Covid-19 and Popular Culture in Southeast Asia

Karl Ian Uy Cheng Chua

Covid-19 and Popular Culture in Southeast Asia

While each Southeast Asian country has taken various responses toward the COVID-19 pandemic, a similarity was the need of governments, organizations and even individuals to ensure accurate and updated information to keep their communities, and citizens safe. While these roles were dominated primarily by television, radio and print, in recent years, digital media has been leading the information spaces, particularly in urban areas. An OECD study in 2017 showed that more than a quarter of the nation’s population have internet access: Brunei Darussalam (95%); Singapore (85%); Malaysia (80%); Philippines (60%); Thailand (53%); Vietnam (50%); Cambodia (34%); Indonesia (32%); Myanmar (31%); Laos (26%). (The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) 2019) A further peculiarity is how popular culture has been used by organizations and individuals to attain their information dissemination goals. This has been accentuated during the COVID-19 pandemic, as quarantines of various forms were implemented by governments which encouraged citizens to stay at home, and limited their mobilities, created populations hungry for information on the virus. Popular culture is playing an integral role as the media not only provides information, as well as entertainment, it also creates a space for dialogue. The following are just samples of how various Southeast Asian countries are creatively utilizing popular culture in digital spaces during the period of the pandemic.


Digital Responses to the Pandemic

Vietnam is seen as a success story in terms of how it has been able to deal with the outbreak. One particular success comes from The National Institute of Occupational and Environmental Health (NIOEH) – Vietnam Ministry of Health which uploaded a YouTube video Ghen Co Vy (Jealous Coronavirus) (National Institute of Occupation and Environmental Health 2020) on 23 February, 2020, to promote the basic strategies in preventing the spread of the virus, from washing hands, not touching one’s face and keeping their surroundings clean. The composer, Khac Hung adapted a popular Viet-pop song Ghen by Min and Erik to ensure that its citizens would clearly message. To further enhance the novelty of the song dancers Quang Dang choreographed and shared a video in the app Tiktok, a massively popular app during the pandemic, with the hashtag #GhenCoVyChallenge. (Quang Dang 2020) This was not only consumed favorably by its citizens, global news agencies also reported on the novelty and the attractiveness of the campaign, that the agency released English version of the song.

Another government familiar with using media campaigns is Singapore. The Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) has called on the services comedian Gurmit Singh to reprise his role as Phua Chu Kang (PCK) to assist them in their information campaign. While the Vietnamese government aimed their campaigns at the youth, Singapore with PCK was banking on nostalgia, since Phua Chu Kang Ltd, was a very popular classic 90s television comedy sitcom. A skit, Gurmit Singh (Phua Chu Kang) Get Serious on COVID-19 ( 2020) and music video Singapore Be Steady! ( 2020) were uploaded in YouTube to give warnings about fake news, anti-hoarding, and recent WHO directives. The nostalgia comes from the liberal use of Singlish or pidgin English as PCK speaks, which becomes a caricature of the everyday Singaporean. However, an unsuccessful campaign came about with Virus Vanguard (Fig 1) which attempted to reach a younger audience by introducing a band of superhero characters fighting COVID-19. Unfortunately Virus Vanguard was shelved a day after its announcement when complaints about plagiarism of character designs, as well as petitions from irate soccer fans with Mawa Man who is identified as having intense “hatred” for Liverpool Football Club.

Fig 1. Virus Vanguard

Governments are not the only organization that utilized popular culture. Local artists have used their talents to also helped inform and uplift the feelings of uncertainty of netizens. In Malaysia, Ernest Ng posted a web comic “Covid-19 Saga” on his facebook page (Ng 2020 (PART 1 to 5)) highlighting the successes as well as the foibles of government responses in fighting the pandemic. This included jibes on Malaysian Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr. Adham Baba who advised citizens to drink warm water to “flush” the virus, and a bizarre advice to women from the Ministry of Women, Family, and Community Development (KPWKM) to speak in the voice of Doreamon to avoid marital conflicts during their lockdown. An anime video (Ng, If Covid-19 was an anime (Ep.2) 2020) in the theme of Dragonball Z presented the policies of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin in counteracting the spread of the disease, which included a reference to him using “Makcik Kiah” a fictional woman which is to represent the everyday Malaysian. It gained popularity because she was supposed to represent what a person can and cannot get from the Prihatin Rakyat Economic Stimulus Package which Muhyiddin released. Malaysians in twitter responded positively to this fictional woman.

