Photos: A visual history of Malaysia from 1941 to now

Photos: A visual history of Malaysia from 1941 to now

Relive history

Text: Natalia Chow Adelina Tan

Image: eyeondesign
Image: Malaysian Design Archive
Image: Getty Images

Commemorate Malaysia's 65th National Day on 31 August, and Malaysia Day on 16 September, with a visual walkthrough of Malaysia's (occasionally tumultuous) history thus far

Visual culture—be it in the form of photographs, posters or paintings—is a profoundly powerful tool in communicating ideas, sharing beliefs and representing unanimous patriotism. Regardless of our language, culture or ethnicity, the visual medium acts as a universal language that enables us to form connections and find solidarity even in the most distant stranger. Malaysia is beautiful in how it's home to a multitude of sub-cultures and ethnicities. Although each remains distinctively unique, we are all connected through the common thread of calling this land our home.

Malaysia's historical timeline, up to this day, is marked by both triumphs and challenges—all of which have been captured visually in one form or another. One image, for example, that we are all familiar with is Tunku Abdul Rahman proudly declaring "Merdeka!" with his arm in the air. This one photograph has now grown to become an iconography of independence art; a symbol of nationalism and liberation. So much so, many of us probably don't realise—or have forgotten—that it's printed on our RM50 note. Although the casual nature of how we interact with such imagery may seemingly dilute the significance of it, it nonetheless presents a consistent reminder of our history and one that is cross-culturally recognised amongst all Malaysians. However, this isn’t the only instance in which the power of visual art can unite Malaysians.

Photos: A visual history of Malaysia from 1941 to now (фото 1)
Photograph capturing Tunku Abdul Rahman declaring independence and shouting "Merdeka!"

In response to the ongoing pandemic, the #BenderaPutih movement emerged. A white flag is the simplest and most raw of images, yet it had an incredibly powerful and touching ability to connect Malaysians in times of need. This one symbol has highlighted the extraordinary sense of community that this country embodies.

Likewise, seeing the national flag—the 'Jalur Gemilang'—in the month of August ignites a degree of patriotism. The dynamic and ever-changing fluidity of political, social and cultural climates has brought about various different visual icons; these have all, in one way or another, created a distinctive Malaysian collective. In a multi-cultural society such as ours, visual language needs no translation: We merely contextualise a pivotal moment through its place in Malaysia's historical timeline.

Although the history of our land is said to date back to 1400 AD, we’ve decided to only cover key moments from 1941 onwards. Due to the complexities and polarising ideas that surround each moment (both locally and internationally), the brief descriptions are merely to communicate and accompany the images that (alongside many more) are now emblematic of Malaysian history.

1941-1945: The Japanese Occupation

Japanese soldiers invaded Malaysia in 1941 after the Pearl Habour attacks in America. Taking local residents largely by surprise and force, they soon gained control of the entire peninsula (including Singapore).

In 'The Ambivalence of the Reaction, Response, Legacy and War Memory' by Peter Alan Horton, the Japanese used propaganda posters and slogans to promote the discourse of ‘Asia untuk orang Asia’ (Asia for Asians). Many posters emerged to spread the idea of Japanese saviour-ship from Western colonisation, creating the illusion of allyship to win the support of Malaysians. These glossed over the grotesque ethnic divide and brutality endured by many Malaysians at the hands of the Japanese military.

1945-57: The British re-occupy Malaysia and anti-colonial movements take flight

Although it's documented that most locals welcomed the defeat of the Japanese in 1945, the British seizing control soon after was met with great disdain. Research shows that in Malaya, WWII was the catalyst for anti-colonial movements. Thus, when the British came back into power and realised they were not welcomed, they strategically adopted a tough stance.

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Photograph of Sarawakians demonstrating against the British—this image later became synonymous with Sarawak's anti-cession movement

Part of these strategies involved acerbating the ethnic divide that emerged during Japanese rule. By utilising negative propaganda to delegitimise nationalist movements, they portrayed these efforts as dangerous acts of rebellion. The British also attempted to manipulate public opinion by promoting the idea that they saved Malaysians from the Japanese and, thus, were “allies”. 

