From The Straits Times archives: Political cartoonist Heng Kim Song's harshest critics are school kids

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

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.

In a drawing about India's Mars mission, the 51-year-old editorial artist had personified India as a turban-wearing farmer with a cow, knocking on the door of a house called Elite Space Club.

The New York Times has since apologised for the cartoon. In a Facebook post, its editorial page editor said the paper had received a large number of complaints from readers.

The Straits Times looks back at one of its interviews with the artist in 2011, when some of his works were on display at The Arts House Gallery.


This article first appeared in The Straits Times on March 24, 2011

SOME of his harshest critics are not, as you might imagine, the public figures he lampoons but school kids.

The political cartoons Heng Kim Song churns out are no laughing matter for students - including his own children - who discuss them seriously as part of their General Paper curriculum when they are learning about current affairs.

Editorial cartoonist Heng, 48, says: "Sometimes my kids will tell me: 'Don't you think you're treating so-and-so too kindly in your cartoon?'"

Another question the prolific cartoonist had to field during a talk at a secondary school here was: "Why does your panda look like a pig?"

The cartoon in question was a tongue-in-cheek look at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In it, a panda was being dolled up, deodorant and all. Sheepishly, the award-winning Heng had responded: "The movie Kung Fu Panda wasn't out yet, so that was how I imagined a panda would look."

That cartoon is one of more than 70 that are on show at The Arts House Gallery till Tuesday. This solo exhibition, titled Heng On The World, is part of The Arts House's seventh anniversary celebrations.

His black-and-white works - ranging from American politics to turmoil in the Middle East - brim with light-heartedness and droll humour.

Speaking to Life! at The Arts House on Tuesday, he says: "Cartoons don't have to be negative. It's like a knife - it's how you use it that matters. My aim is not to put anyone down."

As a child, he drew chalk doodles on the corridor outside his family's flat.

Much to his pleasant surprise, his neighbours would walk around his creations instead of stepping on them. He says: "The corridor was my canvas."

He was never professionally trained. The freelance cartoonist had originally wanted to study art, then studied business at Ngee Ann Polytechnic as a compromise with his parents. But today, his doodles have been published in publications such as The Straits Times, The New York Times, the International Herald Tribune and Newsweek.

His works have been syndicated internationally since 1991 and he has also garnered top awards in cartoon competitions organised by the United Nations, the Italian Museum of Political Satire and Caricature and the Society of Publishers in Asia.

He still does freelance work for local Chinese newspaper Lianhe Zaobao, submitting his scanned works through e-mail about five times a week. He also gets commissions from time to time.

Even in the age of computers and improved technology, all he uses to draw his cartoons are ordinary pens and brushes. He says with a laugh: "My eldest son always calls me a dinosaur."

Two to four hours is about the length of time he takes to complete a single cartoon with his signature cross-hatching - intricate criss-crossing strokes used to give depth and tone to a piece.

He works from his home in the east and while he prefers peace and quiet, that is difficult to come by with three sons aged 18, 12 and nine.

As the sole breadwinner in his family - his wife, 45, is a housewife - Heng has faced his own set of challenges, saying: "There are some disadvantages. I can't afford to fall sick, especially because I don't have things such as medical leave. But then again, my kids are always well looked after."

Work is never done. Sometimes he will get a better idea for a cartoon just before his deadline, and will discard his previous sketch and start again from scratch. He says with a laugh: "It happens all the time - so much so that my wife says, 'You will never get this done'."

Get it done he does but the inner perfectionist in him says: "Every time you submit a piece to a newspaper, you realise that there is no artwork that doesn't need another 24 hours of work."

corriet@sph.com.sg