The Kampung in Hikayat Seri Rama

Faris Joraimi
18 June 2020

I recently read Harry Aveling's elegant essay "The Translator Gives it Form: Translating Malay and Indonesian Literature", itself written like a finely trimmed bonsai. I don't translate all that much except when posting or quoting something in my writings for which no translation exists, or at least not one that suits my tastes.

Feeling energised, I decided to do a little exercise. I tried to translate this short excerpt from the Hikayat Seri Rama, a Malay retelling of the Ramayana epic. It's a short but exquisite passage. If you read it, you will recognise instantly that this does not take place in Vedic India, but a kampong somewhere in the Malay lands. And this expresses the spirit of the Hikayat Seri Rama best; that it is no mere translation of the Indic Ramayana, but an entirely original branch from the great tree that constitutes the translingual Ramayana tradition stretching from Kashmir to Mindanao.

Tengah malam sudah terlampau
Dinihari belum lagi sampai
Budak-budak dua kali jaga
Orang tua berkaleh tidur
Embun jantan rintek-rintek
Berbunyi kuang jauh ka-tengah
Sorong lanting riang di-rimba
Terdenguk lembu di-padang
Sambut menguwak kerbau di-kandang
Bertempek mandong arak mengilai
Fajar sidik menyengsing naik
Kichak-kichau bunyi murai
Taptibau melambong tinggi
Menguku balam di-hujong bendul
Terdengut puyuh panjang bunyi
Puntong sa-jengkal tinggi dua jari
Itu-lah alamat hari hendak siang

The excerpt doesn't say much except paint a gloriously lyrical portrait of daybreak. What I love most about it is the vocabulary employed to describe the different sounds made by four species of birds. The most intuitive thing to do, as Aveling would argue, is to translate this line by line. But R.O. Winstedt, the orientalist who studied this manuscript, chose instead to break up some lines into two, to allow it to flow better in English. This was his translation:

Long had past the hour of midnight,
Lingered yet the coming day-light;
Twice ere now had wakening infants
Risen and sunk again in slumber;
Wrapped in sleep were all the elders,
Far away were pheasants calling,
In the woods the shrill cicada
Chirped and dew came dropping earthwards,
Now lowed oxen in the meadows,
Moaned the buffaloes imprisoned,
Cocks, with voice and wings, responded.
And with feebler note the murai.
Soon the first pale streak of morning,
Rose and upwards soared the night-birds;
Pigeons cooed beneath the roof-tree,
Fitful came the quail's long murmur;
On the hearth lay last night's embers,
Foot-long brands burned down to inches,
Heralds all of day's approaching.

It's actually quite nice. But I have some issues, not least of which being the eloquent brevity of the original is lost to fit in additional clauses and particles so it 'makes sense' in English. This is also an issue with translating pantun, because literary Malay often requires very few words to convey meaning. Quite like a still-life painting. So what results is a more bloated piece that loses the original's swift strokes and quick rhythm. In some cases, Winstedt's chosen to change the meaning altogether by devising new images, as in "and upwards soared the night-birds". I also don't take too fondly to the line with "oxen" in "meadows", for surely Winstedt must have had an Alpine pasture in mind, instead of a rustic Malay landscape.

What I tried to do was to stick to the line-by-line translation, except the penultimate verse which I somehow couldn't squeeze into a single verse without awkwardness. I also realised a pattern in the original, which is an alternation between subject-verb-object and verb-subject-object. This, too, I tried to replicate in the English, because I found it rather an essential aspect to the rhythm of the original.

Midnight was now long past
Daybreak was yet to come
Children had twice awoken
Elders shifted in slumber
Dewdrops fell in specks
Calling now were distant pheasants
Insects merry chirped in the forest
Stirred the cows away in the fields
In reply lowed buffaloes in enclosure
Crowed the rooster his morning cackle
First light rolled heavenward
Chirrup and chatter did the murai
The nightjar sang in swelling pitch
Cooed the turtle-dove at the threshold
Murmured the quail its long note
Firewood a jengkal long
Now the width of two fingers
Certain signs of coming daylight


Faris Joraimi is an undergraduate at the Yale-NUS College in Singapore. An enthusiast of pre-modern Malay narrative traditions and material culture, his research interests lie in examining how they were shaped by the political economies in which they emerged. He also maintains a modest collection of antiquarian books, vintage textiles and vinyl records from and relating to the Malay world.

