The first hint of the “Russian Constructivism” influence in Malaysia was through the birth of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) in the 1930’s. “Russian Constructivism” was a movement that was driven by new technologies. It was a movement that used Modernist machine aesthetics for political purposes; a movement that emerged from a revolution that invented communism and believed that culture must support political needs (1). Communism and “Russian Constructivism” spread to Asia and made its way to Malaya in 1920s.
Malayan Communist Party (MCP) was an anti-British party that used graphic design and symbolism to connect and communicate MCP’s vision and ideology of a total cultural and political transformation toward a multi-racial community in Malaya. One of their main Chinese edition publications was entitled “The Freedom News”. The Freedom News is a cyclostyled* newspaper published by the MCP from 1948 to 1957 (2). The aim of The Freedom News was to step up the MCP’s “ideological educational programmes for members” in order to “heighten the spirit of struggle and the interest to work in the party”. Printed on cheap paper, the design of the publication started out with just full text; and later layering of images became a part of its raw style and layout. The illegal Chinese-language publication enjoyed an initial monthly circulation of 1000 and later 3000 copies. It was distributed surreptitiously by MCP members and also posted to members of public and civic organisations (3).
The communist newspaper wore the seal of the Malayan Communist Party: 3 waving communist flags. Its design was heavily influenced by the distinct communist Soviet symbols, such as the hammer, sickle and red star. These symbols were used by the Soviet with the goal of building Soviet power. The ‘red star’ was commonly used by MCP and its publications; a simple and emotional symbol that was reflective of the need to reconnect with people in a time of alienation, fear and confusion. The ‘red star’ also represented a sense of unity, familiarity and support. It was a symbol that effectively communicates across the multi racial community in Malaya, and it challenged, persuaded, promised and gave party members a sense of belonging.
Like the Swastika symbol, the ‘red star’ has turned up in so many distant and different cultures, suggesting an enormous migration or diaspora of people joined by a common belief or understanding (4). The publication’s design was clean, its Chinese calligraphy arranged in a gridlike manner and its illustrations are bold, geometrical blocks of colour. The layering of texts on images and images on texts evokes the feeling of conflict and struggle of the party. The imagery used appeared menacing and provoking. Some are satirical carricatures and cartoons.
Cover – Freedom News Issue 12, 15 January 1950
The Freedom News also became an outlet for political ideas in helping to spread communism, reputation of its leaders, its manifesto and ideologies. It advocates support for the international communist cause and calls the people of Singapore and Malaya to join in the struggle to form a united national front, termed as “the national liberation movement” (5). In one of its Special Issue, it condemned and attacked the “British Imperialists” policy on the introduction of bilingual education (6).
Page 2 – “Lenin the Comrade” Freedom News Issue 36, 15 April 1953
The Special Branch believed that the publication was causing “racial conflict” and described The Freedom News – also known as “Red Papers” by the police – as a seditious publication, and identified it as terrorist documents. The Freedom News was almost immediately banned in May 1949, along with “Seruan Ra’ayat”, a Malay publication based in the state of Pahang. Anyone found printing, selling, issuing and circulating the publication was liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years or a fine not exceeding $5000 or both (7).
1949 Police reward notice for information on illegal printing presses
In 1951, the 3-room printing press of The Freedom News tucked in the jungle of Singapore was raided by the police. During the raid, the Special Branch found galley proofs of the 24th issue of the Freedom News hung up to dry, a printing press, thousands of Chinese ideograms types, subscription books of the MCP, masses of communist literature and the seals of the Singapore office of the Malayan Races Liberation Army.
Freedom News Press, Lorong Tai Seng, seized on 11th July 1951
The police later used the captured press to produced anti-communist pamphlet in the same style, layout and design, and called it the 25th Freedom News edition – with the Union Jack in located at the top right corner (8). Articles in the pamphlets are by genuine ex-members of the MCP and 5000 copies were printed and distributed to the public. The Freedom News (by the MCP) continued its printing and distributing the publication underground until 1957 (Issue 84).
Cover – Freedom News Issue 25th, 15 August 1951
The Freedom News presents testimonials, insights, intentions and agendas of the Malayan Communist Party, whose aim was to fight for an independent, democratic and peaceful Malaya. As such, it provides a critical documentation of historical significance, and should therefore be recognized and included in the articulation of our history.
Article by Ezrena Marwan
*Cyclostyled – a manifolding device consisting of a kind of pen with a small toothed wheel at the end that cuts minute holes in a specially prepared paper stretched over a smooth surface: used to produce a stencil from which copies are printed.
* Source of images, Freedom News, the Untold Story of the Communist Underground Publication by Kumar Ramakrishna
- Russian Constructivism: Revolutionary Art & Design
- Harper, T.N. The End of Empire and the Making of Malaya, Cambridge University Press, 2001.
- Ramakrishna, Kumar. Freedom News, the Untold Story of the Communist Underground Publication, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, 2008.
- Heller, Steven. Design Literacy: Understanding Graphic Design, Allworth Press, 2004
- Police Hold Five Union Men, The Straits Times, 10 November 1962, Page 1
- Red attack on bi-lingual schools ‘was expected’, The Straits Times, 31 December 1953, Page 7
- 3 Publications In Colony Banned, The Straits Times, 14 May 1949, Page 1
- C.I.D. Men Smash Red Press Ring, The Straits Times, 16 August 1951, Page 1