The History of Comics and Cartoons in Singapore and Malaysia Part 2: The Early Comics/Cartoons

Comics/cartoons in the modern sense arrived with colonialism. Early manuscripts such as Sejarah Melayu (The Malay Annals) have existed in the Malay States before British control of the area. But newspapers came with the British merchants who needed shipping and entertainment news. One of the earliest English newspapers was the Straits Produce, which contained satirical cartoons and caricatures. These were not drawn by the Asian population (Malay, Chinese nor Indian) of the British Malay states, but by British artists.

From the centre to the peripheral, it was the success of Punch magazine in England that influenced the publication of the Straits Produce in 1868, giving rise to the first modern cartoons in the British Malay States. The Straits Produce (1868 – 1870, 1893 – 1895, 1922 – 1934) started publication as a “colonial’s version of Punch with its satirical cartoons”. It was published by the Straits Times Press in Singapore for the Straits Produce Syndicate and carried cartoons, caricatures, short stories, poems and humourous essays. Modeled after Britain’s leading humour magazine Punch, which was started in 1841, the Straits Produce was probably the third publication in Asia to copy Punch’s successful formula – the first was the Japan Punch, which first appeared in 1862, and second was the China Punch, started in 1867.

The Straits Produce had a very erratic publishing history. As it was targeted at English readers, and its cartoons drew their humour and topics from colonial lifestyle, the magazine had very little impact on, if any at all, on the first locally produced cartoons to appear in the British Malay states in the early 20th Century.

History of comics
Japan Punch Jul 1878

The First Chinese and Malay Cartoons (1900s – 1950s)

With the influx of Chinese and Indian immigrant labour to the British Malay states in the 19th Century, the two communities set up their own newspapers to keep track of the news back home and local events. In 1907, the first Chinese cartoon in the British Malay states appeared in Chong Shing Yit Pao, a Chinese newspaper published in Singapore, supporting the cause of Dr Sun Yat-Sen to overthrow the Ching Dynasty in China. Influenced by the usage of cartoons for revolutionary and propaganda purposes in other anti-Ching Dynasty newspapers such as Min Pao (Japan) and China Daily News (Hong Kong), Chong Shing Yit Pao ran a total of 41 cartoons from 9 September 1907 to 21 March 1908. Some of these cartoons were reprinted from Chinese publications overseas, but some were drawn by artists living in Singapore. These could be described as single panel editorial or political cartoons as we know it today.

'Communal living' by Jing Mei, Wenman Gie, 18/10/1936
'Communal living' by Jing Mei, Wenman Gie, 18/10/1936

The history of cartooning in the British Malay states was political right from the start. Like other cartoonists who ran ‘foul’ with the law, most of the cartoons were unsigned, possibly to avoid persecution from the Ching Dynasty and the British colonial government. In 1908, the British threatened to use the Banishment Ordinance to deport Dr Sun Yat Sen and the editors of Chong Shing Yit Pao for advocating “seditious agitation against China”.

This political template for cartooning in the British Malay states was set for the next few decades. The Chinese newspapers continued to print cartoons about the political situation back in China, advocating for changes and reform. When Japan invaded China in 1937, Chinese newspapers and magazines in the British Malay states focused their energy in attacking the Japanese aggression. Cartoons were part of the arsenal in their anti-Japanese efforts. For that, the Chinese cartoonists would pay a heavy price when the Japanese invaded British Malaya in 1942. Many of the artists, including other anti-Japanese elements (writers, intellectuals), were rounded up and executed.

The Rice Bowl of the Overseas Chinese 1907 | Untraced author, image courtesy of National University of Singapore Libraries (Image Source: National Heritage Board)
The Rice Bowl of the Overseas Chinese 1907 | Untraced author, image courtesy of National University of Singapore Libraries (Image Source: National Heritage Board)
history of comics
View from Baiyun Mountain at Dusk | 1915 | Untraced author, image courtesy of National University of Singapore Libraries (Image Source: National Heritage Board)
The Poor Coolie | 1929 | Sin Chew Jit Poh © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. (Image Source: National Heritage Board)
The Poor Coolie | 1929 | Sin Chew Jit Poh © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. (Image Source: National Heritage Board)
'The Victory of 1939' by Tchang Ju Chi, Sin Chew Jit Poh, 1939
'The Victory of 1939' by Tchang Ju Chi, Sin Chew Jit Poh, 1939

The Malay artists, on the other, were much less concerned about the war with Japan in China. They found Chinese nationalism to be radical and disconcerting which disrupted the peace and economic stability in the British Malay States, especially when the Chinese boycotted Japanese businesses in the 1930s. The Chinese community was deemed too politicized by the British colonial authorities and the Malay population. While Chinese concerns about the situation back in China were a rich source of energy in the production of cartoons, there was a disconnect with the local Malay population and what was happening in the British Malay States. The Chinese remained as sojourners and were viewed as outsiders.

