Cartoons Fuelled by Farce

I want to send a clear message to the aggressors – they can ban my cartoons, they can ban my books, but they can’t ban my mind. I will keep drawing until the last drop of my ink.

He was charged with nine counts under the Sedition Act (1948) on April 3, 2015 over tweets and faced the grim prospect of 43 years in prison. Thrown into the lockup five times, banned from travel overseas in 2016, and harassed and intimidated by both the authorities and political hoodlums under the guise of NGOs.

In his hard-hitting cartoons, he played on the hot-button issues of the day – the US$1bil Scorpene submarine scandal and the C4 murder of Mongolian Altantuya Shaariibuu (interpreter in the Scorpene deal); the GST and the rising cost of living of the rakyat jelata; injustices and blatant, rampant corruption of the BN government; the perceived conspiracy against Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and the Reformasi movement; the mysterious loss of fighter jet engines; Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak and his role in the 1MDB sovereign fund scandal when he was prime minister; Najib’s wife Rosmah Mansor and her $henanigans...

No mainstream newspapers dared publish any of his cartoons, so he resorted to self-publications – a total of 21 books (from 2009) in all so far, including one in three volumes. Even then, his office was raided and raided, his mobile phones taken, and thousands of his cartoon books and related merchandise confiscated and vandalised.

He was deemed “detrimental to parliamentary democracy” and had every possible law thrown at him – Penal Code on Immigration, Printing and Press Act 1984, Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, Sedition Act, and Security Offences Act (Special Measures) 2012…

A lesser mortal would have capitulated, but not Zulkifli Anwar Haque, better known as Zunar. On July 30, 2018, three months after Pakatan Harapan (PH) ended 61 years of BN rule, the new government dropped the nine sedition charges, and the travel ban was lifted.

“It was the people’s support that kept me going,” the 57-year-old confides with the conviction of one vindicated more than with a sense of gratitude. “I feel ‘not alone,’ that is my motivation.” In a riposte in an interview with London’s Guardian much earlier, he said: “If we fight, there is a future. If not, lose (for sure). It’s either I spend time in jail, or Najib (Tun Razak) spends time in jail… I want to send a clear message to the aggressors – they can ban my cartoons, they can ban my books, but they can’t ban my mind. I will keep drawing until the last drop of my ink.”

With the virtual life sentence looming, Zunar had momentarily toyed with the option of escaping and seeking political asylum elsewhere, but that would be a defeat and would have made it easier for the Najib Administration (Sirul Azhar Umar, Najib’s bodyguard who was convicted of Altantuya’s murder, inexplicably escaped to Sydney in Australia in 2014 while on bail). Escaping would have been an admission of guilt and with the protection of another country, Zunar would have been labelled a coward by the government spinmeister.

While the persecution and prosecution continued unabated at home under Najib, Zunar was winning attention and accolades internationally. He was conferred prestigious awards: The Human Rights Watch’s Hellman/Hammet Award in Bangkok for 2011 and again in 2015; Bilbaoarte Foundation/BBK Foundation Courage In Fighting Censorship Award in Bilbao, Spain, in 2011; Cartoonists Rights Network International Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award in St Petersburg, the US, in 2011; International Press Freedom Award (Committee to Protect Journalist) in New York in 2015; and United Nations Regional Information Centre’s Cartooning for Peace Award in Geneva, Switzerland, in 2016.

His cartoons were featured in exhibitions in Britain, Switzerland, Spain, Cambodia and the US. Reporters Without Borders bought up 75 copies of his book, Cartoon-ophobia.

His celebrity status has seen an upsurge of speaking engagements. He had just returned from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, in time to attend his major exhibition, Art of Freedom, at the Penang State Art Gallery (PSAG, May 5-23), and will next be in Bonn in Germany. He had just been to Seoul, where he was a keynote speaker in the Asian Investigative Journalism Conference in 2018, among others, such as in Amsterdam (Holland) and London (the UK).

