Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Even my pen has a stand! An interview with Malaysian cartoonist Zunar

Posted by Free Word on 8/2/12

Political cartoonist Zunar, whose works are banned in his native Malaysia, talks to Free Word's Tom Chivers ahead of his London exhibition To Fight Through Cartoon.

There seems to be a rise in popular cartoons, graphic novels and animated films engaging with political issues (e.g. Persepolis, Waltz with Bashir). What do you think makes the cartoon so adept at challenging the status quo?

Cartoons, with the graphical advantages, have become an effective media of communication. I am happy to see more and more cartoonists nowadays stepping forward and becoming agents of change - especially in the Middle East and Africa. For me, I am lucky to be one of those born with special talent. But I keep reminding myself that with talent comes great responsibility.

When a country faces a moral crisis, it is important for us to stand up and play a big role. As a cartoonist, it is my responsibility to be a "watch dog" and expose corruptions and wrong doings by the government. I do not agree with those who choose not to take sides. How can I be neutral? Even my pen has a stand!

Your work often tackles controversial issues in Malaysian public life such as racism, corruption and political conspiracy. Why do you think it is important to speak up about these things? What kind of problems do you face in doing so?

In Malaysia all mainstream media is controlled by the government. As a result, any important issues which are not politically in favour of the government such as corruption, racism and abuse of power are blacked out. There are so many important issues missing like conspiracy against the popular opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim with fabricated sodomy charges in order to send him to prison.

  Then, the purchasing of two submarines from a French company by the Prime Minister Najib involving a personal commission of RM500 million (Euro 114 million). This scandal led to the murder of the Mongolian model, Altantuya, who worked as a translator in the deal.

Also the PM's domineering wife, who not only controls Najib’s and the government policies, but the self-proclaimed First Lady of Malaysia, (FLOM) leads an extraordinary lifestyle and likes to shop expensively using public money. And the list goes on...

My cartoons highlight these issues with an accurate perspective and information. I want the public to know the truth. Obviously the government is not happy with me – they banned seven of my books, detained me under the criminal act, they constantly raid my office and the vendors, and printing factories have been warned not to sell and print my books or their licenses will be revoked. Drawing political cartoons in Malaysia is a crime!

Can you explain the reasons behind your current legal dispute with the Malaysian government?

I am challenging the government on two separate cases: the banning of my books and the unlawful detention against me. On July 2010, upon banning my book, the government stated that the grounds was because the content of my books were "detrimental to public order and can influence the people to revolt against the leaders and government policies." I filed to challenge this and the court, as expected, threw out my petition in June 2010.

Then I filed another suit to challenge the police and the government on my detention under The Sedition Act immediately after the publishing of my new book Cartoon-O-Phobia in September 2010. For me, the detention was made under bad faith because by that time the books were not yet available in the marketplace.
I am also seeking a court order for the authorities to return all my seized books. This case is now proceeding and next session will be 28 February 2012.

I firmly maintain that a free expression of political commentary is a fundamental right for me to perform as a cartoonist.

How has the internet changed the way in which you and your artwork engage with people?

By banning my books, the government's objective is to block the public from getting access to my cartoons. But with the rapid growth of the internet, their plan has become less effective. Now more and more people can get access to my cartoons through websites, blogs, on Facebook and Twitter. And the number keeps growing.

How has the Malaysian public responded to your work?

Based on feedback I have received from fans/supporters via emails and texts, they like my work because my cartoons are funny and sharp. Most importantly, my works touch on issues that are being discussed by the public every day.

What can people attending your exhibition at the Free Word Centre expect to see?

To Fight Through Cartoon (launches 15 February) is an exhibition of more than 100 political cartoons from the past 10 years from my own satirical perspective. It documents political issues in Malaysia including racism, corruption, waste of public funds, human rights, the BERSIH protest, the judiciary and the police, to name a few. I hope this exhibition will create more awareness about the political and human rights situation in Malaysia.

Photo by AP

Zunar (Zulkiflee Anwar Haque) has been drawing editorial cartoons for the past 20 years in Malaysia. Zunar uses his pen as a weapon to fight state corruption and abuse of power. He has turned the spotlight on local public-interest issues such as the unsolved murder of a Mongolian woman, the political conspiracy against the former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, the domineering wife of the present Prime Minister, and the shady Scorpene submarine purchases that are now being investigated in France.

He started acquiring a reputation as a no-holds-barred cartoonist during the “Reformation” period in Malaysia. Sparked by the sacking of Anwar Ibrahim, the people’s uprising provided him much fodder for comment through his cartoons. The government-controlled national newspapers have blacked-out his cartoons since then and he has to resort to publishing them online. The country’s leading source of independent news and views,, publishes his cartoons on a regular basis.

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