November 25, 2015
by Kean Wong
For a well-travelled Malaysian zipping between London, Cambridge, Kuala Lumpur, Sydney, Washington DC and New York, cartoonist Zunar belies his reputation as a hell-raiser activist, always sketching our homeland in black and white, the splashes of colour only to accentuate the differences he has with the ruling Barisan Nasional.
Instead of his apparently fearsome reputation which has earned him a record nine charges for sedition and a possible 43 years in prison, Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque is mild-mannered, a little droll, and funny in the way Malaysian ministers are not.
Like his satirical cartoons that often harshly portray a nation on the skids, the symmetry of culprits making off with glittering loot as the rakyat go under, the past week had a similar balance of scenes as US President Barack Obama thrilled his Malaysian hosts in Kuala Lumpur while Zunar made his case for urgent Malaysian reforms to the US Senate’s Human Rights Caucus in Washington DC and the US Mission to the United Nations in New York.
As Zunar claimed again last night in his speech in New York when receiving this year’s top media freedom prize from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), “the government of Malaysia is a cartoon government – a government of the cartoon, by the cartoon, for the cartoon.”
“For asking people to laugh at the government, I was handcuffed, detained, thrown into the lock up,” he told a slice of Manhattan’s moneyed elite at the glittering black-tie gala in the storied Waldorf Astoria, which raised US$2 million (RM8.43 million) for the CPJ’s work.
“But I kept laughing and encouraging people to laugh with me. Why? Because laughter is the best form of protest. My mission is to fight through cartoon.”
“Why pinch when you can punch? People need to know the truth and I will continue to fight through my cartoons. I want to give a clear message to the aggressors – they can ban my cartoons, they can ban my books, but they cannot ban my mind,” the political cartoonist said, echoing the points he’s been making in the past few weeks in London, Sydney and Washington DC.
In Sydney the previous week, Zunar had regaled the big crowd of Malaysians and Australians at the state Parliament how the corruption scandals that have rocked Malaysia inform his arresting caricatures, his trials of satire, and his outrageously popular female protagonist’s helmet-haired symmetry, consumed in flights of fantasy money and jewels.
Although he insists that Malaysia has become a “kartunation”, “run by kartuns for kartuns,” many Malaysians demurred with that last part, preferring they were left out of an increasingly melancholy joke’s punchline.
For his hosts the Sydney MPs Jamie Parker and Jenny Leong, they were bemused and perhaps a little incredulous that a colonial-era law like the Sedition Act was still widely used to silence critics of a government in a proudly independent Southeast Asian nation.
Leong, who explained her father was originally from Sibu but never returned after his studies in Adelaide, welcomed Zunar to “a nation, a Parliament that celebrates the freedom of expression”.
The Australia Director of New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), Elaine Pearson, also took the lectern to congratulate Zunar for his “courage in cartooning” and for being awarded HRW’s Hellman/Hammett grant this year, which helps him work and publish at a time when his books are banned and whole print runs are confiscated in the thousands of copies in Malaysia.
In Washington DC in the past several days, Zunar caught up with his growing legion of friends and fans in the epicentre of America’s political cartooning community like Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Matt Wuerker of Politico.
For a town obsessed with China and its impact on the Asian neighbourhood now unsettled by apparently waning American power, Zunar’s interventions were effectively rendered in forums on Capitol Hill and media like The Washington Post.
While President Obama made plain the key role Malaysia (and Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Najib Razak) plays in America’s plans coping with a rising China asserting itself across the region – in what some in Washington agreed was a “blingtastic success” among young people in Manila and Kuala Lumpur, thanks partly to Obama’s fable-like story of an Indonesian childhood – Zunar on the other side of the world stubbornly kept the stage curtains a little askew, to highlight what the cartoonist alleges was the misleading golf game indulged in at top levels.
Like many Americans following the clampdown on human rights in Malaysia, detailed in last month’s HRW report ‘Creating a Culture of Fear: the Criminalisation of Peaceful Expression in Malaysia’, Matt Wuerker is not amused.
“Sadly, Zunar’s case doesn’t surprise me,” said the softly spoken Wuerker, ahead of Zunar’s arrival in Washington.“It’s entirely too common the response to cartoons and satire in so many parts of the world today. In some sense, it’s a compliment to irascible cartoonists like Zunar. It just demonstrates the power and effectiveness their work.
“At the same time the response by a government that uses threats, lawsuits and other forms of intimidation to try silence dissent just demonstrates a weakness and fragility of their hold on power. Governments that are strong, popular and enjoy the support of their people have nothing to fear from a little ridicule and a few cartoons. Yes, I’m blessed to live in a part of the world where people can take a joke.”
For a Malaysian like Zunar facing jail time – and who has arguably cut through the fog of indifference about Malaysia in noisy power centres like Washington with little more than his starkly drawn portraits of a troubled nation and a rude sense of humour – it’s no joke.