Across the water from overly orderly Singapore lies the Malaysian border city of Johor Baru, a place best known internationally for its crime and for its newest attraction, Asia’s only Legoland theme park. This week, the city has made waves on the Internet for both reasons thanks to a Lego mural that depicts a street mugger and his victim. It was painted the night of Nov. 7 by 27-year-old Ernest Zacharevic, a Lithuanian-born Malaysian resident who’s a well-known artist in the region and has been touted as “Malaysia’s Banksy.”
Johor Baru officials whitewashed the mural Wednesday after a photo of it went viral online, saying it would harm the city’s reputation. In the mural (above), a woman drawn in the style of the popular Danish toy is seen carrying a Chanel bag as she walks around a corner toward a black-clad, knife-wielding Lego bandit.
An official with the Johor Baru City Council told AFP that Zacharevic’s use of a public street corner as his canvas amounted to vandalism. “The robber gives an image that is not good for our country, investment and tourism,” Aziz Ithnin said. “Everybody will be scared.”
But perhaps they already were. Many Malaysians expressed concern over a perceived spike in crime after an uptick in gun violence earlier this year. The government blamed warring gangs, but simultaneously released figures that it said showed a dramatic decrease in crime.
As for Johor Baru, it has long been known as the seedy counterpart to hyper-modern Singapore, which boasts one of the lowest crime rates in the world.
Lim Kit Siang, a prominent leader in Malaysia’s Democratic Action Party, a social democratic opposition party, said on his blog Wednesday that instead of removing the Lego mural, the Johor Baru state government should focus on making the city safer.
“The authorities show a completely wrong sense of priorities -- in expending energy on how to remove the ‘sting’ of Zachas’ ‘high crime’ mural in JB with various ‘creative’ ideas to allow the ‘offensive’ mural to remain in JB -- when what is most important of all is for the authorities to take meaningful and effective action to ensure that JB becomes a low-crime city which is safe and secure for residents, visitors and investors,” he said.
Lim added that the government needed to launch a new initiative to wipe out Johor Baru’s reputation as the nation’s crime capital, particularly as it invests heavily on transforming it into a tourism Mecca. Legoland Malaysia opened in nearby Nusajaya in 2012, and the government has earmarked the surrounding area for a massive development zone known as Iskandar.
One state executive was quoted in local media as saying that Zacharevic should use his talent “in the right way” by promoting the state’s tourism and development. Two local artists appear to have had a similar opinion, adding a Lego policeman armed with a handcuff to the controversial mural. Zacharevic said on his Facebook page that this was, in fact, “true vandalism.”
“Malaysia never fails to amuse me,” he wrote. Others commented that the gesture was likely meant to save the work by “making it politically correct” for a society that does not like to highlight negative points of view.
"Don't get upset by the painting being removed," Zacharevic wrote in a later post. "Johor Bahru has proved to be a strong and opinionated state. Please continue to make Malaysia as awesome as it is. I will see you again."