The poster distributed by the Japanese during the Japanese Occupation.

“BELAJARLAH! Pakailah! Sikho! Istemal Karo! Bahasa Nippon! Nippo Go(zaban)!”

The lithographed posters with a drawing of a Malay man with a songkok on his head holding a book with a Japanese title on it were distributed throughout the nation. The year was 1942, and the whole of Malaya had fallen into the Imperial Japanese Army’s hands.

During the Occupation, the Japanese sought to change the common language of Malaya to Japanese. Posters in Malay and Chinese were posted and distributed everywhere, persuading Malayans to adopt the Japanese culture.

Fast-forward 72 years later. The war has long ended, Malaya gained its independence in 1957 and adopted the name Malaysia in 1963. The Japanese left the nation behind with painful memories and evidence of their time here, including the posters which are now safely preserved by the National Archives Malaysia. Some have been entrusted to the Malaysia Design Archive (MDA), an initiative to map the development of graphic design in Malaysia from the pre-Independence period until now.

Imagine my delight to be given the opportunity to see some of these posters myself as I pay a visit to the MDA office located at the Zhongshan building, a restored 1950s interconnected shophouses in Kampung Attap, Kuala Lumpur. The building used to house the Selangor Zhongshan Association and other merchants over the years before it was turned into a creative hub.

MDA started out in 2008 as an online repository for designers and students alike. Their archives are divided into four distinct periods of Malaysian history — Colonialism, the Japanese Occupation, the Emergency period and the period of Independence.

(From left) Jac sm Kee, Ezrena Marwan and Simon Soon.


After a few knocks on the solid black door on the second floor, I’m greeted by a bespectacled, short-haired young woman who introduces herself as Ezrena Marwan, a graphic designer and the founder of MDA.

Sweeping my eyes across the well-lit room, I notice old posters framed against the white walls, and magazines neatly organised on the shelf across the entrance next to the meeting room. Inside, another young woman is sitting at the wooden table, working on her laptop and surrounded by magazines and books. She looks up from her computer and smiles as I approach the table.

“I’m Jac,” she says, extending her hand for a firm handshake. I learn that Jac sm Kee is the founding team member of MDA.

Looking up at the wall behind her, I’m intrigued by a huge poster of an authoritative-looking man clad in a traditional white baju Melayu, sarong, and a tanjak (headgear) on his head. In his hand is a Malaysian flag and he appears to be pointing his index finger at the audience. I duly learn that this powerful image, which reminds me of the iconic Uncle Sam ‘I WANT YOU’ posters in the US during the war that called for US citizens to join the army, was Illustrated by revered Malaysian painter, Datuk Hoessein Enas. There are Jawi letters at the bottom, which when deciphered reads: “Berkhidmatlah kepada tanah air dengan masuk polis” (serve your country by joining the police force). Interestingly, some people have said that the man in the poster is Hoessein himself!

“The original poster is dated 1951 and is with the National Archives. What we have here is a digital copy that we are using for research with their permission,” explains Ezrena, acknowledging the look of awe in my eyes.

While waiting for the third member of the team, Simon Soon, to arrive I decide to take a quick tour of the room. Books on designs and other topics sit on a table in the middle, surrounded by stacks of brown boxes on the shelves. There are some old magazines that jog my childhood memory — Dewan Masyarakat and Mastika, to name a few — each wrapped in transparent plastic.

Moments later, my reverie is interrupted by the arrival of a tall bespectacled man, who apologises profusely for his lateness. No matter, I say, and we all settle into our seats for a chat.

Berkhidmatlah Kepada Tanah Air (1951) by Datuk Hoessein Enas courtesy of National Archives Malaysia via MDA


“This project began because we felt that there was a need to understand the different influences in design lexicon or visual language in order to understand our nation’s history,” begins Kee, who then adds that design is an evolving thing. “Some have disappeared throughout the years and some redefined. So before they completely disappear, we trace them and archive them.”

