The History of Comics and Cartoons in Singapore and Malaysia Part 4

Singapore (1965 – 2014)

Similar to the state of cartooning in Malaysia after independence, the early years of Singapore nationhood was one of social consensus building. Cartoons in newspapers were expected to play the role of supporting government policies and campaigns. For example, this cartoon by See Cheen Tee in Nanyang Siang Pau promoted the Keep Singapore Clean campaign of the late 1960s. When newspapers and their cartoons tried to take on the government like The Singapore Herald (front page cartoons by Morgan Chua) in the early 1970s, they were shut down. If the editorial cartoons were to be critical, it was only when dealing with international politics and foreign affairs. Till today, most editorial cartoonists in Singapore newspapers caricatured foreign leaders and not local politicians. It is ironic that Singapore cartoonists have won international awards for making fun of world leaders but could not draw cartoons critical about local parliamentarians.

Criticality of social norms would be left to the comic books. While Malay comic books and magazines have been in existent in Singapore and Malaysia since the 1950s, the comic book industry only picked up in the 1980s in Singapore with the bludgeoning economy and a growing middle class. Two books came out in the late 1980s went against the grain of a state-sponsored media that mostly showed the happy side of Singapore life – Unfortunate Lives by Eric Khoo and Mr Kiasu by Johnny Lau, James Suresh and Lim Yu Cheng. Unfortunate Lives depicted the low life, the criminals, the prostitutes and the losers and rejects in society. Khoo drew his stories from the headlines of the day but they were heavily influenced by American underground comix like RAW, which meant Khoo is very much a product of the Singapore’s success story. It was only in the 1980s that comic shops sprung up in Singapore, which brought in independent comics other than those published by DC and Marvel. The creators of Mr Kiasu, a satirical series that made fun of Singaporeans’ bad social behavior, also benefited from being well travelled overseas and to be exposed to artists like Matt Groening, which shaped their artistic and business sensibilities. Mr Kiasu went on to become a very successful comic series with its own line of merchandising while Khoo became an international award winning film director.

Mr Kiasu - Singapore Comics
Mr. Kiasu (Image source: goodreads)
Mr Kiasu - Singapore Comics
Mr. Kiasu (Image source: goodreads)
Mr Kiasu - Singapore Comics
Mr. Kiasu (Image source: goodreads)

Technological advancements have allowed the easier transference and movement of people, ideas and style. One of Singapore’s most successful comic artists today, Malaysian-born Sonny Liew is able to work for American comic book companies without having to leave the country. External influences have also filtered in like the popular manga style, which influenced the younger generation like Foo Swee Chin and Hu Jingxuan. Technology has also given more (cyber) space for cartoonists to lampoon local politics, but an artist was charged recently for contempt of the court for his cartoons. His charge was only dropped after he apologized to the court.

Like Malaysia, Singapore has also seen the potential of the comic medium as cultural capital. The National Arts Council and Media Authority of Singapore have funded comic projects and the Singapore Tourism Board has supported the Singapore Toy Game and Comic Convention. Comic artists have received Young Artists of the Year awards and the government has sponsored artist trips to the San Diego Comic Convention and the Angouleme Comic Festival.

An Open Conclusion

To know about the history of a medium is to learn of what was possible in the past, and to learn what was lost in the process. By documenting such a history, it is done with a hope that what was possible could happen again. The potential for change is always there.

The history of cartooning and comics in Malaysia and Singapore shared many similarities, given their common origins. Both comic scenes are still very much dictated by the social and political situations.

NB: This article was written in 2014.

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