Thomas Fann takes a look at the tangible impact of recent mural controversy in Johor Bahru.

In the same week that Super Typhoon Haiyan slammed into the Philippines, a different kind of storm came upon the southern city of Johor Bahru. It was a most innocuous beginning — a series of wall murals by an internationally-recognised Lithuanian-born street artist known as Ernest Zacharevic or better known as Zachas. When it was first unveiled in early November, it created a buzz among the local community. Many have long admired Zachas’ works for Penang and were delighted that he finally brought it to JB, a city not known for its appreciation of the arts.

With news spreading of the existence of four murals around the Taman Molek and Johor Jaya areas, people began seeking out these works of art and to have their photos taken with them. My family and I joined in the search-and-snap trail. It was most amusing to find people snapping away at these murals in dirty back lanes of non-descript shophouses and treating them like treasures. Perhaps to a city that is like an art desert, it was a breath of arty fresh air that had finally blown in.

Tarnished Image

But not everyone was amused, least of all the city’s mayor, Ismail Karim, and the State EXCO in charge of tourism, Tee Siew Keong. They found these murals offensive — in particular, one that shows a Lego figure as an armed robber lying in wait to rob from another Lego figure of a woman carrying a Chanel handbag. They claimed that it tarnishes the image of our good city and proceeded to paint over it. They are threatening to white-wash the remaining three as well.

The controversial mural of the Lego-styled figurines struck a chord with the locals and is easily the most popular of the four because it brought together two things that Johor is known for – Legoland and its crime rate. To many, it captures perfectly the disconnect between the fantasy theme park which is Legoland and the reality of life in this city. Johoreans are proud to have a world-class theme park in our midst, but we wish that our daily lives can be a little more safe and that the authorities would put as much effort into combating crimes as they do promoting the Iskandar region as some kind of playground for the rich or wannabe-rich of the world.

Local official crime statistics are hard to come by, and when one is given, they are often disbelieved as they do not bear up to the experience of local residences, many of whom are directly or indirectly victims of crime. Gated and secured communities flourish as residents take measures to secure themselves. We have to give thought to which places are safe to go to and we’re always looking over our shoulders for snatch thieves on motorbikes. Even in our cars we have to make sure that our valuables are kept out of sight, in case robbers smash our windows and grab our valuables. We live in constant fear of criminals.


Seizing the opportunity

The mural in question by Zachas should have been celebrated, not just for its artistic value but also for the social message it so accurately articulated — as the saying goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words”, and this one spoke volumes. The authorities could have seized this opportunity to engage the community to fight crime and promote the art scene at the same time.

But, perhaps predictably, they went into denial mode, blaming the messenger instead of heeding the message. Can art as the medium of the message ever tarnish the image of a city? If the message is false, it would have been discredited by the public itself without the need for the mayor or politicians to opine. But if the message is true, then we should all accept it and deal with the issue at hand, which is the reality of crime.

The truth cannot tarnish the image of our city. Crime and lack of cleanliness do. Our reputation has already been tarnished by these long before Zachas arrived on the scene. You just need to ask any Singaporean or people from outside JB and they would tell you so. In fact, according to Numbeo, the world’s largest database of user-contributed data about cities and countries worldwide, Johor Bahru ranked No. 4 for its Crime Index globally, just below Johannesburg. Truly a world-class ranking!

Cleanliness and crime

I want to talk about the cleanliness of this city, which is the responsibility of the city council MBJB with the Mayor as its head. In my humble opinion, Johor Bahru is filthy. I am not talking about the places tourists or investors are shown, but the places where the locals reside. One just has to walk around the housing estates and their backlanes to see and smell the filth. Loan sharks act with impunity, pasting their stickers and hanging their banners over road signs and properties.

So what has the cleanliness of the city to do with crime? It is a known and proven fact that there is a direct correlation between the two. A criminological theory called ‘Broken Windows’ proposes that untended disorder and minor offenses give rise to serious crimes and urban decay. It suggests that local authorities and the community must attend to every minor infraction, every potential disorder, paint over every graffiti, and yes, fix every “broken window”.

Not attending to such minor offenses such as littering or pasting of illegal stickers sends a very clear message to would-be criminals — that no one really cares about the city and that they are likely to get away with whatever criminal activities they embark upon.


Learning from New York

One big case study where the (No) Broken Window Theory was successfully implemented was New York City some 20 years ago. Its Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Police Commissioner William Bratton were largely credited with dramatically bringing down the crime figures of one of the most dangerous cities in the world. But it was the joint effort of many authorities and civil society groups that transformed New York City to what it is today — one of the safest big cities in the US.

Tackling crime in a city like JB is not just the job of the police, but requires also the combined efforts of all stakeholders of this city. The city council has a huge role to play in keeping the city clean and orderly. Other government departments are needed to maintain the roads, the drainage system, landscaping, street lighting, garbage collection, and the sewage and sanitation and road transport departments — all need to do their part and take a zero tolerance attitude to any violations or failings.

The police, who have long been unfairly held solely responsible for failure to reduce crime, do have a key role to play. Instead of focusing on crime-solving, more needs to be done for crime prevention or deterrence. New York’s Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly credited proactive policing for the city’s dramatic drop in crime rate and perhaps this is something our police force can learn from.


Finally, a major stakeholder for a safer city has to be the residents themselves who are the victims of an unsafe environment. Many local residents have probably given up hope that anything can be done to combat crimes and have instead focused on improving personal security. But without the involvement of the community, crime fighting would be an uphill task. Citizens must adopt a zero tolerance attitude, not just towards crime but also to substandard services by the local authorities. We need to pick up the phone if garbage is not collected, if illegal stickers or banners appear in our neighbourhood, if we observe suspicious activities or characters, and persevere until our complaints are attended to.

Zachas has inadvertently struck a raw nerve in our city with the Lego-styled characters of a robber and his victim. People here are sick and tired of living in fear and helplessness as criminal elements, both minor and major, terrorise us, and having to put up with poor delivery of public services.

As of the time of this writing, citizens have reacted to the council’s action by putting up paste-on replicas of the Lego pair all over town. It is a form of protest over the drastic action of the council in removing the original mural and is also seizing the opportunity afforded by this affair to bring awareness to the more serious issue of crime.

It is my hope that the Mayor, police, politicians, government agencies, civil society groups and the public would take this renewed focus on crime to start working together to come out with concrete action plans to make our city a safer place. Denying the problem won’t make it go away — it will keep reappearing, just like the replicas would.


Edmund Burke said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Some 25 years ago I made a decision to be counted amongst the good men and in many small ways attempted...

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