We Are All Seditious: A Conversation with Fahmi Reza at Harvard University

By Herman Leong, Harvard ’26

The Asia Center is honored to have Fahmi Reza, a prominent Malaysian activist, in CGIS South on 10 March 2023 to communicate with students from Boston.

Herman Xin Yang, Leong | Harvard ‘26


Fahmi Reza, born in Selangor in 1977, is a Malaysian political graphic designer, documentary filmmaker, and social commentator known for his provocative and satirical artwork that often highlights political issues in Malaysia. Claiming himself as an ordinary person who wants to help the masses, Fahmi has been involved in various social and political movements and has used his artwork as a means of promoting freedom of expression and social justice in Malaysia.

Financial status and motivation

One might not imagine that Fahmi was an electrical engineering student in the United States from 1995 to 1999 but has never worked as an engineer. It is intriguing to ponder on the driving forces that motivate him to abandon a stable career pathway and to choose a perilous dedication – it is difficult to earn money as an activist due to its intrinsic volatility.

In the early times, Fahmi survived using money from his scholarship and volunteered in making designs for NGOs, which later started paying him for his work. The COVID-19 pandemic was a tragic period for many people in light of job loss and economic downturn, during which he started a Patreon account where he currently receives support from around 600 patrons for $1/month. He has been maintaining a frugal lifestyle. “That’s why you always see me wearing the same black shirt”, said he.

If anything, punk music shaped Fahmi into who he is today. Throughout decades, many punk songs have been used to express political defiance, while Fahmi himself also described the punk as a protest music. Designing punk music posters laid the foundation of his subsequent work and the establishment of his own punk band in 2000 was another initiative to disseminate messages about deep-seated problems in Malaysia like racism and police brutality.

Years of exposure to protests and human rights abuses cultivated Fahmi’s audacity to challenge the authorities. In 2003, when the media landscape was heavily biased with overwhelmingly positive coverage on Dr Mahathir’ Mohamad’s (Malaysia’s longest serving PM) proposal about compulsory military training, Fahmi knew that he needed to convey the message that not everyone must necessarily agree with it.

When Ahmad Badawi, the 5th prime minister of Malaysia, pledged to combat corruption but later did nothing about it, Fahmi realized that someone had to remind the politicians of the promises that they had reneged on.

An art Fahmi created by Fahmi during Mahathir’s proposal of mandatory national service.

Being an activist means getting used to detention and fines, but just like anyone else would, Fahmi freaked out during his first experience of getting arrested and beaten by the police. It was during a protest against the culture of impunity, titled “Hentikan Salahguna Kuasa Polis (Stop Police Abuse of Power)”, when police arrived with a chemical water cannon truck and ironically did what the protest was attempting to raise awareness of. Knowing that anyone else could be the next victim, this experience motivated him to voice out even more and to continue using art as a weapon. Later, when he realized a greater delivery efficiency using videos than using posters, he bought a secondhand camera and self-educate himself on video-shooting and editing. His first attempt beyond poster designing was a short documentary titled “10 Tahun Sebelum Merdeka (10 Years Before the Independence)”. Now freely available online, it narrates the Malaysians’ fight for independence from the colonial British since 1947 from the perspectives of 5 left wing leaders by interviewing them. Their unwavering sacrifices paved the way for freedom and prosperity that we enjoy today, and we should be grateful for it.

10 Years Before the Independence

Protest culture in Malaysia and Fahmi’s beliefs

Fahmi believes that there is potential in student activism in Malaysia. In 2009, he started a program called “Student Power” to lecture students on under-documented Malaysian history which unfortunately has been banned by many local public universities including Universiti Malaya (UM). Fahmi opines that many of the Malaysians have been fearful in challenging authorities, but he also saw the gradual emergence of protest culture in Malaysia after the BERSIH (translated to “clean”) protests, which demanded an improved democracy characterized by free and fair elections. These protests gave many youngsters their first experience, contributing to raising awareness in youth’s involvement in politics.

Possibly due to a lack of experience, many people attended the first few protests empty-handed. “This is not a protest. This is a gathering.” Fahmi joked, pointing at a photo taken during the protest with a huge crowd with hardly any demonstration placards, “so I started designing posters and uploaded them on the net so that people can print them out.”

One of the very well-known works of Fahmi was his caricature of Najib Razak, the 6th Prime Minister of Malaysia, who is currently serving his jail-time for the earth-shattering 1MDB scandal. Taxpayers have been paying for the 1MDB debt – billions of dollars – while many Malaysians are still suffering from the lack of electricity and clean water.

