“I’M NOT enjoying what I am doing,” said Zulkiflee Anwar Haque, better known as the cartoonist Zunar. “But I can say this: I am happy to fulfil my responsibility.”
“This is about doing the right thing by the citizens,” he told Asian Correspondent at his unassuming office in Kuala Lumpur. “It is the responsibility of political cartoonists to criticise the government of the day.”
Zunar was recently forced to move after his old shared office was raided three times and the owner became sick of police turning up. “Every time they come, they take books. Last year, 1,300 books.”
‘Troublemaker’ from day one
Zunar is a tireless critic of Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak, who stands accused of channelling almost US$700 million into his personal accounts from the state-owned development corporation 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).
He routinely depicts Najib and his wife unflatteringly, often holding large sums of cash, which has seen him branded a pengacau (troublemaker) and worse – a high-profile target of Malaysia’s sedition laws.
But the 55-year-old artist’s criticism of those in power started much earlier.
Born in Kedah near Malaysia’s border with Thailand, Zunar said he began drawing as a child and published his first cartoon in a children’s magazine at age 12. “I always wanted to draw cartoons from day one.”
At 17, he had a cartoon in the school magazine which got him into trouble for “criticising the teacher over discipline issues. I got in early,” he said, chuckling.
Having studied science, his first job was as a lab technician, but Zunar kept drawing and submitting to magazines. As he spent more and more time on creative work, “I started to lose my calculation.”
Fearing he would endanger patient lives, Zunar quit his cushy government job in 1986 giving up its perks and pension. He never looked back.
Censorship and harassment
Toughening censorship in Malaysia has come under the spotlight in recent years, with Zunar among the most worrying examples of where the government has tried to silence its critics through intimidation and the courts.
In August, Zunar filed a lawsuit against police for arresting him and seizing his merchandise last December. His detention was related to a police investigation under Section 124C of the Penal Code for “activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy.”
The week before Zunar met Asian Correspondent in Kuala Lumpur, he cancelled his exhibition in George Town over fears it would be raided by the ruling United Malays National Organisation’s (Umno) local youth organisation in an act of “physical intimidation.”
In 2016, Umno members attended his exhibition in Penang and became “rowdy and aggressive.” The next day, he was arrested and investigated under Malaysia’s Sedition Act and Penal Code.
A recent report by freedom of expression watchdog Article 19 concluded that “persons exercising their rights to freedom of expression in Malaysia continue to face significant obstacles in 2017.”
“The space for dialogue and dissent both on- and offline is increasingly closing, most notably through the use of Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) 1998.”
“Arrests and incidents of harassment against human rights defenders, journalists and Internet users continue,” concluded the report.
Enemy of the state
Having first been charged under Malaysia’s colonial-era sedition laws in 2010, Zunar was again charged with sedition in 2015 over his tweets criticising the judiciary. He faces nine charges and possible jail time of 43 years – the most charges ever applied under the laws.
Zunar’s next court appearance in relation to the charges will be on Oct 1. “I’m human. Of course, I have fear like everybody else,” said the cartoonist when asked whether he was scared of the possible outcome.
“But I choose this way, again responsibility is bigger than fear. The situation in Malaysia is not about choice anymore.”
Banned from going overseas, June 2016 was the last time he travelled, after that tried to go to Singapore but was arrested. Earlier this year, Zunar attempted to appeal the Immigration Department’s decision in the Malaysian High Court to no avail.
Five of Zunar’s previous books have been banned by Malaysian authorities, who claim the contents are “detrimental to public order.”
He lamented the lack of freedom in Malaysia, claiming that he is no longer invited to speak at universities. Two professors who had previously invited him to lecture to students were ostensibly later called by Putrajaya [the capital] and when their employment contract was up for renewal, they were let go.
“Institutions are important,” he told Asian Correspondent. The current government controls the police, judiciary, attorney general and anti-corruption commission, Zunar said, adding that he hopes these bodies will become truly independent if the opposition can win next year’s general election.
Hope for unity and change
Politics in Muslim-majority Malaysia are imbued by deep racial divisions. Tensions between its Malay majority and Chinese and Indian minority communities have for decades been cynically leveraged by those in power for political gain.
Residual, toxic racial politics are ironically the legacy of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, whose Pakatan Harapan coalition along with jailed leader Anwar Ibrahim now represents the greatest hope for Malaysia’s opposition in defeating Najib’s government at the polls.
Importantly, Mahathir retains much of his influence over the Malay electorate.
Mixed Indian-Malay and a Muslim, Zunar remains optimistic that Malaysians of different ethnicities and religions will unite in opposing the government, galvanised by the 1MDB scandal and the re-emergence of Mahathir.
“If the Chinese stay away, the Malays will bangkit [rise up], it was always like that,” he said, referring to the waves of pro-democracy Bersih protests against the BN coalition since 2006. “But for this election it is semua bangsa [all peoples], that’s how I look at it.”
Zunar said that Malaysia is 20 or 30 years behind neighbouring Indonesia in terms of democratic progress. If Pakatan Harapan can win, it will be like the post-Suharto period of Reformasi in Indonesia where street protests and open criticism of the government is common, he said.
Given Malaysia has been ruled by UMNO since Malaya’s independence in 1957, Zunar said he will give a new government a “honeymoon period” in terms of refraining from lampooning them too harshly in his cartoons.
“But if they’re corrupt, I’ll do the same thing.”