Award-winning cartoonist receives flak and support over NYT cartoon

Singaporean cartoonist Heng Kim Song was thrust in the spotlight recently when one of his cartoons published in The New York Times in September was slammed for being allegedly racist. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF HENG KIM SONG
Singaporean cartoonist Heng Kim Song was thrust in the spotlight recently when one of his cartoons published in The New York Times in September was slammed for being allegedly racist. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF HENG KIM SONG

SINGAPORE - A storm of protests over a recent cartoon published in the International New York Times (NYT) has left its Singaporean creator baffled.

Readers have slammed the cartoon by award-winning cartoonist Heng Kim Song as racist, though the 51-year-old said he has also received some positive responses since.

"I was not being racist or poking fun at the country and its people," Mr Heng said. "In fact, I was complimenting India's achievements."

First published online on Sept 28, the cartoon shows an Indian man leading a bull and knocking on the door of the "elite space club". Inside, two plump men, with neat moustaches, are reading a paper with headlines on India's recent space mission to Mars.

The backlash to the cartoon prompted NYT editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal to apologise on its Facebook page on Monday.

Mr Heng, whose work has been syndicated internationally, said: "I was trying to say that India has come a long way from its humble beginnings. It used to rely on cows for transport but is now part of an elite club because it made it to Mars."

The cartoonist, who has been drawing cartoons for more than two decades, said he was "surprised and did not expect the backlash". He received dozens of messages on social network sites Facebook and LinkedIn.

Shocked, he immediately limited the messages he could receive to only those he knew.

"Some of the messages were so negative. They called me racist names, threatened me with violence and used abusive language," he said: "One threatened to tear me from limb to limb."

Mr Heng, the first Asian to win the world news cartoon award at the International Political Satire Festival in Italy 14 years ago, also received 60 friend requests - "all from Indians" - on Facebook when he logged in on Monday.

But the tone of the messages later changed. Mr Heng said: "People, however, started to write in to thank me showing 'a poor Indian farmer with full confidence thumping on the door of an elite club'.

"Another said that the cartoon represents the 'making it of Indian society'."

The virtual vitriol, however, has yet to die down. The NYT apology drew more than 5,000 likes; 10,000 comments; and close to 2,000 shares in one day.

Mr Rosenthal said Mr Heng's intent was to highlight how space exploration is no longer the exclusive domain of rich, Western countries, and added that the cartoonist "uses images and text - often in a provocative way - to make observations about international affairs".

On that point, Mr Heng said: "I would never do something just to be provocative. My cartoons aim to help people think about issues through what I hope is an effective use of humour."

awcw@sph.com.sg