Shia Yih Yiing, "Tolerance!!", (2014). Photo: Twitter @3Rmalaysia.

Translating the Sacred and the Profane

Zikri Rahman takes us on a short tour of the way that artists have used symbols of statehood to commemorate, challenge and expand the idea, and meaning of nationhood in Malaysia.

Would it surprise you to know that, under Malaysian law, you are not allowed to reproduce, and are prohibited from improper use of the Jata Negara (Malaysian coat of arms), the Jalur Gemilang (the Malaysian flag), or any other official emblems of the State? 

Yes, it is an offense under the Emblems and Names (Prevention of Improper Use) Act, as well as the National Emblems (Control of Display) Act 1949 (Revised 1977), amongst others. In 2017, further amendments to Act A1525 concerning the improper usage of not only the national flag, but also the name Jalur Gemilang, were added to strengthen the law. Penalties for contravening these regulations range from fines to prison terms.¹

Though I won’t go into the nitty-gritty of these acts any further (I am not legally trained as a lawyer and far from able to contribute much to the legal technicalities!), I do find it fascinating to observe how the use of these emblems of nationhood by artists have fared over time.

Central to my interest in understanding this phenomenon is how the arts, as a space for potential acts of intervention, engages in different forms and acts of resignification – shifting the meaning of these symbols from one possibility to another. What goes on in the process, in between? Do emblems, logos, flags, and scriptures lose their sanctity or sacredness if infused into different forms of visual and artistic imagery? Does the use of such artworks warrant excessive reprimand by those in power, or do they potentially open up new ways of seeing? 

Here, we look at three instances where artworks in Malaysia have used these powerful symbols of state, to question if these acts transgress the boundaries between the sacred and profane.

1. Ibrahim Hussein, May 13th (1969)

Ibrahim Hussein, May 13th (1969). Photo:

In what is possibly the first artistic response to the 13 May 1969 riots, artist Ibrahim Hussein produced his artwork from a torn Malaysian flag he picked up from the street in the aftermath of the riots. The flag is blacked out, accompanied by a white circle demarcated by a single visible red line. As recollected by Ibrahim, when the painting was to be exhibited at Universiti Malaya in 1969, he had to convince then-deputy prime minister, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein of the motive behind the artwork, as there was a risk of him committing an offense by degrading the Malaysian flag:

So Tun Razak agreed to see me and my painting. Here was me and the canvas in this large truck, escorted by two police outriders on the way to the Houses of Parliament. I felt so moved – when I painted it, I never thought it would create such a fuss.

Tun Razak asked penetrating questions. He wanted to know my thoughts about May 13. I explained that the red line signified the eclipse I felt Malaysia was going through and that the white ball was to suggest a new beginning. He asked why I had to use a real flag and I explained that in modern painting, you can use anything.²

Ibrahim’s statement managed to convince Tun Razak, but there was a price to pay. Apparently, the painting can only be exhibited in Malaysia and is never to be sold.

2. Redza Piyadasa, May 13, 1969 (1970)

Redza Piyadasa’s May 13, 1969. Photo: Nabilah Said via Arts Equator.

Another work created as a response to the 1969 riots in Kuala Lumpur, Redza Piyadasa’s sculptural installation, May 13, 1969, features the Malaysian flag overlaying a casket. Allegedly, the artist burned the original artwork in 1971, but created a reconstruction in 2006 (currently in the Singapore Art Museum’s collection). To commemorate this deadly historical event and the larger sociocultural context of Malaysia post-1969, Redza arranged fragmented parts of the Malaysian flag on top of a black coffin, placed atop a square mirror on the floor. Viewing the sculpture upright, the scattered reflections and images of the flag denote the artist’s view of the state of Malaysia at that particular critical juncture. Though there are no recorded actions by the then-authorities against this artwork, it does provide us with a moment to ponder upon. Is the sanctity of the flag, placed on a casket diminished, therefore making the work potentially controversial? Or is it the way the flag is used as the ‘bearer’ of emotion and expression by the artist which is potentially ‘dangerous’ for what it says about the nation in the immediate aftermath of the riots?

3. Shia Yih Yiing, Tolerance!!, (2014)

Shia Yih Yiing, Tolerance!! (2014). Photo: Twitter @3Rmalaysia.

This incident of censorship is a classic case of the domino effect, beginning with individual voices critical of a work, which then escalates into a larger controversy. Rebirth: Reformasi, Resistance, And Hope In New Malaysia, is a collection of essays documenting the tumultuous period of Malaysia’s political transition in 2018. The book, edited by Kean Wong was published by Gerakbudaya in 2020.

While the contents of the book itself might well be deemed contentious, Rebirth: Reformasi, Resistance, And Hope In New Malaysia was launched in early 2020 without incident, and was available for sale online and in bookstores. Some months after the launch, it was the book’s cover, featuring a painting by Malaysian artist Shia Yih Yiing, that triggered the controversy. The book cover featured Shia’s painting,Tolerance!!, which critics alleged, was based on Malaysia’s coat of arms. In fact, the original painting had been previously exhibited publicly in 2014. In the intervening 6 years, the work had not been singled out as being disrespectful of the national emblem. Criticism of the artwork only surfaced with the publication of Rebirth: Reformasi, Resistance, And Hope In New Malaysia, leading several commentators to suggest that the uproar surrounding the book cover was “merely a pretext to banning a book which provides a counter-narrative to the political transition following the 2018 election”.³

By 29 June 2020, there were a total of 21 police reports made, accusing the book cover of allegedly insulting the coat of arms. These reports were filed by multiple quarters, including rival political parties, NGOs, and individuals, leading to further investigations of the publisher, book contributors, artist, editor, and printer. 

In gazetting the order to ban the book, then-Home minister Hamzah Zainuddin utilised a subsection 7(1) of the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984. Apart from that, the book cover is also reportedly considered an offense under Section 3(1)(a) of the Emblems and Names (Prevention of Improper Use) Act 1963. The police confiscated a total of 313 books after the publisher issued a public apology.

These are just three examples of who artists have reinscribed these sacred emblems of state in ways which, legally, might be seen as profane or disrespectful. Yet, the intention behind these artistic works clearly come from a place that values the nation and its people, which some may argue, is a sacred task.

¹Refer to: , pp. 24.

²T.K. Sabapathy, Ibrahim Hussein, p. 48. Also refer to Eddin Khoo and Alia Ibrahim Hussein,(eds), IB: A Life – The Autobiography of Ibrahim Hussein, Selangor: Pentas Seni Pusaka 2010,81, 89-98.

³Refer to:

Do you know of any other incidents where artists in your country have used national emblems in art works and faced challenges or censorship? Post your stories in the comments below.
This content is produced as part of a project to research and document arts and culture censorship in Southeast Asia, organised by ArtsEquator. For other articles in this project, click here.

About the author(s)

Zikri Rahman has consistently embarked on collaborations with cultural activist groups in various socio-political projects. Buku Jalanan, a rhizomatic network of street library movement he co-founded, is a loose cultural and knowledge workers movement focusing on decentralizing the modes of knowledge production. He is also affiliated with Pusat Sejarah Rakyat, an independent archival research and documentation platform focusing on Malaysia and Singapore’s people’s history. With LiteraCity, he initiated a literary and cultural mapping project in the city of Kuala Lumpur. Zikri Rahman is also a writer, independent researcher, translator, and podcaster for various ephemeral platforms.

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