Image: Seri Rama, wayang Siam (Kelantan), early 20th century,


Anti-Racism in Malaysia: An Introductory Resource List

O for Other Team, with contributions from Ong Kar Jin and Sara Loh
10 June 2020

“No Answers, No Apology: Police Abuses and Accountability in Malaysia” by Human Rights Watch (2014)

Between 2000 and 2009, there is an overrepresentation of minorities who died by the lethal force in the hands of the police: 40% of those who died were Indonesian migrants, followed by 21% Indians. This Human Rights Watch report, the most comprehensive of its kind, is a primer to understanding the racialised nature of police violence in Malaysia and its opaque regime of accountability (most investigations over police brutality are carried out internally). Re-reading it will give new impetus to the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) Bill, shelved by the government in October 2019 due to strong police resistance.

Read the report here. Also read: The Royal Commission to Enhance the Operation and Management of the Royal Malaysia Police (2004), reports by Suhakam, SUARAM Human Rights reports and anti-discrimination resources by KOMAS.

Taming the Wild: Aborigines and Racial Knowledge in Colonial Malaya by Sandra Khor Manickam (2015)

Is race just biology and genetic differences? Of course not. In Taming the Wild, we are introduced to the classificatory practices of the census, colonial anthropology, and later-discredited scientific developments in the early part of the century that led to the indigenous groups in Malaysia acquiring their sticky association of backward tribes more attuned to the ways of the land. 

Purchase for RM64 at GerakBudaya here, or listen to the author’s interview with BFM 89.9 here. See also the Center for Malaysian Indigenous Studies (CMIS) at the University of Malaya, where important decolonising work is happening, and read our interview with  Welyne Jehom, the head of research at CMIS here. Also follow Gerai OA, Jaringan Orang Asal SeMalaysia (JOAS) and the Center for Orang Asli Concerns (COAC).

Gerimis Art Project

Gerimis’s archival work, zines, exhibitions and publications highlight indigenous forms of knowledge through the development of an art project. Notably, these projects focus on the relationship between orang asal and the environment: through stories of the land, interactions with plants and animals, and craft traditions of respecting the earth.

Follow Gerimis Art Project on Facebook here and on Instagram here. To hear more indigenous stories, check out Iban Dream, a fantasy fiction series by Golda Mowe. For more on the relationship between orang asal and the environment, see also, Changing Pathways: Forest Degradation and the Batek of Pahang, Malaysia by Tuck-Po Lye (2004); The Orang Asli and the Contest for Resources: Indigenous Politics, Development and Identity in Peninsular Malaysia by Colin Nicholas (2000) - available for free in PDF here; Money Logging: On the Trail of the Asian Timber Mafia by Lukas Straumann (2014).

Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson (1991)

Anderson’s canonical study of nations centers an emotional and cultural imagination as the foundation of contemporary statehood. Nations, defined as “imagined communities,” allow us to believe ourselves as belonging to a “horizontal comradeship” with a shared sense of history, values and beliefs. It exposes the appeal, and fragility, of - in the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - the “single story” of state-based conceptions of the nation, but also shows how individuals might act to shift these tales.

Download a free pdf here or purchase for £13 at Verso here. See also: Taming Babel by Rachel Leow (2016), Yee I-Lann’s artworks interrogating the borders of nationhood.

“Imagined minorities: rethinking race and its appeal in Malaysia” by Tan Zi Hao (New Mandala, 2018)

Drawing heavily from Benedict Anderson’s study of nationhood, the artist and writer Tan Zi Hao analyses the appeal of self-minoritisation among the two largest ethnic groups in Malaysia - the Malay and Chinese. Victimisation is enabled here by access to economic and political power, most notably in museums, while actual minorities - orang asal, anak negeri etc - are entirely sidelined.

Read the article here. See also, “Malays and Orang Asli: contesting indigeneity,” by Rusaslina Idrus In: Melayu: The Politics, Poetics and Paradoxes of Malayness (2011).

“In Cold Blood: The Truth of the Batang Kali Massacre” by BBC (1993)

State violence during the Emergency has frequently haunted discussions on racial relations in Malaysia. However, in the commemoration of historical trauma, there is often a dearth of information: the British government has refused to declassify the archives of the period, the successor Malaysian government has not fully acknowledged its complicity, and efforts are hampered by the amnesia on the part of many Chinese Malaysians, who are anxious to sanitise their own left-wing and labour origins. This BBC documentary begins to do this crucial work of remembrance and restitution of injustice.