The PSAG exhibition, curated by PSAG director Haryany Mohamad and officiated by PKR president Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, featured 202 cartoons bracketed under titles of Self Portrait, Politics, Freedom, Altantuya, Sapuman, Rosmah, Corruption, Sufferings, People Power and New Malaysia.

My job is not finished yet. Previously, my agenda was to save the nation. Now, it’s to rebuild the nation, a broken nation, to change to the New Malaysia. Rebuilding is not the job of Pakatan Harapan alone. If society doesn’t change, what’s the point?

Zunar reveals his methodology but surprisingly the “joke” part figures very low down the food chain. He ranks “Knowledge” topmost on his list, saying that knowing how to draw and mastering the technique are just part of the game. “One has to know various aspects of government – legal, diplomatic, medical, military…” Apart from acuity, wit and courage, one has to have a strong grasp of the socio-political situation and the inherent issues. He was first incensed to use his cartoons as a weapon following the sacking of Lord President Tun Salleh Abas in 1988.

Then comes the process. The research could take some 10 hours for one cartoon. “The information must be correct, especially when dealing with corruption.” He also cited “direction”, or what he expects people to do when reading his cartoon. “Only then do I start ‘looking’ for the joke, which must be in line with the principles.”

“When I do this, it’s not a choice. God gives talent. But talent is not a gift, it’s a responsibility. Cartoon is a powerful medium for the benefit of the people. To expose corruption, you need to fight, to set a new stand, a moral principle and platform.”

“I stand on the beach, I can see the ocean. There are so many things on the surface that I can draw but it’s not enough. I need to dive to the bottom of the sea – only then can I see the real picture. My cartoon touches the heart, not only the mind.

“My job is not finished yet. Previously, my agenda was to save the nation. Now, it’s to rebuild the nation, a broken nation, to change to the New Malaysia. Rebuilding is not the job of PH alone. If society doesn’t change, what’s the point?” From having been political, his tangential thrust will now be more community-driven, to heal and nurture, but he will continue to speak out against injustices.

Zunar drew his first cartoon when he was 12, and published his first work in 1973 in Bambino children’s magazine. At the age of 17, when studying at SM Pendang, he revealed his rebellious streak when he criticised a teacher in the school magazine.

He reveals that he had no formal education in art. After Form 5, he studied Science and Education at the Mara Institute of Technology on Jalan Semarak but lost interest and quit after a year. He worked in construction and in a factory for a year before being appointed laboratory technician at University Hospital. After work, he drew cartoons and sent them to several publications such as “Gebang-Gebang” in Cili Padi (1986-1991), the bimonthly Gedung (2009) and Gila Gila. He found Gila Gila not to be the right forum because teenagers were the main readers.

It got to a point where Zunar was so partial to cartooning that he made mistakes in his work. He resigned from his job in 1985 to become a full-time cartoonist, although without any regular or fixed income. He made do by holding cartoon classes for children and doing part-time illustrations.

During the 1998 Reformist Movement, he distributed his cartoons during the court case of Anwar Ibrahim. In 1999 he published his first book, Dari Kerana Mata. He got his break from Harakah in 2003, but the audience was mainly Malay. So, he joined Malaysiakini, which is online and in English and exposed him to a wider audience.

Zunar also worked for Berita Harian, but only for six months, carrying the Papa (name of a squatter activist) comic strip in the Sendawara editorial page daily but he quit after a run-in with Mindef. In Fight Through Cartoons, Zunar produced his autobiography, in text rather than cartoons. He is also the secretary of the Association of Selangor and Federal Territory Cartoonists.

Whether there’s life after the Najib-Rosmah contretemps remains to be seen. As one who is intelligent, courageous and sharp-witted, Zunar could well get a Second Coming given Malaysian politics’ propensity for farce. As he has averred: “How can I be neutral, even my pen has a stand.”

Zunar is truly the Oliphant of the East. For more on Zunar, visit

Ooi Kok Chuen, art-writer and journalist, is the author of MAHSURI: A Legend Reborn (Ooi Peeps Publishing), an adult contemporary fantasy “movel” (a novel conceived as a mock movie) spun from a local legend.

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