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The History of Comics and Cartoons in Singapore and Malaysia Part 3

Cartooning at the Point of Freedom (1957 and 1959)

Independence does not necessarily equate to freedom. In 1957, Malaya gained its independence while Singapore would remain under British rule until 1959 when it was given self-government status (British authorities still retained control of defense and foreign affairs). The British had allowed and encouraged a certain amount of freedom of speech that was part of the Western democratic tradition. They wanted to ensure those who inherit their colonies were English educated and friendly to their economic and strategic interests. The setting up of universities in the British colonies after the war was part of their grand design to inculcate Western values among the new elites, people who they were priming to take over the countries. The University of Malaya (UM) was founded in 1949 and student clubs like the University of Malaya Socialist Club were allowed to be set up for discussion of ideas and action. (Loh, Liao, Lim and Seng, 2012) Many of these student magazines contained many cartoons by students. There were also more newspapers presenting a myriad of views in the 1950s.

All that changed in 1957 and 1959 in Malaya and Singapore respectively. With the gaining of independence and self-government, the new governments saw a need to consolidate the press and to redefine its role to support their policies. The press was not to be the fifth estate, but to play a nation-building role of creating social consensus among the people. Many small newspapers had their printing licenses revoked. While no cartoons was censored by the government, pressure was put on the editors to toe the line. Self-censorship was practiced instead. In the case of Malaya, editorial cartoons hardly appeared in Malay newspapers from 1957 onwards. They only appeared in Malay newspapers again on a regular basis in the mid 1980s. In Singapore, editorial cartoons continued to appear in The Straits Times, the main English newspaper, until 1961 when the ruling party had an internal split and the government took a more hardline stand against its political opponents. Editorial cartoons continued to appear in the Chinese press, but they dealt more with social and economic issues rather than critiquing on specific government policies or targeting politicians. Caricature as part of the cartoonists’ arsenal and toolbox was put on shelf. It was no longer possible to point out that the emperor was naked.

In 1963, Singapore merged with Malaya to form Malaysia. Two years later, they separated due to political and racial differences.

Malaysia (1965 to 2014)

One consequence of the decline of editorial cartooning in the newspapers was that it gave rise to more comic strips in Malaysian newspapers. If nation-building required editorial cartoons to be toned down and to take a break from commenting on local politics, then it makes sense for newspapers to emphasize and promote adventure and humour comic strips. Many foreign comic strips were printed in the papers for entertainment purposes as readers enjoy lighthearted materials. However, there could be an educational agenda in printing foreign syndicated science fiction strips like Flash Gordon in Utusan Zaman. As a new nation, the government wanted more emphasis on science and technological advancements rather than stories on village life. This tension between village and modern life would be a theme other artists like Lat would return to.

The leading example of a modern family oriented strip is Mat Jambul’s Family by Raja Hamzah, which appeared in Berita Harian from its first issue on 1 July 1957, just one month before Malaya’s independence. Mat Jambul’s Family is an adaptation of Barry Appleby’s The Gambols, a popular British strip still running today. Family values, and modernity were emphasized and humour came mainly from light hearted pokes at buffoonery. Raja Hamzah drew in a style similar to Tan Huay Peng, which meant both were influenced by the British cartoonist, David Low. Raja Hamzah, in turn, was a big influence on Lat, Malaysia’s most famous cartoonist for the last 40 years. Lat drew his Mamat’s Family strip for Berita Minggu from 1968, inspired by Mat Jambul’s Family.

History of comics
Dato’ Lat’s cartoons - Kampung Boy (Image from Sinar Harian)
History of comics
Dato’ Lat’s cartoons, 1981 (Image from Dato’ Lat’s cartoon)

“When I was in Standard 2, my hero was Raja Hamzah who did a series of comics in Jawi in Utusan Melayu. His comics appeared daily. That was the only thing I read in the newspaper and I couldn’t wait for the following day’s continuation. …I started drawing my own comics because I wanted to do what Raja Hamzah did.”

But Lat was also reacting to the spate of foreign comic strips in the Malay newspapers in the 1960s.

“I drew the chicken coop, I drew the chicken, I drew my teachers…things that were within reach, things that I knew about. Anyway, in the newspapers there were so many foreign comics, so I knew I should concentrate on local things.”

Dato’ Lat’s cartoons (Image from Dato’ Lat’s cartoon) - History of comics
Dato’ Lat’s cartoons (Image from Dato’ Lat’s cartoon)

Lat had started working for The New Straits Times as a crime reporter in the early 1970s. In 1975, he was employed as a full-time cartoonist for the paper, a coveted position. (Mahamood, 2004: 225) The popularity of Lat’s cartoons led to collections of his cartoons as well as longer narrative works like Kampong Boy, Town Boy and Mat Som. The former two were immensely popular, having been translated to Japanese and North American editions were released by First Second a few years ago. Mat Som was adapted into a movie in the 1980s and Kampong Boy was an animated series in the 1990s.

There were more local cartoons from the 1970s onwards as a result of the government’s cultural policy to promote a national identity. In 1978, a group of cartoonists got together to create Gila Gila, Malaysia’s version of MAD magazine with local content and humour. By then, Malaysia’s economy has grown and society was more stable, having recovered from the 1969 racial riots that shocked the country. There was more disposable cash for comic magazines and books. Satire also made a return in newspapers’ editorial cartoons in the 1980s, with new artists like Zunar contributing.

While the Gila Gila formula proved to be successful till the 1990s when it still inspired other comic magazines like Ujang, the 1997 Asian financial crisis changed the Malaysian comic scene in two fundamental ways. One, the main fallout of the crisis was political – in 1998, Malaysia Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim was charged with and subsequently jailed for corruption. This led to public outcry and brought political cartoonist Zunar out of retirement. He had given up political cartooning a few years before, but when he saw the injustice meted out to Anwar, he returned to the fold with a vengeance. He drew cartoons attacking the ruling party, was arrested and to this day, his books are banned in Malaysia. The political cartooning scene in Malaysia today is much more radicalized and for some older cartoonists, it is an uncomfortable situation they found too polarized, divisive and partisan.

History of comics
Gila-Gila No.1 | April 1978
Zunar's cartoons - History of comics
Zunar's cartoons (Image from

The other consequence of the 1997 financial crisis was that it provided an opportunity for comic companies to create a new format for comic magazines. Art Square Creation released Gempak magazine on 1 June 1998, which was an info-comic concept – a comic magazine filled with news about anime, comics and games (ACG) and original comics. Once the popular stories are completed, they are collected in Malay, Chinese and English editions. This new format threw up a new generation of Malaysian artists, one that is much influenced by American mainstream comics and Japanese manga. Tan Eng Huat worked for Art Square Creation before being discovered by a DC editor at a Hong Kong comic convention in 2000. He has been drawing for DC and Marvel comics since.

Realizing the potential of the global comics market, the Malaysian government got into the act and funded comic creation through the Multimedia Development Corporation (MDeC). Comic Fiesta, held every December in the capitol Kuala Lumpur, has gone from strength to strength to become one of the biggest comic conventions in Southeast Asia.

To be continued next week.

Stay tuned for part 4.

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