Also read the compilation of May 13 oral histories published by GerakBudaya, Ong Kar Jin’s article on writing a history of May 13 through objects, as well as watch Fahmi Reza’s documentary on radical Merdeka visions in ‘10 Tahun Sebelum Merdeka’.

Cosmopolitan Sex Workers: Women and Migration in a Global City by Christine BN Chin (2013)

This book helps us grapple with the reality that migrant workers are not a peripheral class, but sinews of Malaysian capitalism. Malaysia’s relentless drive towards industrialised status also produced in its wake, the need for migrant sex workers as a parallel class servicing the professionals in KL’s higher-end services economy. Throughout the book, there is a very empathetic tone towards the condition of migrancy--the decisions to migrate and undertake sex work depended less on individual choices, and are structured by the necessities of global capitalism. But even as migrants thread these path-dependent routes, they were quick to emphasise their own agency, and the cosmopolitan benefits that come with their itinerancy, no matter how narrow this vision of empowerment may seem to us.

Download a free pdf here or purchase an e-book for RM70 here.
Also check out a R.Age op-documentary on the other lives that migrant workers lead in Malaysia here, and the #MigranJugaManusia masterlist of information and resources here. For a broader discussion on conditions of labour, both migrant and Malaysian, see Charles Hector’s history of labour unions in Malaysia here.

“Ayer Hitam: A Black History of Singapore” by Sharon Frese, and Ng Yi-sheng, directed by Irfan Kasban (2019)

Ayer Hitam: A Black History of Singapore (2019) from The Art of Strangers on Vimeo.

This performance lecture explores how the legacy of black diasporic cultures can be found in contemporary Singapore.

See also, the Letters for Black Lives project here, which has resources in Malay, Chinese, Tamil, Hindi, Telugu and Urdu.

Myth of the Lazy Native by Syed Hussein Alatas (1977)

Syed Hussein Alatas’s Myth of the Lazy Native is a sociological analysis of the colonial image of “lazy” Malays, Filipino and Javanese from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. Alatas argues that this image was crucial to furthering the aims of colonial capitalism. It reveals race and ethnicity - and the “essential” characteristics attributed to them - as political categories often manipulated by elites to justify and further their own goals: perhaps the most pernicious contemporary use of the myth of the lazy native was by Mahathir in The Malay Dilemma (1970) to justify race-based economic policies. This book famously inspired Edward Said’s canonical text, Orientalism (1978), a treatise on the colonial construction of the immutable difference between “East” and “West.”

Download a free pdf here, or purchase from Routledge for £36 here. See also The Origins of Malay Nationalism by William Roff (1967); “The Advent of the Bumiputra'' in The End of Empire and Making of Malaya by Tim Harper (1998); and Being Malay in Indonesia: Histories, Hopes and Citizenship in the Riau Archipelago by Nicholas J. Long (2013).

Cage of Freedom: Tamil Identity and the Ethnic Fetish in Malaysia (2006) and Tamils and the Haunting of Justice: History and Recognition in Malaysia’s Plantations by Andrew C. Willford (2014); Class, Race, and Colonialism in West Malaysia: The Indian Case by Michael R. Stenson (1980); and Religion-State Encounters in Hindu Domains: From the Straits Settlements to Singapore by Vineeta Sinha (2011)

Sugu Pivithra has become an overnight youtube sensation during the Movement Control Order for sharing her simple home-cooked recipes in Bahasa Malaysia that has attracted Malaysians across all class, racial and political divides. But behind the success of every youtube celebrity is the background story of a community’s plight, having first migrated to Malaysia as indentured labourers working in the rubber plantations. Vineeta’s, Wilford’s and Stenson’s studies survey the Tamil community’s efforts to come to terms with its marginalisation and methods of participation within Malaysia’s nation-building. The fetishisation of ethnicity and its religious mantle are understood as a political vehicle for social justice redress promised by the nation. It further underlines the significance of ethnicity as a double-edge sword that reproduces entrenched subjectivity, even as it offers some of the most potent forms of expression to render visible and account for the subjugation of a racial community.

See also, Beyond the Sea by P. Singaram (2016) and Crossing the Bay of Bengal by Sunil Amrith (2015).

“Now You Know Lah: Orang Asli of Peninsular Malaysia”, by Rojak Daily

The title says it all! Combat that ignorance.

