is a challenging task. There are three difficulties: chronology, geography and representation.

History of comics infographic

#1 Chronology

The first difficulty is where do you begin? Malaysia as a country we know it today did not ‘start’ until 1963, formed out of a merger with Singapore and the Borneo states. For Singapore, the start date would be 1965, when it was separated from Malaysia and became an independent country. But Malaysia has an earlier starting point, when it gained independence from the British in 1957 as Malaya. Or do we go all the way back to the 19th Century when the British established control over the Malay states in three parts – the Straits Settlements (Singapore, Malacca, Penang), the Federated Malay States and the Unfederated Malay States? For clarity, these areas will be referred to as the British Malay states, as opposed to the Malay Archipelago controlled by the Dutch.

#2 Geography

The second difficulty is geography. Readers will note that this primer focuses mainly on the publishing activities in Singapore and Penang, the two main port cities at both ends of the British Malay states. Given their important trading locations, it is only logical that they were the publishing centres, from which books, newspapers and magazines were distributed to the rest of the states. This gives rise to the perception of dominance in Singapore and Penang’s role in the history of comics in Malaysia. This is not meant to shortchange the comics produced in the other states, but for much of the 19th and early 20th Century, printing and art activities were concentrated in Singapore and Penang. It was only from the 1950s onward that more comics were published in other states like Kuala Lumpur and Johore Bahru.

This situation is similar to critics writing about the history of art in Malaysia. Singapore featured a large part in the early history of art in Malaysia, especially with the founding of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Art in 1938 in Singapore. (many cartoonists were trained as artists in this school) This would not be a problem if Singapore had not been separated from Malaysia in 1965. Art writers would include Singapore in their survey of Malaysian art till 1965. After that year, Singapore is excluded. This article could not avoid this ‘problem’ of geography and chronology. The history of comics/cartoons of Malaysia will be treated as a whole till 1965. After which I will continue the narrative of Malaysian comics till present before returning to Singapore post-1965.

History of comics
NAFA Middle Road Campus - Photo from www.nafa.edu.sg

#3 Representation

The third difficulty is representation. Who is the Malaysian or Singaporean comic artist or cartoonist? What sort of language medium should he or she be working in – in English, Chinese, Malay or Indian? Can we speak of a Malaysian or Singaporean artist before 1963 or 1965 respectively? Is a Malaysian artist someone who is a citizen of Malaysia and need not be a Malay person? That is to say, he or she could be a Chinese or Indian. (This was definitely the case for Malay movies made in 1950s Malaya – they were directed by Indian directors.) Definitions are further problematized when it is common for a writer or an artist born in Malaysia to work in Singapore (eg. Dave Chua) and vice versa. There are Malaysian artists who after many years of studying and working in Singapore, gave up their Malaysian citizenship to become Singaporeans like the artist Sonny Liew. The point to be made here is that the history of Malaysia and Singapore are too intertwined to make too fine a distinction. There are overlaps and crossovers. For this article, the focus would be on Chinese and Malay artists working either in English or their respective language medium. Not many Indian artists are involved in comics in Malaysia and Singapore.

To be continued next week.

Stay tuned for part 2

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