The first Malay newspaper was founded in 1876, but editorial cartoons appeared in its pages much later than the Chinese press. One possible reason could be the lack of social and political impetus for its production as compared to the politicized nature of the Chinese press since the 1900s. The first Malay cartoons were published from the mid 1930s onwards in three major newspapers, Warta Jenaka, Utusan Zaman and Majlis. They were mainly drawn by readers and freelance cartoonists. The Malay press played the role of educating the masses, rallying the intelligentsia and was a catalyst for social and political change. Cartoons were part of the arsenal to raise the consciousness of the Malays. They were not anti-colonial at this point, but fighting for more Malay rights, critical of Chinese and Indian immigrants and also of the corrupting influence of the Arab-Muslims. (smoking, drinking and other ‘bad’ Western lifestyle) The concerns were more about race, identity and culture, and not national. Stronger political awakening happened after the Japanese Occupation of the British Malay States. (1941 – 1945)

While Malay cartoonists did not draw about the Sino-Japanese War, some of them drew about the fascist aggression in Europe. For example, Ali Sanat made fun of Hitler and Stalin in his cartoons for Utusam Zaman in 1939. The Malays, whom the British negotiated with for control of the Malay States, were given preferential treatment by the colonial authorities, which explained their common interest during the early years of World War Two. However, this alignment of interest was soon broken down when the Japanese invaded the British Malay States in December 1941. The Malays felt abandoned, especially during the hasty departure of the British in Penang.

One Malay artist who was very disillusioned was Abdullah Ariff, a pioneer watercolourist in Malaysia. He was a teacher in an English school in Penang, which was closed during the occupation. To survive and support his young family, he drew anti-Allied cartoons for a Japanese newspaper. His cartoons were compiled into a book in November 1942 for propaganda purposes. The book was printed with three language captions, Malay, Chinese and English. The tide had turned.

History of comics
Abdullah Ariff (Malaysian Painter, 1904 - 1962)
Abdullah Ariff, “Perpustakaan”, Suara Malaysia, 1 Jun 1939 (Source: Zakaria Ali [2004].)
Abdullah Ariff, “Perpustakaan”, Suara Malaysia, 1 Jun 1939 (Source: Zakaria Ali [2004].)
Abdullah Ariff, “Anglo-Saxon Imperialism”, Penang Daily News, 9 September 1942 (Source: Zakaria Ali [2004].)
Abdullah Ariff, “Anglo-Saxon Imperialism”, Penang Daily News, 9 September 1942 (Source: Zakaria Ali [2004].)
Abdullah Ariff, “No Way to Escape”, Penang Daily News, 9 October 1942 (Source: Zakaria Ali [2004].)
Abdullah Ariff, “No Way to Escape”, Penang Daily News, 9 October 1942 (Source: Zakaria Ali [2004].)

In many ways, all three major races, Malay, Chinese and Indians, were radicalized during the Japanese Occupation of the British Malay States. They realized they could not depend on the British to defend them and they saw the need to fight for the independence of Malaya. The anti-colonial movement started almost immediately after the end of World War Two and the return of the British. It was part of the anti-colonial wave sweeping throughout Asia and Africa after 1945.

Again, cartoonists picked up their pens and brushes to help bring about social and political changes, this time focusing on the postwar conditions and issues in Malaya. However, like before the war, there was still a racial divide between the Malay and Chinese. Racial riots had broken out between the Chinese and Malays during the interregnum immediately after the war. In 1948, a state of emergency was declared in Malaya as an insurgency war was fought between the communists and the British army. This state of emergency continued after Malaya gained its independence in 1957 and only ended in 1960. The Malays did not like the extreme actions of the Chinese communists in Malaya and drew cartoons attacking them for bringing about chaos in the country.

However the Chinese and Malay communities in the 1950s were not monolith. There were Malays in the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), a largely Chinese dominated organization. Chinese artists also drew cartoons showing the cooperation needed between all races (Chinese, Malay, Indian) to bring about the independence of Malaya. Malay and Chinese cartoons had a common topic of tackling social mores of the 1950s, and were firmly in the camp of art for society’s sake, i.e. art should serve the needs of society of educating the masses and to bring about social and political changes. One political cartoonist par excellence was Tan Huay Peng, who drew editorial cartoons for The Straits Times, the main English newspaper in Malaya and Singapore. He drew many cartoons advocating for the independence of Malaya. Up to the 1990s, they were constantly being used in exhibitions that tell the story of Malaysia’s independence.

To be continued next week.

Stay tuned for part 3.

Click here to read part 1.

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