See also Google Earth Voyager OA highlights. Other video resources: “The Story of Kam Agong” by Lawrence Jayaraj, Agnes Padan & Wong Chin Hor; “Dialog dengan Dendi” by Badrul Hisham; “Aku Mau Skola”, by Putri Purnama, and “Out of Sight: Malaysia’s Orang Asli”, by 101 East

The Sulu Zone 1768-1898: The Dynamics of External Trade, Slavery, and Ethnicity in the Transformation of a Southeast Asian Maritime State by James F. Warren (1981)

Warren’s fascinating study re-centers the Sulu Zone at the heart of the story of global colonial capitalism. Not only does the book explore how cross-cultural trade and European dominance affected men and women who were forest dwellers, fishermen, highlanders, and slaves, it captures the complex dynamics of ethnic constitution that emerged as the Sama-Bajau adapted to new fluid notion of ethnicity under the Sulu Sultanate, where as a feudal class servicing the Tausugs, they were able to expand their population through an ambivalent process assimilating people from across the Malay archipelago who were enslaved by the Iranuns and perpetuating this system of subjugation through their participation in slave-raiding.

On the same theme of cosmopolitan and fluid racial identities, also check out Becoming Arab: Creole Histories and Modern Identity in the Malay World by Sumit K. Mandal (2017); Race and Multiculturalism in Malaysia and Singapore (2009) edited by Daniel PS Goh, Matilda Gabrielpillai, Philip Holden and Gaik Cheng Khoo.

On the Sulu Sea by Supriya Singh (1984)

Singh, a sociologist and journalist, here turns her eye to the Simunul Bajau community of Kampung Bokara in Sandakan, Sabah, This book is poignant ethnography on race-relations and magisterial thesis on learning from one another that opens with a poignant meditation, “The small room I rent in a Borneo village over the sea, feels strange on my first night. What will it be like to live in a village? Alone in a rented room? A woman on her own in a traditional environment? An Indian among the Simunul Bajaus, a Sikh among Muslims?”

On orang asal knowledge, see Deadly Dances in the Bornean Rainforest: Hunting Knowledge of the Penan Benalui by Rajindra K. Puri (2006) and Orang Asli Animal Tales by Lim Boo Liat (2010). For sociological work on orang asal, see Orang Asli Women of Malaysia: Perceptions, Situations & Aspirations by Adela Baer et al (2006) and Chita’ hae: Culture, crafts and customs of the Hma’ Meri in Kampung Sungai Bumbon, Pulau Carey by Raita Rahim (2007).

Chinese Among Others: Emigration in Modern Times by Philip A. Kuhn (2008)

Can we think of Chineseness as an identity that is constituted principally through its encounter with the others? Where and when might this history of Chinese modernity be located? Philip A. Kuhn moves us out of the Mainland to the South Seas of the Malay Archipelago. Marshalling archival documents, epigraphy, print culture to make a persuasive reading of how consciousness of one’s ethnic identity can only be emerged through cultural interactions and encounters with the others, challenging the conventional view that ethnic purity existed prior to cultural contact.

Download a free e-pub here or purchase for SGD38 from NUS Press here. On Chinese communities in Malaysia, check out "Getting By": Class and State Formation among Chinese in Malaysia by Donald M. Nonini (2015). There is also a veritable tradition of nanyang fiction in Chinese that is being translated to English, most recently the English translation of Ho Sok Fong’s Lake Like A Mirror, available from Kinokuniya here.

On variations of the same theme about how our identities have shifted, diffused, solidified, and evolved in relation to and against another, also check out White Paper on Race Relations published by Dewan Rakyat and Dewan Negara (1988), Race and Politics in Urban Malaya by Alvin Rabushka (1973), “Who Invented the Dayaks? Historical Case Studies in Art, Material Culture and Ethnic Identity from Borneo” by Dianne Margaret Tillotson (1994), Hidden Hands and Divided Landscapes: A Penal History of Singapore's Plural Society by Anoma Pieris (2009) and Leaves of the Same Tree: Trade and Ethnicity in the Straits of Melaka by Leonard Andaya (2008).


Designing Record Sleeves in 1980s Malaysia

Nicole Ong
14 April 2020

Picture 1. Koh Lee Meng in his office. Source: Koh Design Consultants (2020)

Meet Mr. Koh

During my internship at Malaysia Design Archive, I stumbled across MDA’s collection of the graphic designer Koh Lee Meng’s work from the 1980s to early 2000. The works were incredibly extensive, from restaurant menus, logo designs, corporate profiles, and – what really amazed me – his designs of record sleeves. As a graphic design student myself, I was incredibly impressed with his precise craft of logotypes, something very rare to see nowadays. It was a hidden gem indeed. These were Malay record sleeves from the 1980s, emblazoned with household names like P. Ramlee. The design was distinctive, kind-of-retro and was unmistakably influenced from Western records, yet it had an unmistakably Melayu taste. It felt authentic in its own way.

