May 25, 2018 / 10:14 AM / a year ago

Najib's downfall a bitter-sweet victory for Malaysia's stifled satirists

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Long before voters dumped him as prime minister in this month’s general election, a caricature of Najib Razak as a circus clown had become a symbol of resistance among Malaysians disgusted by the corruption scandal swirling around him.

FILE PHOTO: A student activist holds up a placard of Fahmi Reza's caricature of Najib Razak during a protest to call for the arrest of "Malaysian Official 1" in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia August 27, 2016. REUTERS/Edgar Su/File Photo

The image was the idea of graphic designer and street artist Fahmi Reza, one of several political satirists who faced fines, legal action and jail terms for work that mocked the government led by Najib for nearly 10 years.

Fahmi had hoped that his clown would lay the groundwork for a future generation to push for change, and so he was stunned by the May 9 election, when voters dumped the political coalition that had ruled this Southeast Asian nation for six decades.

“I was completely shocked that it was happening, that the regime is finally gone ... I didn’t expect it to happen within my lifetime,” he said.

Najib had been dogged since 2015 by a multi-billion-dollar corruption scandal over 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a state fund he founded.

The ousted prime minister has denied all wrongdoing.

But since his ouster, his home and other properties linked to him have been raided by police, who have carted off a trove of cash, jewellery and designer handbags. The anti-graft commission has questioned him twice, and both he and his wife have been banned from leaving the country.

Fahmi said “life was hell” for him under Najib’s administration, especially after he released the clown face in 2016, which earned him a 30,000 ringgit ($7,500) fine and one month in jail, a sentence he is still appealing.


Cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, who has been arrested several times and charged for various crimes, including sedition, focused much of his work on Najib’s wife.

A widely recognised figure, elegantly dressed with a mane of neatly coiffed black hair, Rosmah Mansor had long drawn popular scorn for her lavish lifestyle.

“I already miss Rosmah, because she gave me so much material to draw,” said the cartoonist, who is popularly known as Zunar. “I don’t miss the husband so much, but the wife, with the ring, her hair, the 1,200 ringgit ($300) salon bill ... I think she’s very cartoonable.”

Zunar said many Malaysians see the downfall of Najib as a “second Merdeka”, or independence, but added that he will continue to call out the government, now led by Mahathir Mohamad, if it fails to live up to promises of reform.

Mahathir, 92, came out of retirement to topple Najib in the election. Prime minister from 1981 to 2003, he was known for his strongarm rule that was intolerant of dissent.

Fahmi said he “felt free” after the election, but anxious, too, about the return of Mahathir because he had targeted him in the past. He said he is already feeling heat from Mahathir backers who have no memory of his iron-fist rule.

After the image of Najib as a clown, Fahmi also portrayed Mahathir as a clown, for the years of autocratic rule and alleged cronyism during his previous reign between 1981 and 2003.

“The hate that I got was crazy,” Fahmi said. “The backlash, especially on Twitter, I guess from the younger generation that are right now hero-worshipping Mahathir.”

Editing by John Chalmers

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