The government of Malaysia does not find Zunar’s drawings amusing. But his satirical drawings denouncing official corruption and electoral fraud have made him a widely known figures in the country. He is waging a high profile war against the prime minister Najib Razak, even though the authorities are making efforts to ban his work.
Zunar, 53, faces nine charges sedition over a serie of tweets he posted last February in which he criticized the controversial court ruling sentencing the opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to five years in prison. Zunar is currently free on bail, but faces a possible sentence of up to 43 years in jail. “In Malaysia they treat me as a criminal, “ he claims.
Ever since Malaysia attained its independence in 1957, it has always been ruled by the same coalition, now known as Barisan Nasional, which has proven to be unbeatable in all elections. The government has used a wide array of laws to suppress freedom of speech and to silence and marginalize any opposition.
On April 2009, Najib Razak was appointed Prime Minister and he raised some hopes when he announced immediately the lifting of the ban on two opposition newspapers, arguing that Malaysia needs "media that can report responsibly what they see without fear of the consequences". He also freed 13 people who had been detained under the infamous and controversial Internal Security Act, and promised to review this and other repressive laws.
In 2013 elections, Barisan Nasional attained the worst results in its history, reflecting a growing discontent among the population. The government's response was to ban peaceful demonstrations, close websites and arrest critics like Zunar. Ever since, the room for dissent in Malaysia has quickly shrinked and the government has cracked down on people trying to use their rights to express themselves freely, association and public assembly, generating a culture of fear.
Zunar has spent the past months traveling abroad denouncing the repression by his government. “I strongly believe that my talent is not a gift. I have the responsibility as a cartoonist to give a message to the people and make them understand the problems we face in Malaysia. Responsibility is bigger than fear, that makes me to keep going,” he says with conviction.
Malaysia has a long tradition of political cartoons which commenced in the 1930s, when newspapers and journalism developed in the country. At that time, cartoons dealt with topics like Malay nationalism, colonialism and westernization. “In that context, cartoons were used as a weapon to instill the spirit of nationalism and to search for independence from British colonization. Cartoons were also used as a weapon to criticize so-called "bad attitudes" of the people, such as laziness and shyness, which were blamed as the cause to economic backwardness,” explains Prof. Dr. Muliyadi Mahamood.
According to the professor, during the Japanese occupation in the 1940s, most newspapers were turned into Japanese tools of propaganda. This was also the case with political cartoons, as most of them were used to present a good image of the Japanese and ridicule the Western powers.
After independence, the production of most editorial cartoons was in line with the policies of the government. “With the spirit of the newly independent nation, cartoons were used to instill the spirit of harmonious life among multi-racial Malaysians, namely the Malays, Chinese and Indians. This was also influenced by the nature of the press, sociopolitical condition of the country as well as various rules and regulations on the media,” he adds.
The political landscape of the country changed drastically at the end of the 1990s with the emergence of new political parties and the increase of popular support to opposition parties. The emergence of alternative media and newspapers, as well as the Internet, added to the mix. “New names like Zunar emerged in the scene. Zunar's approach is direct and robust, as compared to some earlier cartoonists who are more subtle in their approach,” explains Prof. Dr. Muliyadi Mahamood.
Zunar has been attracted to cartooning since he was 12. He drawed his first controversial cartoon for his school’s magazine, when he was 18, lashing out at a teacher who didn’t discipline students who skipped school to fool around or waste time at restaurants.
However, under pressure from his parents, Zunar studied medicine, but the widespread corruption in the country prompted him to turn his pen into a weapon.
Zunar has suffered arrests and intimidation. Five of its fifteen books are officially banned in Malaysia, considered by the authorities as "detrimental to the maintenance of public order,” and the government has also threatened the booksellers to bring them to the courts and to cancel their business licenses for selling his books.
Moreover, Zunar’s webmaster was summoned by the police under the Sedition Act and subsequently decided to cut professional ties with Zunar due to the risks involved. Consequently, Malaysia’s mainstream media refuses to publish Zunar's work and social networks are the only platform where he can show his controversial cartoons. But this is not enough for him to make a living. “I sell my books as if they were drugs, and I will continue selling them as long as there is demand, " explains Zunar.
However, the government may have miscalculated the effects of the prosecution against Zunar. The repression against him and other expressions of dissent has inspired a new generation of artists eager to continue the fight for the cause he started. Some of them even have established associations to fight for the same cause: the freedom of speech.
“In Malaysia we can’t laugh,” says Johnny Ong, referring to the oppression that cartoonists face. He is part of the new Malaysian generation of cartoonists who denounce corruption and injustice through their drawings.
"A few years ago, I worked as a creative artist for an advertising agency, but I had never made any political cartoon until I found out about Zunar’s case and I wanted to support him. I am happy that I have not been stopped by the authorities for my cartoons yet, but I’m sad to see that the government wants to put people like him in jail because he is the voice of many people,” explains the artist, better known as Joca.
Malaysia has some of the toughest censorship laws in the world and was ranked 147th out of 180 countries in 2014 in the Index of World Press Freedom compiled by Reporters Without Borders. Besides, about a hundred films have been banned during the past decade with the sole pretext of defending morality. The media editors also exercise self-censorship out of fear.
Censorship is precisely what made Sukhbir Cheema to quit his job a few months because his freedom was very limited. Most of his cartoons are very critical with the ruling party and were banned by his editor because could be “very dangerous”.
“In 2014 a Muslim group that is in alliance with the government said Muslim can’t say to Christians Merry Christmas. I thought this was very stupid and I drew a little boy in a Santa Claus Uniform saying: Merry Christmas! My editor said we would have trouble if we published it. That’s why now I am freelancing, “ he says.
Cartoonists in Malaysia do not surrender and, looking back through history, it is clear that political cartoons have some impact in society. “During the pre-independence period, they were used as political and cultural weapons that critically and harshly criticized the society and the government in general in issues related to colonization, immigration and westernization. Whereas during the Japanese occupation, they were mostly used as tools of propaganda and to unite the multi-ethnic Malaysians after the independence in 1957. During contemporary era, the two most significant political or editorial cartoonists are certainly Lat and Zunar, “ explains Prof. Dr. Muliyadi Mahamood.
“I think if [Zunar] goes to jail, more cartoonists will come out. By drawing cartoons, they are indirectly supporting Zunar. That’s actually what he wants,” says the cartoonist Sukhbir Cheema.
“The fact that some of critical cartoons are being banned proves that they have some impact and success in expressing certains ideas as well as people’s hopes and voice in general. With the emergence of new technology, the Internet, social media and the culture of cyberology in general, political cartoons do have their future and impacts in this country”, explains Prof. Dr. Muliyadi Mahamood.
“Cracking down on freedom of expression is not going to work in the long run. The economy is very bad in Malaysia, people are finding difficult to do business. The prices and taxes are increasing. People are frustrated, “ explains Joca.
“I will continue drawing to express myself because this is the only talent I have and I feel I’m contributing with this to my society and to the people. Cartoons convey a message easy to understand. As long as there is corruption, even if the Government changes, I will continue drawing if I see corruption or injustice”, concludes the artist.