In person, Koh welcomed me warmly and generously – despite my nerves – as he shared stories from his early graphic design career and thoroughly talked about his creative process, craft, and experience. His consistency, passion, and resilience surely were the secrets behind the more than thirty years he has had in the industry.

Picture 2. Koh Lee Meng in discussion with his team in 1980s.

Koh’s early interest in graphic design was influenced by comic books, movie magazines, and the visuals he saw around him. At an early age, he aspired to be an art director, which led him to study Fine Arts at Kuala Lumpur College of Art. Koh became an art director two or three years after he graduated from Colchester School of Art in UK. Afterwards, in 1984, he started Koh Design Consultants, which was based on the mantra “We Communicate by Design”. KDC started in branding, print, packaging, and has since expanded to wayfinding and signage.

In Malaysia in the 1980s, the term ‘graphic design’ was rarely used. Many called themselves commercial artists, and it wasn’t recognized as a profession, nor was it a career path as popular as it is now. There weren’t many art schools as well. As the creative industry was dominated by advertising and public relations companies, Koh learned from their high standards and met clients from the industry as well. The difference was advertising prioritized sales, while graphic design’s goal is effective communication. It was Koh’s desire to advocate for graphic design as a profession and to convince his clients of the value of graphic design as a marketing tool.

The 12-inch Record Sleeves

One of Koh's most interesting projects in the 1980s was record sleeve art. He designed sleeves for Malay artists such as M. Daud Kilau, P. Ramlee, A. Ramlie and The Goodman Brothers, including designing the logotypes, layout setting, and colour adjustment. In our conversation, he mentioned that his sources of inspiration were the lyrics of the music, current trends, as well as past record sleeves’ designs. Trends dictated that record sleeves would be dominated by photographs, so he discussed with music labels what angles to shoot from, and what outfit colours would suit the style and music genre of the artist. Though record sleeves can be seen merely as another a form of packaging, the visuals communicate the mood and theme of the music towards a specific target audience. It is an art that stands as the genre of music that differentiates one from another1, as well as reflecting the character of the artist or musician. Thus, record sleeves themselves should be seen as a graphic identity. To this day, people still seek record sleeves as a treasure: it is not only nostalgic, but also is a part of how one is meant to experience music.

Picture 3.1. M. Daud Kilau “Apa Akan Terjadi” (1981). Source: Malaysia Design Archive

Picture 3.2. Koleksi Kenangan Abadi P. Ramlee (1983). Source: Malaysia Design Archive

Picture 3.3. The Goodman Brothers “Engkau Tahu Aku Tahu” (1982). Source: Malaysia Design Archive

Picture 3.4. Quinary M “Kini Kau Berubah” (1982). Source: Malaysia Design Archive

“Generally, you can see those days all albums are just very straightforward,” Koh said. He also expressed that he could’ve done so much better, but it was always pleasant to look at the logotype he crafted. Mostly, Malay record sleeves in the 1980s were agreeably straightforward, as the main visual was either photographs or illustrations of the musical artist. This trend for photographs as album covers started in the West in the 1950s, then progressed to bold typography. In the 1970s, there was a rise in fashion photography, ushering in an era of logos and mascots. Distinctive logos for artists surged, most notably with logos for heavy metal bands such as Led Zeppelin, Motörhead, and Def Leppard that “turn[ed] bands into brands” (Chilton, 2019). All this led to the design trend of using photographs - from close-ups of faces to full-body shots – as the main imagery of albums, accompanied by logos to mark the brands of the artist. One thinks of the record sleeve of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, which has a similar approach to these 80s Malay record sleeves. Despite global influences, Malay record sleeves still maintained their distinctive and authentic Melayu flavour by maintaining a similar style with pop Melayualbum covers in 1975.

The straightforward approach in the design of these record sleeves is actually in harmony with Dangdut music, where, as Wallach writes, the “story narratives tend to be simple and straightforward.” Certain approaches depend on the genre of music it represents, feelings it want to transfer, and saying certain message like political or social issue. As much as the design of the sleeves have a straightforward approach, they don’t explicitly displays the message of the music. Functionally, the record sleeves exist to represent the music but still leaves space for viewers to raise questions and perceive it individually.