1948-1960: State of emergency with communist insurgency

The chaos ensuing from Southeast Asia's cold war, along with the end of Japanese occupation, enabled communist ideology to take root and grow. The British considered the communists a large threat to their government.

A guerrilla war emerged from this conflict, fought by communist pro-independence fighters of the Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA) and the Malayan Communist Party's (MCP) armed wing, against the armed forces of the British occupation. The British took this opportunity to link the anti-colonial movement, especially in 1948, to the communist threat. A state of emergency was declared. Although the MNLA and MCP differed in political views and desires, they mutually opposed British colonialism. Many posters emerged, from both sides of the movement, to win over citizens.

1957: Malaya becomes independent—Tunku Abdul Rahman becomes the nation's first Prime Minister

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Painter Vivian Ng Suet Yuan with her thumbprint portrait of Tunku Abdul Rahman. Credit: Niuniu's Gallery

Tunku Abdul Rahman formed the Alliance Party to pressure the British into allowing locals to govern their own country. The unity between the three major ethnic groups (Malays, Chinese and Indians) led to the London Agreement that was signed in 1956, setting the stage for Malaya to become independent on 31 August 1957. Following the first election, the UMNO political party (led by Tunku Abdul Rahman) adopted the strategy of keeping each ethnicity to its respective economic and racial spheres.

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Cover for Pembina magazine in 1957 (when Malaya became independent from the British) featuring the heads of the Malay sultanate surrounding the face of Tuanku Abdul Rahman

The Alliance coalition ruled Malaya from 1957 to 1963, and Malaysia from 1963 to 1973. This coalition eventually became the Barisan Nasional in 1973. Unsurprisingly, Merdeka inspired many artists to celebrate this historic moment through photographs, posters and paintings. It remains an important and inspiring event among Malaysians.

1961-1963: Formation of Malaysia—no longer Malaya

Tunku Abdul Rahman suggested the merging of the five colonies—Malaya, Singapore, Sabah, Sarawak and Brunei—to form a new country: Malaysia.

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An Ovaltine advertisement celebrating the formation of Malaysia

1963: Creation of the Malaysian flag

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The Malaysian flag

The crescent on Malaysia's flag represents the Islamic religion; the star represents the unity between all 13 states and the federal territories; the stripes represent equal status between all states and federal territories. The colours have significance too, as royal blue represents the unity amongst all citizens of every background, ethnicity and religion; yellow is a homage to Malaysia's royal families.

Pictured here is Anne Cole of Woronora, formerly of Malaya and now librarian at the office of the High Commissioner for the Federation of Malaysia. She pastes the new Malaysian flag onto the door of the High Commissioner's office in September of 1963

1965: Singapore leaves Malaysia

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An extract from The Straits Times announcing Singapore's separation from Malaysia in 1965

Deep-rooted political and economic differences, between the ruling parties of Singapore and Malaysia, resulted in the racial riots of 1964. On 9 August 1965, Singapore separated from Malaysia and became an independent nation.

1970-1976: Tun Haji Abdul Razak bin Dato' Hussein becomes the second Prime Minister

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Tun Abdul Razak is often credited with being the 'Father of Development'. He served as Prime Minister from September 1970 up to his death in January 1976.

1976-1981: Tun Hussein bin Dato' Onn takes office

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Tun Hussein Onn served as Prime Minister upon the death of Tun Abdul Razak in January 1976, eventually retiring in July 1981. His son, Datuk Seri Hishamuddin Hussein, is the current Defence Minister.

1981-2003: Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad is Prime Minister

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During Tun Dr Mahathir's tenure as Malaysia's fourth Prime Minister, the country experienced a period of rapid modernisation and economic growth.

1997: Petronas Twin Towers are completed

The Petronas Twin Towers is one of the key monuments that represent Malaysia. Its elegant, modern architecture inspires many local and international artists.

