Drawing the line on political cartooning in Singapore

When Teo Yu Sheng’s cartoon started going viral, he began to worry. Posted to Instagram and Facebook on July 6, the four-panel comic depicts a unicorn questioning the deputy prime minister’s declaration that older Singaporeans aren’t ready for a non-Chinese leader. When the unicorn asks if this can be considered racist, he’s cut off by another character, who threatens to call the police. Teo nervously watched the likes and shares on the post accumulate, wondering if he had crossed the line and was about to get into a whole lot of trouble.
Teo runs Heckin’ Unicorn, a Singapore-based LGBTQ+ apparel company. The brand’s social media pages are usually awash with cute socks and enamel pins. Semi-regularly, though, a comic will appear. Initially, Teo had had no plans to draw cartoons; the idea of a comic was suggested by a friend as a means to drive customers to his online shop during the first weeks of the coronavirus pandemic. But in explaining and sometimes mocking certain conservative Singaporean attitudes, especially those directed at the queer community, his comics get thousands of likes and attract a lot of attention. The recent Mediacorp apology for harmful depictions of gay characters onscreen? A Heckin’ Unicorn cartoon started that conversation.
To date, nobody has called the police on Teo or his work. “I drew the line on the floor for myself,” he said –
deciding what subject material is okay to discuss in his comics, how to surface these topics in a factual and respectful way. Every Singaporean cartoonist working independently to put political cartoons on social media – and there aren’t many of them – has to run the same mental cost-benefit analysis before hitting “post.”
Generally, a political cartoonist is the proverbial kid who points out that the emperor has no clothes. Political cartoons transfer information in an intuitive, subtle way. Cartoonists document history with exaggerated depictions of important people and the absurdity of the day. As comics historian CT Lim writes, “They are caricaturists who hold up the savage mirror, satirizing the follies of political leaders and their policies with the aim of keeping policies straight and honest.” They insinuate, comment, criticize, and judge, often in the pages of newspapers with readerships in the hundred thousands. A good cartoon gets under the skin of its target, making them or what they believe in look ridiculous. But political cartoonists are a rare breed in Singapore.
It used to be that if a would-be political cartoonist wanted an audience, they’d have to take their work to a newspaper. There, if you drew something too critical or divisive, your editor would simply decline to publish (and pay for) it. To stay employed, then, you learned to draw well within the lines. Cherian George, now a media studies professor, was the art and photo editor at the Straits Times in the mid-nineties. “I supervised that line,” he said of the paper’s “better-to-be-safe-than-sorry” editorial stance. He knew implicitly which subjects were off-limits, and didn’t question it. “… I took it for granted. Singapore newspapers are not allowed to caricature our leaders. So be it. We’ll just work around it.”
Editors used to err on the side of caution, down to the letter. When Cheah Sinann, a Malaysia-born cartoonist, came to work for the Straits Times in the late 1980s, an editor voiced concern that his strip, The House of Lee, would be misconstrued as a commentary on PM Lee. Cheah was confused; he had based the strip on an eccentric neighbor in Malaysia. (“I didn’t know what all the fuss was about,” he said.) But he changed “Lee” to “Lim” and the strip ran for eight years.
When your livelihood depends on a newspaper publishing your art, there are a few different compromises you can make. You can leave Singapore, like Morgan Chua did when the government yanked the Singapore Herald’s publishing license in 1971 (due to Chua’s pointed caricatures and illustrated criticism, legend says). You can hit the brakes on political criticism, and turn to light-hearted gag cartoons, like Tan Huay Peng and Sam Liew did at the Straits Times in the 1950s and 1980s, respectively. You ca…

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