Vaughan Oliver, in-house designer of record label 4AD, once said that record sleeves are the “gateway into what the music is about without defining it but also providing a suggestive mood and atmosphere.” Similarly, romantic and cheerful moods for Malay record sleeves were shown through fashion, colours, and typefaces that were retro-disco influenced, with designs that mirror the industries of fashion and style, such as M. Daud Kilau’s flamboyant outfit, bold-patterned shirt, flare pants and afro. The genre of Dangdutis rooted in orkes melayu (Malay orcherstra) and influenced by Indian and Islamic flavour. A Dangdut ensemble typically consists of keyboard,electric guitar, drum, seruling (flute), and violin. Its lyrics usually express a melancholic, ruminant mood that comments on social and personal hardships that “represent the innermost feeling of us all.” As an example, M. Daud Kilau’s Aku Merindu lyrics go:

Siang dan malam hati gelisah                           My heart is restless on day and night
Kasih menghilang tiada berita                          My lover is gone without a word
Entah dimana dikau menyepi                           Who knows where you are
Tinggalkan daku seorang diri                           Leaving me all by myself

Wahai kasihku datang padaku                         Oh my lover do come to me
Aku merindu padamu selalu                            I miss you dearly
Agarkah hilang resah di jiwa                           So will my soul’s trouble be gone
Bila bertemu duhai kekasihku                          If I meet you, oh dear love

Aku merindu                                                  I miss you

The in-rhyme lyrics, repeated words, and similar tunes over and over has a meditative quality, but at the same time its repetition forces one to dwell in its emotion: we can’t get over it. The use of words like merindu(missing), resah (troubled), and kekasih (lover) express a deep longing towards the lover. It conveys the sadness of not being together. The song’s romantic melody is depicted through the visuals of dominant pink colour and flower elements on M. Daud Kilau’s outfit and logotype. Despite the romantic and happy visuals, beneath the surface is deep sadness speaking through the lyrics.

Picture 4. Logotype design of “M. Daud Kilau”; Medium: marker on paper (1981). Source: Malaysia Design Archive

The logotype of M. Daud Kilau, as Koh says, “depends on how we imagine M. Daud Kilau… he is very flamboyant, eclectic.” As M. Daud Kilau is a Dangdut singer, the logo gives a romantic, sweet mood through the tails branching from the letters and flower symbols. By understanding those characteristics, adapting with current trends, then translating it through the swirl and flair of the typeface, the logotype was already speaking for the musical artist. A logotype “communicates feelings, emotions, and vital nuances of the written word.”9 Since, there were no computers then, Koh drew the logotype by hand. Seeing it now, the art is so precise you might’ve not believe it was hand-drawn. These skills in craft mustn’t be forgotten.

With the contemporary proliferation of LPs and EPs, demands for graphic design of album art are higher than ever. With that, the role of graphic designer and advertising sometimes got mixed up. Advertising is using any means possible to achieve sales, meanwhile graphic design focus is on successful communication by using the right medium. Record sleeves tell a story of history, visual culture, fashion, and of course, music from a specific time and place. Design will always be a part of music, as a reflection, message and a medium to communicate. Visuals that are constructed of color, logo, photography, and texture are responsible for a first impression to the public. That is the role of graphic designers: to utilize mediums to communicate effectively, or as Koh Lee Meng would call it, to be effective “visual communicators.”

Koh Lee Meng archive collection is available to view at Malaysia Design Archive and through our online repository The archive consists of works by Koh Lee Meng from the 1980 to early 2000, during his career as a graphic designer and his practice in Koh Design Consultants.

For further reading:

70s Disco Fashion: Disco Clothes, Outfits for Girls and Guys. (2018, March 20). Vintage Dancer.

Bestley, R. (2008). Spin/3 Magazine: Action Time Vision. Spin/3 Magazine: Action Time Vision.

Chilton, Martin. (2019, September 2). Cover Story: A History of Album Artwork. uDiscoverMusic.

Donwood, Stanley. (2020, January 24). Sleeve Art. The Times Literary Supplement.

Koh, Lee Meng. (1981-1983). [Record Sleeves]. Koh Lee Meng Archive, 1980-2002, Malaysia Design   Archive, (Box 18, Folder 3), Malaysia.