1998: Kuala Lumpur hosts the first commonwealth games in Asia

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Poster created for the commonwealth games in 1998 

Kuala Lumpur was chosen to host the first Commonwealth Games held in Asia. The logo of the 1998 Games was designed to represent the national flower of Malaysia, the hibiscus, in our national colours.

2004: Tun Abdullah bin Ahmad Badawi is the fifth Prime Minister of Malaysia

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As the fifth Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tun Abdullah Badawi (also known to Malaysians as 'Pak Lah') is credited as being the 'Father of Human Capital Development'.

2007: First Bersih street demonstration

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Photograph capturing a the yellow-wearing crowd of Bersih's first street demonstration

In 2005, the Bersih non-governmental coalition for clean and fair elections was formed. "Bersih", when directly translated, means “clean”. The coalition sought to reform the Malaysian electoral system. In 2007, Malaysians who supported Bersih's objective gathered in a massive street demonstration. They wore yellow, permanently adding to the colour's meaning and significance within the Malaysian sphere.

2009: Dato' Sri Najib Abdul Razak steps in as Prime Minister upon Badawi’s resignation

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Following the resignation of Badawi as Prime Minister, Dato' Sri Najib Razak—the son of Tun Abdul Razak—took on the job. The "Father of Transformation", his tenure was marked by economic liberalisation measures. However, he would go on to become the first Prime Minister of Malaysia to be convicted of corruption.


2015: 1MDB corruption scandal is unveiled

The 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) was wholly owned by the Ministry of Finance. On paper at least, it was established to drive strategic initiatives for long-term economic development by forging global partnerships and promoting foreign investment. In 2015,it was exposed for having suspicious money transactions, with evidence pointing to money laundering, fraud, and theft. Many Malaysians expressed their dissatisfaction and condemnation of the situation through paintings, cartoons and various other forms of political satire. Many internet memes were created as a result of the scandal, becoming an indelible part of Malaysia's visual history.

2016: The largest Bersih demonstration takes place

The 'Bersih 5' rally was the last and largest street demonstration that took place before the historic elections that came after. Thousands of people took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur to speak up on the corruption in Malaysian poliutics.

Video capturing a snippet of the crowd who attended the Bersih 5 rally

There are always two or more sides to any situation. The 'Red Shirts' (pro-government) group emerged to oppose the activities of Bersih. However, it's believed that they were a significant minority.

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Image from New Straits Time capturing the Red Shirt movement in 2016

2018: Historic elections take place—and Mahathir takes office again as Malaysia's seventh Prime Minister

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Photograph capturing Mahathir celebrating the win of Pakatan Harapan during the press conference following the elections

With an unprecedented win in the general elections, the Pakatan Harapan coalition led by Tun Dr Mahathir became Malaysia's new ruling party—a first for any opposition party in Malaysia. Seeing the historical significance of such an election, many artists across the world produced various artworks to mark this moment. 

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Political sattire by Chinese cartoonist Rebel Pepper in 2018

2020: After the collapse of Mahatir’s coalition, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin quickly forms government with UMNO

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One week after the shock resignation of Mahathir, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin was chosen by the political forces in Malaysia—and not elected by the people—to step in as Malaysia's eight Prime Minister. With his appointment, UMNO was once again the ruling party.

2020 to 2021: Covid-19 pandemic gives rise to various social movements

The pandemic has undoubtedly impacted the economic, mental and physical health of Malaysians—who responded by banding together to help one another. We have witnessed various movements emerge as a response to this, alongside the creation of expressive art. 

Street mural by artist Suhaimi Ali in homage to the heroes and front liners of the pandemic

The Bendera Putih movement began on social media. Those in dire situations as a result of the pandemic were asked to raise a white flag outside their homes, signalling to others that they urgently needed aid. 

The Black Flag phenomenon also emerged during this time: A youth-led movement to express dissatisfaction with the Malaysian government's handling of the pandemic.

2021: Malaysia has a new Prime Minister, once again

On 16 August, Muhyiddin stepped down as Prime Minister after losing the majority support in parliament. Within days, his deputy, Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob, was appointed Prime Minister in his place.

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