Artist behind famous Penang murals barred from entering Malaysia

Reena Devi
Lifestyle Reporter
Perhaps Ernest Zacharevic’s most iconic Penang art work depicts children riding a real bicycle. (Photo: Ernest Zacharevic)

Ernest Zacharevic – the artist behind some of the most iconic murals in the city of George Town, Penang – described his experience being barred from entering Malaysia last month.

Currently in Singapore, the 31-year-old Lithuanian is most famous for his street art murals in Penang – the most iconic one, depicting little children riding a real bicycle, was created for the George Town Festival 2012.

He also has murals in Singapore including Jousting Painters at the intersection of Joo Chiat Terrace and Everitt Road, and a series of murals along Victoria Road featuring children at play from tumbling through a chute or sitting in shopping carts.

On January 28, Zacharevic was on his way to Penang from Medan, Indonesia, where he just completed his latest work, when he was refused entry to Malaysia by the immigration officer at the Penang airport.

In addition to creating new works, the main reason for his visit was to celebrate Chinese New Year with his fiancée’s family and plan their upcoming wedding. 

Speaking exclusively with Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore, Zacharevic said, “When the officer took my passport to the immigration office I just assumed that there was a misunderstanding, and that I would be let to proceed to arrivals as usual.”

“My passport allows me to enter Malaysia for three months. Prior to my arrival on the 28th of December, I had not been in Malaysia for more than six months. Therefore, it should not have been an issue,” he added.

After a long wait, Zacharevic was told that he would be escorted by airline staff to board the next flight back to Medan.

“At that point, I requested to talk to the immigration officer. I had explained my situation and reasons for travel, to which the officer responded that my passport has already been stamped and I won’t be able to enter the country with that stamp in my passport. To any further questions, I was threatened to be dealt with by airport security staff,” the artist said.

There were no flights to Medan that day and he was sent to the ‘not to land’ room at the Penang airport departures and instructed to wait there until the next morning.

“Both immigration and AirAsia staff refused to give me any reason why I was not allowed to enter or explain what will happen after I reach Medan. My passport was kept by AirAsia staff and I was told I will be able to get it back only after I land in Medan,” he said.

After landing in Medan he was taken straight to the detention cell and instructed by the airline that he would be held there and won’t be able to get his passport back until he purchased a ticket back to his home country.

“The next flight available was 13 hours later. I was denied my requests to board any alternative flights as I was told I won’t be granted an entry anywhere else except my home country,” Zacharevic said.

At that point, there was still no reasons or explanation given for any of the above. After a day in the detention cell, he was let out, moments before boarding his flight to Singapore.

“Since a 30-hour-long flight to my hometown was about to cause me a lot of inconvenience and unnecessary expenses, I decided to talk to Singapore immigration staff during my transit. They were very confused by the decisions made by Malaysian immigration. I was told that I could enter Singapore as usual if I choose to and try to sort out this issue from there,” he explained.

(Photo: Ernest Zacharevic)

Since his arrival in Singapore, he has reached out to the Malaysian High Commission here in hopes of an explanation or solution. However, once again he was told that the ‘denied entry’ stamp in his passport is an immigration officer’s decision that cannot be changed or revoked.

“I was advised to stay out of Malaysia for at least three months for a ‘cooling period’ until I can try to re-enter again,” he said.

Zacharevic does “not think it is a political action against me or artists in general”.

He said it all comes down to what he called the incompetence of the immigration and the airline staff. “Their behaviour was poorly informed and unprofessional that led to all this nonsense to happen in the first place.”

“Even during my visit to the Malaysian embassy in Singapore, I met a 20-year-old German guy travelling to Malaysia with his Malaysian mother, and he too was denied entry with no resolution. These things happen every day but do not make the news very often,” he said.

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