Muttaqin, M. (2006). Musik Dangdut dan Keberadaannya di Masyarakat: Tinjauan dari Segi Sejarahdan Perkembangannya (Dangdut and Its Existence in the Society: The Review of Its History and Development). Harmonia: Journal of Arts Research and Education, 7(2).

Ooi, Keat Gin. (2009). The A to Z of Malaysia. Scarecrow Press.

Osborne, R. (2014). Audio books: the literary origins of grooves, labels and sleeves. Litpop: Writing and Popular Music, 201-215.

Kang, Siew Li. (1996, August). Giving graphic designing the recognition it deserves. Business Times. p. B17

Ponnampalam, Andrew. (1995, March). Upward path of a graphic designer. New Strait Times. p. A1

Whitehouse, Matthew. (2017, February 17). art on your sleeve: the definitive history of the 12” record sleeve. i-D magazine.

Kilau, M. Daud. (2007). Memori Hit M. Daud Kilau. [Audio].

Wallach, J. (2014). NOTES ON DANGDUT MUSIC, POPULAR NATIONALISM, AND INDONESIAN ISLAM. In Barendregt B. (Ed.), Sonic Modernities in the Malay World: A History of Popular Music, Social Distinction and Novel Lifestyles (1930s – 2000s)(pp. 271-290). Leiden; Boston. Brill.


It takes a decade to grow a tree

Okui Lala
7 April 2020

Based on a Chinese proverb, 十年树木,百年树人, "It takes a decade to grow a tree, a century to shape mankind", Okui Lala created the following video during her 3-month residency at the People’s Court in George Town, Penang.  The residency programme was part of ‘Re:engage: The People's Court’, a project initiated by Lee Cheah Ni in 2015 under Japan Foundation Kuala Lumpur’s ‘RUN & LEARN: New Curatorial Constellations’ - a programme aimed at cultivating young curators and cultural workers in Malaysia. 

From a now defunct website, we learned that the "People's Court, located at the inner city of George Town, Penang has a rich history. It was a large grocery bazaar before World War II and later on converted into residential quarters of wooden houses. In the late 1950s, the first elected George Town local government led by the Socialist Front built three blocks of flats under the People's Housing Program.”

Completed in 1961, the flats represented a different vision of modernity for Penang. The newly elected socialist front had hoped that independence would allow Penang to chart its own destiny, by shaking off its historical origin as a colonial port city, where great wealth could be made by the few only at the expense of the poverty and hardships endured by the majority. The flats was to be a monument to a hard-won democratic processes.

But as all monuments grow old, they also become sites of accumulation for different stories of endurance. During Okui’s stay there, she couldn't help noticing the plants along the corridor and the trees around People's Court. "Like the residents, they too, must have been here for quite some time" She wondered what's the relationship between the plants, the community and the surrounding?

You can learn more about the background story as well as the artistic process by visiting Okui’s website.  

Okui Lala (Chew Wen Chin) (b. 1991, Penang, Malaysia) often employs an autobiographical approach in her practice which spans photography, video, performance and public engagement. Her work explores themes of diaspora, home and belonging through the performances of domestic acts or vocational labour, such as sewing, cooking, conversing and building. Recent presentations include shows at Yamaguchi Art Centre for Arts and Media (Japan, 2019), Para Site (Hong Kong, 2018), National Art Gallery (Malaysia, 2017) and Saitama Triennale (Japan, 2016), amongst others. Okui was a recipient of the 2017 Japan Foundation Asia Centre Fellowship Grant for her research on migration, mobilities and identities in Myanmar and Japan. She lives and works in Penang and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Find out more about her artworks at

Wu Ma of Thieves Market

Hoo Fan Chon
31 March 2020

As I was tidying up my studio during the current movement control order, I found a pile of paintings by Wu Ma, a self-taught artist who used to run a stall at the Acheen Street (Lebuh Acheh) flea market. Also known locally as the thieves market (Pasar Karat),  the Acheen Street flea market was held at the Armenian Park, and extended along Armenian and Acheen Street, usually from the late afternoon till dusk.

Across Armenian street overlooking the park was the restored Penang Islamic Museum. It was an early straits-style bungalow built in 1860 that was once the residence of Syed Mohamed Alatas, a powerful Acehnese pepper merchant who once led the Red Flag secret society and resistance against Dutch hegemony in Acheh. Located at the heart of Penang’s heritage enclave, this al-fresco market was self-organised by the local community where a small token was collected to ensure the park was cleaned up after the market

The last time when I was there, I saw a myriad of random second-hand items on sale such as electronic scraps, clothes, VCDs and DVDs, kitchenware, toys, vintage and antique pieces, old prints, books and magazine; with a pisang goreng and air balang stalls nearby. Most of the items were not priced, and one was expected to haggle. It was never strictly business, many of the stall owners and regulars knew each other. They would often hang under the shade of trees and chat away, or help look after each other’s stall during toilet breaks. 

