Is he a trouble maker or a depicter of truths? Meet Malaysia’s top political cartoonist.
Who is the most controversial cartoonist in Malaysia, currently being investigated on a whopping nine charges under the notorious Sedition Act and facing a potential jail sentence of 43 long years?
The answer is none other than Zulkiflee Sm Anwar Ulhaque, popularly known as Zunar – one of Malaysia’s most wanted. The 53-year-old caricaturist was charged with sedition in what appears to be a clampdown on politicians, activists, academics, student leaders and journalists under the colonial-era law that was supposed to have been repealed by the Najib administration.
Compared to Zunar, the punishments that might befall the rest of the allegedly seditious bunch look like a walk in the park. His office has already been raided several times, the police have insisted that an online payment gateway reveal the list of customers who purchased his books via his website, www. zunar.my, and questioned his webmaster and three of his assistants, thousands of his cartoon books have been confiscated, vendors and printers are said to have been harassed by the police, and five of his books have been banned by the government because they are deemed “detrimental to public order”.
Danger from Day One
Born in Kedah, Zunar did not receive any formal training in cartooning. In 1974, at age 12, he got his first taste of artistic accomplishment when his first cartoon was published by a children’s magazine. Giggling, he recalls that this nascent cartoon had a one-liner, “Budak bisu itu baik kerana dia tak buat bising.” (The mute child is a good person because he doesn’t make noise.) Since then, he has kept drawing on paper – as well as his school’s walls.
Dropping out from university from a science course, Zunar joined the then-immensely popular Gila-Gila magazine as its resident artist for a while. In his early days, he used to refer to Aliran to understand what was going on in the country – it was his way of approaching cartooning, which was first to collect materials, make a stand, and later create a joke. Aliran was the only magazine available at that time, he says, where views critical of the government and alternative opinions were published.
He joined Berita Harian in 1993 with his column, “Sendawara”. Feeling restricted by the paper’s policies and political inclination favouring the ruling party (“I felt more like an illustrator rather than a political cartoonist”), he left after six months.
Zunar then turned to illustrating for books and magazines for a while to earn his keep, before an event happened in Malaysia that would light the match to his explosive drawings.
Reforming through art
In 1998, former Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim was sacked from government and Umno in 1998 on charges of corruption and sodomy. The Reformasi era, which was sparked by the Anwar purge, was the time when Zunar went back to political cartooning after the long lull. Initially, he drew cartoons revolving around the Anwar issue, photocopied them and distributed them at the courts for the general public.
His break came when he was offered a column in PAS’s party organ, Harakah, where he drew cartoons critical of the federal government. His work increasingly drew the attention of the masses, given that at the time Harakah had a very high circulation rate.
However, PAS’s party organ was not the only reason for his cartoons and himself becoming popular. It has also got to do with the nature of cartoons that speak a universal language, making people laugh and at the same time being instructive. “It is an effective medium – funny for people, including the illiterate,” says Zunar. “A pictorial piece is easily remembered and it transgresses race, class and age.”
He stopped cartooning at Harakah when Mahathir stepped down as premier in 2003. Subsequently, he joined popular news portal Malaysiakini with an eye on the international audience as well, where he was given a column to express his political sentiments. And true enough, he has over the years won international recognition and acclaim. His artistic perseverance and push for freedom of expression have earned him the US-based Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI) award this year.
Staying one sketch ahead
While Zunar says that no one particular artist inspired him, generally he’s very much influenced by American cartoonists because of their direct approach (as opposed to that of many British cartoonists) to political satire.
Zunar believes that one must be born with artistic talent in order to be a cartoonist, but this talent comes with a responsibility. He says he is responsible to God and the people, and is dutybound to do good for the ordinary people, i.e. to raise awareness and to make Malaysia a better place. Artists, he stresses, should come out and right the wrongs in society – and not use their talent for their own interests only.
In the aftermath of the 2013 general election, Zunar decided to refocus his efforts with the people in mind. For instance, corruption in high places is shown via his cartoons to have a serious impact on the pockets of ordinary people. By doing this, he says, the response from the people to his work has grown over time.
For budding cartoonists in the country, Zunar advises them to be willing to criticise the government of the day and to be its watchdog; additionally, talents must have good knowledge of current issues because they must be knowledgeable and intellectually independent: “You must be way ahead of your readers in terms of social awareness,” he points out. “Otherwise you will be rendered irrelevant.”
An easy draw
Zunar’s pen is most acerbic when it comes to criticising the Najib administration, especially the premier’s wife, Rosmah Mansor. To those who are in the know, a small diamond ring is a leitmotif in most of his sketches.
Zunar unabashedly admits that he couldn’t survive as a cartoonist without Rosmah: “Najib is boring compared to his wife, who is ‘cartoon-able’. She is so reckless in her actions and speeches, which easily becomes fodder for me as a cartoonist,” he says. “Besides, you can’t do much in terms of cartooning with Najib, who is often silent on many issues,” he adds with glee.
Zunar is guided by his maxim, “Why pinch when you can punch?” He needed to “punch” via his cartoons because “we have already passed the phase of pinching (as in cuit-cuit, cubit in Malay) with a regime that cannot understand the rationale behind pinching,” he says. “Also, a punch is vital when you have a regime that has been around for more than 50 years and has become arrogant in its ways. I punch because this regime needs to be replaced, and you can’t be neutral when the playing field is not even.”
However, he assures us that he will be critical of parties from both sides of the political divide “once our democracy matures.” For now, it’s diamond rings and characters with big hair, as Zunar continues to brave sedition charges.
Dr Mustafa K Anuar, a fellow and head of the Nusantara Studies section in Penang Institute, could do with humour especially at a time when the political and economic challenges confronting the nation have become too serious.