Fahmi Reza could be described as Malaysia's Banksy, or at least he could until the police began to follow him around and detain him for his work.

As it stands, the political activist and graphic designer is being prosecuted under Malaysia's increasingly draconian limits on freedom of expression.

Malaysia has several laws that limit the ability of its people to air their views, the most recent being the Anti-Fake News Act 2018, which came into effect on April 11.

Critics decried the "fake news" legislation as geared towards silencing dissent ahead of Malaysia's general election on May 9, when Prime Minister Najib Razak hopes to retain his position as the head of the government for a third term.

It's a slide towards authoritarianism reflected in Reporters Without Borders 2018 World Press Freedom Index, released on April 24, in which Malaysia found itself one spot down from the previous year at 145th out of 180.

For Fahmi, one of Najib's fiercest critics, it was the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 that the government used to try to silence him.

In February, Malaysia's Sessions Court sentenced Fahmi to one-month's jail time and required that he cough up a 30,000 ringgit (US$7,653) fine.

Judge Norashima Khalid found the 40-year-old guilty of having spread online content deemed “obscene, indecent, false, menacing or offensive in character with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass another person," as forbidden under Section 223 of the Act.

Famhi now awaits appeal at the High Court, failing which he will have to serve 30 days in prison. He has already paid off the fine, which he managed to source via crowdfunding in less than a day.


Credit: Fahmi Reza

Fahmi Reza tosses a clown sketch of Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak into the air while attending the court hearing in February.

The source of all the trouble, his notorious clown sketches of Najib, quickly became an icon of dissent among those opposed to the crackdown on freedoms.

The art has a fittingly punk aesthetic to it – the "clown" has powder-white make-up, arched eyebrows and a blood-red mouth – and the association is no accident – Fahmi grew up inspired by the punk music and ideology of the 1970s, including groups such as Crass, an art collective and punk rock band that popularized the anarchist movement in England.

“I've been creating political art for more than 16 years, mostly for human rights NGOs and civil societies, but no one knows who I am," Fahmi told The News Lens in Kuala Lumpur's Nu Sentral mall. "Once my clown sketches became popular, the people took ownership and used them to show the government how they felt. I made it available for download, even printed t-shirts, stickers and badges, as well as putting up graffiti pieces in the city.”

“The younger generation especially would come up to me for selfies or to get a sticker or two," he adds as we speak over coffee. "I don't mind as it's their way of showing support for my message. I would argue that youths are not apathetic, rather they're scared to make a public stand. In a way, the laws to stifle expression are effective.”

Fahmi speaks passionately about his cause, and he comes across as both approachable and erudite – a student of the movement he embodies as much as an actor in its cause.

For those who may follow him on social media and wonder what he looks like, he cuts a distinctive figure, usually clad in a sports shirt or jacket dotted with badges and lapels featuring his art, as well as his signature beret. “I have a lot of black clothes. This is my 'uniform',” he laughs.

I would argue that youths are not apathetic, rather they're scared to make a public stand. — Fahmi Reza

This latest run-in with the law is far from Fahmi's first. His first experience came in 2007, when he joined a protest against police brutality in Kuala Lumpur. He also put together placards, banners and other protest materials.

The authorities took a dim view of his satirical art – he was, ironically given the reason for the protest, roughed up and slapped around before police threw his placards in his face, cuffed him and introduced him to the back of a police truck.

“Admittedly, I was shocked," he says. "When the police threw my work in my face, they shouted, 'Ini you punya kerja!' (This is your work). That was when I realized they knew who I was."

He describes how he and the others seized at the time were taken to the (now closed) Pudu Jail, questioned for a few hours and then released. "The police wanted to keep us there longer but there was a growing crowd outside demanding our release," he adds.

As a "penghasut" (agitator), Fahmi refuses to back down. "When you are on the side of dissent," he says, referring to his #KitaSemuaPenghasut (we are all seditious) slogan, "you come to expect 'five-star' treatment. They can arrest me, destroy my art and put me in jail [but] I don't think I'll do anything differently.”

Since then, he has been arrested on several occasions – during the Occupy Dataran movement in 2012 and selling clown t-shirts at a book fair in 2016. Even so, he does not come across as paranoid.

“The authorities do monitor my activities online. They can follow me around. I'm not bothered about it. It will get boring real fast.”

These days Fahmi is busy fulfilling more than 600 orders promised in return for backing his crowdfunding campaign, but even this task is burdened by the stigma attached to his work. Numerous printing companies have rejected his trademark laminated stickers, school books and metal lapel pins bearing the clown art.

“They are afraid. This should not be the case. People should not have to be afraid of the government. We should be able to have a bigger say, a stronger influence on how things should be in the country," he reflects. "It should be people influencing social change. Right now, the system is broken.”

How does he feel about former prime minister 92-year-old Mahathir Mohamad, who now leads the opposition in the coming general election? Mahathir, when he was prime minister from 1981 to 2003 and leader of the National Front, was a polarizing figure. He also endorsed Najib for the top post in 2009.

“It just reveals the hypocritical nature of Malaysian politics," Fahmi says. "Malaysian politics is a circus full of clowns. Our country is now being forced into a two-party system, where most elected representatives are more inclined to toe party lines rather than work for the people.

“I am non-partisan in my fight. I have been criticized for turning down offers to join politics. One way to ensure government accountability is to be the external force – that is the ideal for the way civil society should act, regardless of who runs the country.”

Fahmi still meets university students on a regular basis to share the history of Malaysia's outspoken student movement of the 1970s.

His talks are held off campus as he is no longer welcome in public universities. Currently, there are stringent controls over students’ political activities under the University and College University Act 1971. In the long run, he hopes to encourage them to mobilize and stand up for their right to dissent.

Jailed or not, Fahmi's fight for freedom of expression will last as long as the circus stays in town.

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Editor: David Green