However, in 2015 the park was closed for upgrading work by the local council. And when the park was re-opened in 2017, it was transformed into a quaint modern-looking garden in service of the local residents and tourists. Since then, we lost another vibrant scene of street life in George Town, all in the name of placemaking and urban rejuvenation.

Wu Ma was a regular here. He was usually found in a half lotus sitting position on a sheet of spread-out recycled canvas poster. In front of him was a selection of his paintings, bric-a-brac and small objects of novelty. He was shy when I complimented his paintings but when I asked about the painting material he used, he proudly took out his selection of Buncho poster colours. From the other hand, he produced a bottle of water, poured some of it on the surface of the painting, and upon rubbing on this mixture , pronounced with an air of confidence, “you see, the colours stay”.

Buncho should consider getting him to endorse their product. With his trusted set of colours, he drew and painted on any scrap of paper he could find or given to him. He also painted on loose sheets of paper including the cardboard of the drawing pads or the back of the calendar.

Wu Ma often lamented about his rebellious youth. He would never go into details but often concluded that he was now a devoted Buddhist. He meditated and copied Buddhist aphorism. Some of his paintings carry the ethos of Buddhist teaching, resisting earthly temptations especially the pleasure of sex including his observation on the abuse of trust and power in religious establishments.

Apart from the paintings inspired by Buddhist teachings, painting allowed him to revisit his childhood memories such as how he used to hide behind rocks to peep at couples getting intimate at the beachside in Penang. He used to make paintings of political figureheads but was warned by his peers that he might get into trouble with the authority, and he has stopped since.

Some of his paintings shed light on the unsung heroes like the firefighters, or a local outlaw pirate figure, who stole from the rich to feed the poor. He has a tendency to present women as strong and powerful wrestlers. The marketplace was not short of larger-than-life dramas and his surroundings became a source of inspiration to him. The painting that portrays an angry wife catching her husband looking at a scantily clad woman is an example.

Another series of Wu Ma’s paintings feature cultural symbols typically found in traditional Chinese paintings such as the deities or characters in Chinese mythology, swimming koi fish, Mandarin ducks, galloping horses and landscapes with Pine trees.

It is hard to tell how much planning or preparation went into his paintings, he sometimes painted on both sides of the paper. Other times, he would paint outside of the frame that he carefully drew to create a border for his pictures. He was also known to change the orientation of his composition mid-way through painting, from a vertical to a horizontal format. Otherwise, figures float in freefall against an empty background.

Wu Ma’s body of work, in general, contains elements that are both lofty and whimsical. On the one hand they resemble illustrations found in the book of virtues or mural painting seen in Buddhist temples. On the other hand, they also remind us of the Old Master Q comic. His grassroots sensibility conveys a spontaneous naivety with the urgency of a courtroom sketcher that reflects on his state of mind, socio-political insights of his daily milieu, spiritual inspirations and cultural upbringing. Painting for Wu Ma is perhaps a means to make ends meet. It is also on some level, a meditative and reflective process. Finally, it is his search for a path towards self-redemption.

If Wu Ma is still alive, he would be 93 this year. I saw less of Wu Ma since Armenian Park's 'upgrade'. The last time I saw him was near Beach Street in 2018, parking himself outside a restaurant. He was asking for some drinking water from the waiter. I tried to get his attention but he couldn't recognise me. He was trying to make himself comfortable by the five-foot-way. I handed him some cash and left. I hope he's doing alright, especially in times like these.

Hoo Fan Chon’s art practice involves exploring taste as a cultural and social construct, and the interdependent yet antithetical relationship between the dominant and the subservient, just like the mould and the cast. His works often involve investigating the process of cultural translation, in which attempts to translate or assimilate were made but at times result in an unexpected and incoherent manner.

Fan Chon is the co-founder and a member of an art collective – Run Amok. The collective operated an artist-run space in George Town, Penang from 2013 - 2016. Wu Ma was featured in the inaugural two-person exhibition, All’s Well, Ends Well / 潮繪,俗畫, at Run Amok Gallery in March-April 2013.  



Malaysia Design Archive
Visual Art Programme, UM