This kind of exercise is also being carried out around the world. One is by AIGA Design Archives, one of the richest online resources available to those who practice, study, and appreciate great design dating back to 1924. It has also been collecting physical artefacts since 1980.

Another one is the celebrated creative resource for advertising professionals worldwide, Lurzer’s Archive which puts the focus firmly on its principle of “curatorship of inspiration” since 1984. Lurzer’s Archive, which has offices in Austria, the US and the UK, has been publishing a range of different volumes focusing on a variety of graphic design disciplines.

MDA will archive whatever they find to be interesting including matchboxes.

As for MDA, Kee reveals that they would archive whatever they found to be visually interesting, ranging from old propaganda posters to something as simple as that familiar yellow matchbox with the man with a fluttering cape behind him.

“We archive everyday objects, for example, Hari Raya cards and ice-cream packaging,” explains Kee. As soon as she mentions ice-cream, Ezrena stands up and picks up a brown box of folders before taking one out and placing it in front of me. The pages are meticulously filled with original designs of ice-cream covers from the first ice-cream manufacturer in Malaya, Rasa Sayang. There’s Jolly lolly, Bionic Boy, Feast, and Bean, to name a few.

“We got those from the owner of Rasa Sayang,” shares Soon, a senior lecturer in the Visual Art Department of the Cultural Centre at the University of Malaya. Gingerly, I flip the yellowing pages, not wanting to cause any damage to what looks rather fragile.

The ice-cream covers from Malaya’s first ice-cream manufacturer.

The team agrees that the ice-cream covers collection is their favourite item from the archive. “We love spending our time just looking at them,” says Kee, smiling nostalgically. But it’s not just because of nostalgia that they decided to embark on this exercise.

“Up there, the poster is from the Japanese Occupation period,” says Kee, pointing to the shelves behind me. There on top of the shelf is the poster with a drawing of the Malay man in songkok, holding a book with a Japanese title on it — the one that piqued my interest from the outset.

As I peer for a closer look at the poster, Soon, eyes earnest, says that a poster can reveal a lot and we need to think critically and start asking questions.

Nodding vigorously, Kee chips in: “You can call this poster a propaganda or maybe a form of ‘public education’. You can see the racial stereotyping of Malayans at that time. There’s the Malay in a songkok, and the Sikh in a turban. And there’s a ray of light shining on the Malay man. It’s like what they’re trying to say is that if you learn Japanese, you’ll be enlightened.”

Adding, she says: “Within the poster itself, you can learn about the sensibilities of that time, who was producing it, the message they’re trying to convey and the perceived value.”

The ice-cream covers from Malaya’s first ice-cream manufacturer.


Besides archiving, MDA also strives to engage with the public. They utilise this space as a venue for their public engagements like workshops, talks and reading groups.

“We want to arouse the public’s interest in history and also facilitate the building of inter-disciplinary communities, bringing people from various disciplinary backgrounds, whether they’re researchers, academics, designers, or students. We want them to come together so we can discover something, together,” explains Kee.

Touching on the subject of various backgrounds, the trio themselves bring different expertise to the table. Soon possesses strong research skills, while Ezrena straddles a mix of practitioner and educator. Meanwhile, Kee’s passion lies within social impact and political analysis.

As a three-member operation that’s entirely operated on voluntary-basis (they all have their respective day jobs), there’s definitely a limit to what they can do. “There are some challenges, no doubt, in terms of financial and sustainability. Also, a lot of the things are from private collections so it’s hard to find. But people have been very supportive and contributing, like the ice-cream manufacturer,” divulges the outspoken Kee.

Aside from being open to contributions from the public, they’ve also started a membership system where members can gain access to the online archives; donations are accepted to help sustain the project.

Concluding, Kee says: “Archiving is hard work. It’s more than just sitting around and digitising. Ideally, we hope we can have a much more systematic and comprehensive archive. In the meantime, we’ll just have more programmes and public engagements.”

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Malaysia Design Archive

Where: The Zhongshan Building, 2nd Floor, Lot. No 84, Jalan Rotan, Kampung Attap, KL

Visiting hours: By appointments only

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