Updated at 7:55 p.m. ET on 2017-12-06
In a first at its annual general assembly, Malaysia’s ruling UMNO party is displaying satirical cartoons, posters and other artwork that lampoon its political adversaries, but two opposition-aligned artists who face sedition charges are complaining of a double-standard.
The 26 pieces in the exhibit skewer a spectrum of opposition leaders as Malaysia gears up for a general election next year. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Najib Razak and his deputy opened the art show, “Information corridor,” as part of the once-a-year assembly running through Friday at Kuala Lumpur’s Putra World Trade Center.
“The works are based on current issues and have been translated to artwork. There are about two to three cartoonists, but this is only to be shown for UMNO members,” a spokesperson for the exhibit, who requested anonymity, told BenarNews.
“It is the first time we are displaying such artwork at this assembly,” the spokesperson said.
The United Malays National Party (UMNO) has dominated Malaysian politics throughout the country’s 60-year history. This year’s instalment of the assembly, which usually draws thousands of party members and supporters from across Malaysia, will be the last one before the 14th general election, which must be called by mid-2018.
The exhibit features unsigned works that make fun of opposition leaders through caricatures, including of former longtime Prime Minister and UMNO fixture Mahathir Mohamad, and Anwar Ibrahim, the jailed leader of the People’s Justice Party (PKR). The two have joined forces in a new opposition bloc against the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition.
The unsigned works include ones that appear to play up racial and religious undertones in the multi-ethnic country. Some go after Lim Kit Siang, the leader of the ethnic Chinese-led Democratic Action Party, by insinuating that DAP was pulling the strings of the opposition and pitting Malay leaders like stooges to “screw” one another, as one post (pictured below) suggested.
Another work, a multimedia piece, went so far as to say that DAP and its supporters “twist the facts because they don’t like Islam,” the religion practiced by most of the Malay majority.
Satire: ‘Weapon of the powerless’
But two prominent Malaysian visual satirists, graphic artist Fahmi Reza and political cartoonist Zunar, questioned why the ruling party was allowed to get away with exhibiting such pieces when they got into trouble with the authorities for their art that skewered Najib and other UMNO leaders.
“Satire has always been the weapon of the powerless against the powerful,” Fahmi, who has been charged with sedition for depicting Najib in clown face, told BenarNews as he commented on the UMNO exhibit.
“As a graphic designer I will continue to defend the art of satire and parody that I produce. Satire and parody is not a crime,” he said.
Zunar, a BenarNews contributor whose real name is Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, accused UMNO of operating on a double-standard.
“When myself and Fahmi Reza did exhibitions, you came and arrested us with sedition and multimedia laws, but are silent when UMNO does it,” Zunar told BenarNews.
The cartoonist has been charged with violating the Sedition Act and has been banned from traveling abroad.
“My question is why, when I did a similar exhibition with the opposite subject in Penang, UMNO came and physically attacked me?” Zunar said, referring to an alleged attack by UMNO youth members at an exhibition in Penang state in November 2016.
The cartoonist whose 11th satirical comic book was banned by the government in October, had to call off another exhibition in Penang in July after allegedly receiving similar threats from the same group.
Despite his concern, Zunar said police should not arrest the artists who contributed to the show at UMNO’s assembly.
An earlier version gave wrong information about the venue of the UMNO assembly and a photo caption inverted the name of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.