Malaysia: When Censorship Backfires

Posted December 9th, 2013 at 9:24 am (UTC+0)
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Johor Bahru mural. Courtesy: Ernest Zacharevic

Johor Bahru mural. Courtesy: Ernest Zacharevic

Sometimes when you try to censor something, you end up drawing even more attention to it.

That’s what the town of Johor Bahru recently discovered when it whitewashed over a street mural town officials believed cast the city in a bad light.

You see, Johor Bahru famous for two things:  Asia’s only Legoland amusement park and the dubious reputation of being Malaysia’s “crime capital.”

Looking to spruce up the town’s image a little, Johor Bahru officials recently called on the well-known Lithuanian-born street artist Ernest Zacharevic to paint a mural.  On the night of November 7th, Zacharevic brought out his paints and got to work.

The result showcased both Legoland and the town’s high crime rate.  It featured two Lego figures –  a masked thief with a knife and an obviously wealthy woman carrying a Chanel handbag about to turn the corner and be robbed.

Within no time, the mural went viral across Malaysia, even earning its own Facebook page, 我们反对新山政府除去Ernest Zacharevic的壁画 – translation:  “We are opposed to government removing the Johor Bahru mural by Ernest Zacharevic.”

But town officials were not pleased.

“The robber gives an image that is not good for our country, investment and tourism,” one official said. “Everybody will be scared.”

Town mayor Ismail Karim announced his intention to remove the offending artwork.

Anonymous artist altering original mural.

Anonymous artist altering original mural.

In an effort to soothe officials’ feelings–or perhaps save the town’s reputation–an anonymous artist made an addition to the mural:  A policeman with handcuffs standing behind the thief, to cast local police in a gentler light.

And a group of locals created an online petition calling on the town to allow the mural to stay:  “We see these murals as works of art that has brought life to our city and we want to see more of such street art works by international and local artists,” read the petition.  “Truth and art does not tarnish our city’s image but crime and lack of cleanliness does.”

But the town wasn’t placated, and now we learn from the Global Post online  that the mural has been covered with whitewash.

Senior Malaysian parliamentarian Kit Siang calls this case of artistic censorship “sad and tragic ” and wonders why the “City Council, the Police and Johore State Government haven’t turned their attention, instead, to the town’s  “unacceptably high crime rate.”

As for the artist, as  Malaysian Insider’s Chris Perry reports, Zacharevic says he has no problem with  authorities destroying his work– “it’s the very nature of graffiti art to be ephemeral.”  Apparently, since the mural was whitewashed, Zacharevic is more famous than ever.

And, oh, by the way, as this set of photos from the “We are opposed to government removing the Johor Bahru mural by Ernest Zacharevic”  Facebook page shows, enterprising artists have now recreated the mural all over the town.



Cecily Hilleary
Cecily began her reporting career in the 1990s, covering US Middle East policy for an English-language network in the UAE. She has lived and/or worked in the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf, consulting and producing for several regional radio and television networks and production houses, including MBC, Al-Arabiya, the former Emirates Media Incorporated and Al-Ikhbaria. She brings to VOA a keen understanding of global social, cultural and political issues.

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