Fahmi used Najib’s Facebook profile image as a canvas and painted him as a clown with a line of text that read “Dalam negara yang penuh dengan korupsi, kita semua penghasut (In a country full of corruption, we are all seditious).” This was also a satire based on a report from Amnesty International in 2015 that revealed the use of Sedition Act by the Malaysian government as many as 91 times in that year alone.

Fahmi has been arrested for creating the “We Are All Seditious” T-shirt, banned from leaving the country, and fined for an astronomical figure of MYR 30,000. In response to that, he printed even more of these “seditious” clowns and sold them to get fully funded in a mere 18 hours. “I was being charged for expressing in a democratic country,” he said, further proving the necessity of a political reformation and reaching more awareness, “but so far I haven’t got into any trouble for criticizing the new government (referring to Anwar’s government).”

Now that more and more people know him and his work, his courage heightened even more as he believes arresting him will only result in the rise of more “rebels”. In order to silence him, the police will have to beat him to death.

The Najib clown caricature: Kita Semua Penghasut (We Are All Seditious)

But we have too many dreamers and few doers. When asked about his views on the future of Malaysia, Fahmi thinks that simply changing the laws is not enough. We need to change the very fabric of our societies, starting with the way we perceive and treat people of different races and religions.

Too often, political parties have used these differences to drive wedges between people and promote their own agendas,but if we want to create a future that we can be proud of, we need to work in tandem to break down these barriers.

Most importantly, we should stop pinning our hopes on activists for a change in our beloved nation because all of us have the power to make a difference in our small circles. By taking small steps in our own lives and encouraging others to do the same, we can create a groundswell of people working towards a common vision.


Fortunately, Fahmi did not go through all these hardships alone. There are always human rights lawyers that would take the case if an activist gets charged. Knowing there is always support from his lawyer friends stoked his courage in continuing his mission.

His mother, who passed away last year, was also one of his greatest advocators as he recollected. She single-handedly raised six children including Fahmi, and gave them freedom to make their own decisions. As a government servant, she endorsed him in her own way. Being fully prepared for the worst scenario as an activist, he always shared with her his experience, troubles, and worries, and he is grateful for everything that she has provided him with, be it emotional support, a listening ear, or a piece of advice.

Malaysians’ future and Words to Malaysians

To Fahmi, there are three most sensitive elements in Malaysia: race, religion, and royalty. Acceptance of satirical commentary is biased and depends on who the source is – it is unfortunate that questioning the Malay special rights is something that only Malays can do.

Knowing that himself is privileged by race, he also questioned the authorities on racial equity and special rights policies.

The double standard was made even clear when the Sultan of Selangor bought and shared on his official page an artwork depicting the Malaysian parliament full of apes and frogs. Fahmi said that if it were him who portrayed the artwork, he would get arrested.

In face of these controversial issues, many might choose to avoid getting into trouble by not talking about them. However, Fahmi does not believe in any good in censorship in that it controls the flow of information and ideas, impedes free communication, and limits the ability of individuals to express their opinions. This, of course, includes self-censorship.

When asked about his reasons to challenge the Malaysian royal families, specifically the Queen in the “Dengki ke?” incident, Fahmi told the students that challenging authorities was exactly what he was pushing for normalization, highlighting the importance of freedom of speech in a healthy, exuberant society.

Malaysian royalty is different from other countries as the royalties have actual political power, such as to elect the Prime Minister, and anyone that holds political power should be held accountable and accept satires from the people.

Fahmi’s tenets can be summarized by his quote: “Kalau saya tak buat, siapa nak buat? (If I don’t do it, who will?)”

Too often we tell ourselves that we don’t have to do something because others will, but this fallible mindset suggests a shun of responsibility and personal initiative. Fahmi wants to encourage people to take actions and make a positive difference in their community regardless of how small that difference is. Having successfully overthrown Najib does not mark the end of our job, for our country has a myriad of problems still. Remember, my fellow Malaysians, that not all heroes wear capes.

(The views expressed are those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the views of Rebuilding Malaysia.)

Herman Xin Yang Leong is a passionate Harvard undergraduate delving into Malaysian politics, driven by a quest for knowledge & advocating for positive change in the nation’s welfare. A catalyst for progress and unity.

Rebuilding Malaysia

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