|Malaysian cartoonist Zunar holds copies of his comic books that have been |
banned by the Malaysian Home Ministry in Kuala Lumpur in June 2010.
By Shibani Mahtani
The Wall Street Journal
Sourtheast Asia Realtime
Malaysian cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, better known by his pen name Zunar, has a message for his government – watch out, the world will soon be laughing at you.
Mr. Zulkiflee has been detained, has had his office raided and books banned, and is currently fighting a legal battle with the Malaysian government. More than 6, 000 miles away, though, visitors to a gallery in London will have unfettered access to his work – which takes a stab at everyone from the Prime Minister’s wife to Malaysia’s judiciary – when the 49-year-old holds his first solo exhibition next month.
“I am very happy my work is being recognized internationally,” Mr. Zulkiflee said in a telephone interview with The Wall Street Journal. “It sends a message to [the Malaysian government] that people are watching [them].”
About 80 of his cartoons will be displayed for a month from Feb. 15 at a gallery in London’s East End under the theme “To Fight Through Cartoon.” A veteran of Malaysia’s dissident scene – and one of the few satirists willing to take open shots at the government – Mr. Zulkiflee says he hopes his visual medium will make the issues of “abuse of power, corruption and human rights violations” in Malaysia more accessible and understandable to audiences outside the country’s borders.
In late 2010, Mr. Zulkiflee was arrested on a sedition charge hours before his latest book, ‘Even My Pen Has a Stand,” was due to be launched. The book was never launched, and joins the rest of his books in being banned across Malaysia. The police said he was in violation of the Printing and Publishing Act, which regulates newspapers, because he didn’t have an appropriate license to publish.
The cartoonist – adamant that the charges were politically motivated – has brought a lawsuit against the government, saying that his books were unfairly confiscated and he was detained without reason. The government deems his books “detrimental to public order.”
Despite Malaysian courts’ high-profile decision to clear the country’s opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, of sodomy charges last week, Mr. Zulkiflee says he remains pessimistic about his own judicial battles. he cartoonist challenged the government last year on the banning of his books, but lost initial hearings on the case.
“The judgment of Anwar is a one-off case, it was a political case,” Mr. Zulkiflee said.
Prime Minister Najib Razak in recent months has attempted to burnish his reputation as a reformer, most obviously by repealing feared Internal Security Act laws allowing for detention without trial and relaxing curbs on media freedom. Many political analysts also argue that Mr. Anwar’s acquittal proves Mr. Najib’s commitment to an independent judiciary in his country.
Still, Mr. Zulkiflee remains pessimistic. He says it is not these top-down adjustments that give him hope, but rather the lack of controls around the internet in Malaysia, which he says allows him and his counterparts to get their own message out.
“In Malaysia, Facebook and Twitter is not just a social network, but the alternative network,” he said. Though Mr. Zulkiflee’s books are banned, they can be ordered online and are available through the internet and on the website of Malaysiakini, the local newspaper he draws for.
More than half the country’s population is on the Internet, allowing them to circumvent stricter laws for the printed press cemented by Malaysia’s Printing Presses and Publications Act. “The government cannot control the media anymore,” he said.
Zunar’s cartoons will be on display at the Free Word Center, 60 Farringdon Road, London, from Feb. 15.