Similarly, supporting government was also not a new thing in Indonesia. Experiencing a turning point in the 2014 presidential elections, a group of Indonesian artists, Hari Prast, Yoga Adhitrisna and Satriya Wibowo, created a massively successful campaign “Kisah Blusukan Jokowi” (Tale’s of Jokowi’s Walks) (Fig 2) which depicted then presidential candidate Joko Widodo in the art style of Herge’s Tintin. The success of this campaign led to Jokowi’s election win. The same group would once again volunteer using the same best practice, to design and freely circulate posters (Fig 2a) (n.a. n.d.) and short animations highlighting government actions. Moving away from the the Tintin style, these posters on fighting Covid-19 are stylized in science fiction with Covid-19 as the “evil” alien invader. Other works included posters of appreciation towards frontliners such as medical professionals in their fight effort to fight the disease.

Fig 2. The Story Behind Kisah Blusukan Jokowi

Fig 2a. Poster. “Fight with us against the Corona Virus.”

Popular culture was not only used to support government policies. In the Philippines, political cartoonists used their talents to comment on the failures of government responses to the pandemic. In the facebook site Cartoons and Philippine Politics one of the major criticisms was the mobilization of police and army in implementing the quarantine with “martial law” characteristics (Ortiz 2020) instead of empowering the Department of Health towards mass testing (Fig 2b).

Fig 2b. Editorial Cartoon. Malacanang insists that the COVID-19 pandemic is a war. Who and what are the casualties of this war? Source: Cartoons and Philippine Politics @ renanortizmonochrome, Facebook

Even when limited testing was available, another criticism was the priority given to government officials and their family members (R. Ortiz 2020) at the detriment of citizens who had contracted the disease (Fig 2c).

Fig 2c.Free Mass Testing Now! Source: Cartoons and Philippine Politics @ renanortizmonochrome, Facebook #FreeMassTestingNowPH #NoToVIPtesting

Finally, despite the passing of the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act which granted President Duterte extraordinary powers, the effects are perceived to be slow, such as the social amelioration program (R. Ortiz, Cartoons and Philippine Politics 2020) for individuals who lost employment during the quarantine. Even popular comic artist Manix Abrera published a set of stay-at-home activities which presented the same issues. (Abrera 2020)

Another peculiar phenomenon is the rise of anti-Chinese sentiment. This was initially brought about through racist accusations of the disease originating from Wuhan, China, and suspected that the vectors were the Chinese tourists travelling to Southeast Asia during the lunar new year. One of such virtual battlefields was in Thailand. Thai netizens engaged in a war on twitter against purported Chinese online trolls by criticizing the Chinese Communist Party’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic vis-à-vis the successes in Taiwan and Hong Kong. The Thais utilized the hashtag “milk tea alliance” (@Mululee 2020) which represented the affinities of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand for various iterations of the sweet drink. Memes using the hashtag began to spread which included talking points which digressed from the COVID-19 issue, such as China’s human rights issues, particularly in handling the Hong Kong pro-Democracy protests (@Khunprinx 2020), China’s encroachment of the Mekong river which are negatively affecting the Mekong countries (@florenceyklo 2020), including Thailand, as well as shallow insults to how disgusting Chinese food is. With Australia pushing for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19 and a backlash from China, a meme was released that Australia has now joined the milk tea alliance as well (Fig 3a, 3b).

Fig 3a. #MilkTeaAlliance For the win Source: Twitter (@tpagon 2020)

Fig 3b. Thailand Taiwan and Hong Kong Welcome our friend of #Australia to #MilkTeaAlliance Source: Twitter (@Khunprinx 2020)

What the recent COVID-19 pandemic has revealed through the case studies in Southeast Asia, is how popular culture in the digital space became a power tool for not only of humor and information, but became a medium towards active engagement. The above offers a brief snapshot of the media spaces of Southeast Asia, we should analyze these popular culture spaces to understand the engagements of governments with their citizens, citizens to governments, citizens with each other, as well as with citizens of other nations.


2 May, 2020




Karl Ian Uy Cheng Chua is an Assistan Professor at the History Department and Director of the Japanese Studies Program, Ateneo de Manila University.



Karl Ian Uy Cheng Chua. 2020. “Covid-19 and Popular Culture in Southeast Asia” CSEAS NEWSLETTER, 78: TBC.