When the Black Lives Matter movement erupted across the US in response to the killing of George Floyd, the global response to it was loud and immediate. Malaysians, who like the rest of the world were deeply troubled by what had taken place, reacted with dismay over the senseless violence that black people disproportionately faced in their day-to-day lives. Social media was a good place to gauge the sentiment — it was a unified expression of distress, commiseration and empathy, felt even more strongly in the midst of a year that has already been very difficult.
After the initial outburst died down in Malaysia, a lot of people started to notice the irony — as a country, we certainly are not free from racism, and many of the issues faced in the US are present here too. While it was commendable to support the fight for equality in the US, there was a growing call locally to take a good look at ourselves and address our own biases that often manifest as racist sentiments. Discussions broke out on social media on various negative experiences of Malaysians who faced discrimination based purely on their race.
It was this thought that inspired local streetwear brand Pestle & Mortar’s Darah Tetap Sama Merah campaign, which takes a stand against racism through a common narrative of unity and equality. Its message is expressed through a series of stickers given out for free at their stores, with the idea to remind their customers that all Malaysians are equal and are more than the stereotypes used to define them.
Fashion has always played a part in activism as every single item has the potential to be a powerful message — something Hugh Koh, one of Pestle & Mortar’s five co-founders, has always believed in. This principle particularly applies to streetwear brands, which has traditionally been able to grasp the energy and movement that young people were bringing forward. Historically, this fashion category was founded on the principles of response, its pioneering designers often outspoken in seeking for change. This makes streetwear in and of itself a political statement.
“When we founded Pestle & Mortar in 2010, we wanted this clothing line to be a channel to express what we believed in, and spread awareness of issues important to us,” begins Koh, who also holds the position of chief vision officer. “We’ve tackled a number of social issues before in various ways, so when all this happened, our initial thoughts were centred around an apparel collection that focused on the issue — it’s what we normally do.”
But these are not normal times, and a normal response would not suffice. Also, consider that messages on T-shirts are a form of protest that goes back to the Vietnam War, so it is high time for something new.
In addition, T-shirts need to be bought while Pestle & Mortar’s stickers are given away for free, which drastically expands the brand’s reach. From a practical standpoint, stickers are often placed on items that are used daily — on laptops, for example — do not have to be ironed or stitched on and are a product category the brand is already involved in.
When Koh and his team brainstormed how they could be involved in the movement in a sensitive and meaningful way, it was evident that highlighting the Malaysian experience would prove most effective in terms of delivering the message. “While understanding the call of the Black Lives Matter movement, we were well aware of how blatant racism is in our own nation. Being a brand that has never been afraid to push back certain boundaries, we decided to put out a few statements that expressed those feelings.”
Darah Tetap Sama Merah — which translates into our blood is the same shade of red — reminds us of our common identity as humans, as Malaysians, and the stickers bear powerful messages of hope while not losing focus on the issues. “No we’re not gonna rob you” and “kita bukan semua pemalas” aim to deconstruct some common stereotypes, while “we are not ‘dan lain-lain’” and “kita bukan pendatang” speak of long-held institutionalised racism that emphasises our differences in a way that separates us from our Malaysian-ness. It is painful to read because the stickers are like mirrors, reflecting our collective consciousness that has been influenced by statements we have heard, or may even have used against each other.
“Given the chance, we’d have had more than just six messages,” Koh muses. “There were 50 to 60 ideas in total and we whittled the list down to the most powerful, the most representative of the local experience and that were also easily understood. We were very particular that the messages be both in English and Bahasa Malaysia; you can’t neglect the fact that the latter is our national language. When people think of Pestle & Mortar, they associate it with a more urban or elite aesthetic, and that’s not entirely true. We wanted to make sure that this campaign, which is very important to us, was in English as well as our national mother tongue, which is Bahasa Malaysia.”
The feedback for the campaign has, for the most part, been overwhelmingly positive. The plan for Darah Tetap Sama Merah was meant to stop at stickers, but Koh and his team are mulling over future ideas. The goal is quality rather than quantity, so each step will have to be taken thoughtfully. “This is only the start, that I can say, but I’d be lying if I said I knew for sure what is going to happen in the future. We have received quite a few proposals for partnerships on this, but nothing’s been confirmed. I think the campaign is a catalyst for something bigger for us, but we don’t know what that is just yet.”
This is a deeply poignant campaign for Pestle & Mortar, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. “We did have some pretty big plans, but I think we will just celebrate our 11th anniversary [instead],” Koh quips. “A decade ago, there was no Malaysian brand that properly expressed who we are and our collective personalities and this actually started out as a passion project. It got more traction than we expected, and there was a strong resonance with the sense of Malaysian pride that we championed. ”
Stickers may seem like an overly simplistic way to carry the message of Darah Tetap Sama Merah, but it is the thought behind them that matters the most. After all, ideas possess far more impact than a T-shirt ever would — and they certainly last longer too.
This article first appeared on Aug 10, 2020 in The Edge Malaysia.