Shaun Tan defends the Rakyat’s rights to voice their displeasure with government leaders, even if a a couple of photos are ruined in the process.

You know something’s wrong when even the simplest of gestures become risky. A few weeks ago, many of us were made acutely aware of this.

On Merdeka eve, a group of people were photographed stepping on pictures of Prime Minister Najib Razak. This led to the arrests of three young people under the charge for sedition and a continuing ‘manhunt’ for the rest of the group. Suddenly stepping on the Prime Minister’s photo – something no one even knew was illegal – became something that could burden one with criminal prosecution.

Such heavy-handed ‘persecution’ by the Barisan Nasional (BN) government has prompted one of the suspects, a 19-year-old girl, to apologize for her actions. I don’t know what satisfaction the government got from bullying a young girl into apologizing, but in at least that one respect,the tactic seems to have succeeded, as suddenly people started apologizing where none was necessary.

The Opposition has been disappointingly hesitant in their response. So far, most statements by their leaders seem to revolve around urging the government to ‘forgive’ those involved in the ‘unholy’ act.

It’s a pity that so few are prepared to say what needs to be said: that those young people were just expressing their displeasure at a government official in a way that harmed no one and threatened no one; and that the government has neither any right nor cause to forgive anything.

It’s also a pity that our government needs reminding that in a democracy, politicians derive their authority and power from the people. And when faced with public expressions of displeasure – even crude ones – a true leader should square his shoulders and put up with it. After all, in politics, criticism and insult come with the territory and someone who cannot stomach it, someone who can only respond to negative feedback with threats and coercion, is simply unfit to lead.

I find it difficult not to see this heavy-handedness as simply the latest in a series of attacks by the BN government on our liberty. I’ve grown up seeing how these attacks have infected the country with pernicious self-censorship and reduced the mainstream media to its pitiful state, and I’m unwilling to concede another inch.

I don’t want Malaysia to become a country where the Prime Minister is so sacred that even stepping on his image is illegal. And since my words will be empty without a corresponding gesture, here’s a photo to go with them:

Yes, the picture at my feet is that of Prime Minister Najib Razak, a man I think has brought great shame to my country and who has done nothing to earn my respect during his time in office. I post this photo not because I believe stepping on pictures is usually a good form of communication, but because under present circumstances – i.e in the face of coercion aimed at reducing a simple gesture to something illegal or taboo – it’s an appropriate one. I think the government right now is behaving like a bully and since bullies only yield to strength, I feel a strong stand is required.

So this is my stand.

My name is Shaun Tan Zhi Ming and I want to send a message that some Malaysians will not be intimidated by ridiculous threats. A copy of this photo will be posted on a Facebook page called ‘Putting My Foot Down’, and there I’m content to let it stay – alone –  to constitute, as Henry David Thoreau would say, ‘a majority of one’.

But if anyone reading this feels as I do – that we have a stake in what happens to those young people; that we’re all in this together; that it shouldn’t be citizens who are afraid of their politicians but the other way around; that an assertive response is needed in the face of such abuse; and that we cannot defend the country we love without taking some risk – then you’re welcome to post up your own photos too, and show our politicians how seriously we take our rights.

Should you choose to do so, I care little whose picture you wish to step on. Use Najib’s if you see fit; I feel he deserves it. Or pick an Opposition leader if that’s more suitable to your displeasure. The Opposition leaders have my support for now, but should they come into power and end up breaking their promises or succumbing to the same fear-mongering tactics, I’ll certainly use my right to step on their pictures too, as I never ever want images of mere men (or women) to become sacrosanct.

Remember: the day we become too afraid to exercise our rights is the day we start to lose them.

(Featured image accompanying article on main page courtesy of Chris Seward, source:


Shaun Tan is a Malaysian writer. He enjoys reading, partying, and talking about himself in the third-person. Contact him at [email protected]

3 replies on “Putting My Foot Down”

  1. Beautifully expressed. You made an important point – that this is an appropriate reaction under present circumstances – that I think many readers, based on comments in other mediums, may have missed.

  2. Excellent piece Shaun. If only more of the younger generation had such strong, assertive views on the arrogance of the current bankrupt regime. They're all scared of their own shadows and hit out in all directions when criticised, using all the panoply of tools they can find.

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