Tuesday 7 October 2014

Cartoonist Heng Kim Song in New York Times: Not so heng, but racist?

Yesterday, the New York Times apologised on Facebook for running this editorial cartoon about India's Mars mission.

Who knew the Grey Lady has been running cartoons by a Singaporean?

I'm very impressed by Mr Heng Kim Song (not to be confused with Quah Kim Song the footballer). I mean, how many Singaporeans get to have their work published by an organisation like NYT? That's a big deal.

But then Mr Heng has been a cartoonist for 30 years. His work has even been shown in an art gallery.

It's a pity that I noticed him only after one of his cartoons was accused of being racist.

I've never heard of him before yesterday, even though he has been praised by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Facebook.

PM even posted a picture with the cartoonist last year.

I feel bad for Mr Heng that after decades of good work, this NYT controversy is what he'll be most famous for from now on.

Actually, it would be amazing if this is really his first controversy. How did he manage to avoid one for so long?

From my own experience, I know that in this line of work (ie content creation), offending people is an inevitability. The offendees could be Adam Lambert fans or CNY fans. (Not Crosby, Nash & Young fans.) It's par for the course, as they say.

There are some who say that if you're not pissing anyone off, then you're not doing your job properly (ie being creative, pushing the envelope).

But no one sets out to offend anyone.

Perhaps provoke and shock on occasion, but no one likes to get complaints.

And no one especially wants to be called racist.

So is the cartoon really racist?

Well, it does stereotype Westerners as fat, balding old men.

But I think the intended meaning of the cartoon is nicely summed up in this tweet:

Ultimately, whether you and I think it's racist doesn't matter. Enough people were offended by Mr Heng's cartoon that an NYT editor had to apologise for it.

And because the cartoonist is Singaporean, the offendees (mostly Indians) naturally have to take a dig at Singapore.

Hey, isn't Singapore embarking on our own space programme too?

To even the score, an Indian cartoonist can draw something to make fun of that.


In an interview with The New Paper, Mr Heng said he has received threats because of the cartoon.

“I started receiving many posts and messages on my Facebook and Linkedin accounts. They were abusive, curt and filled with vulgarities. One of them even said they wanted to tear me apart.”

He explained that the cartoon was inspired by something he read and a photo of a bullock cart transporting a satellite part in the 1980s.

“I was trying to portray India’s engineering success, despite the odds stacked against them.”

He was shocked and saddened by criticism. “I always try to be respectful in portraying issues," he said. “In future, I will be more cautious about culturally-sensitive representations.”

The Straits Times: Award-winning cartoonist receives flak and support over NYT cartoon

2017 UPDATE: