CRNI Executive Director Terry Anderson interview with Malaysian cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Haque, aka Zunar, winner of our annual Courage in Cartooning Award in 2011 and currently one of our Regional Representatives with responsibility for South East Asia.
Zunar describes his long struggle for freedom of expression under the government of Najib Razak including multiple episodes of arrest, confiscation and intimidation, culminating in criminal charges of sedition.
This interview was conducted in 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic; at that time CRNI expressed deep concerns about the future of cartooning. This forms part of a series of testimonies intended to help illustrate CRNI’s work in support of threatened cartoonists.
Zunar, what does “why pinch when I can punch” mean?
The best approach that cartoonists should take when dealing with repressive regimes is by hitting hard on their target, and that our pen should aim toward the most powerful. Good cartoons should have that; the right aim, a powerful target hit with a punch! Just like playing darts, bulls-eyes gets the highest score.
You won CRNI’s Courage in Cartooning Award in 2011; what led to that and what did this recognition mean to you?
That year I embarked upon a lonely cartooning battle, fighting the regime in Malaysia without much notice from the international community. My office was raided, my cartoon books were banned, the printing firm where my books were made was also raided and threatened with loss of their licence and court action if they continued printing for me. In September 2011 I was arrested and detained in the police lock-up under the Sedition Act for publishing a cartoon book called Cartoon-O-Phobia. The situation was so tense and my morale was at its lowest point. When [CRNI founder] Dr Robert Russell contacted me and informed about the award, I felt so relieved by the much-needed show of support. It was a raison d’être for me to keep fighting. It was huge news back then and the government was under increasing pressure. My supporters took it as a victory: Zunar 1 – Malaysian government 0. But this good became bad as I think the government became more focused on me later on. But speaking in terms of effect, CRNI’s Courage in Cartooning Award was very impactful indeed!
Were there other ways in which CRNI supported you?
I would like to thank CRNI for the continuous support given to me and other colleagues globally. As political cartoonists, the sword of Damocles is always hanging over our head, and the swords keep falling one by one. Speaking of that, the best support I expect from CRNI is to keep highlighting my battle on international levels in order to create more awareness, support and protection from wider communities. The same expectation goes for other cartoonists I am delighted to know these days; CRNI has more representatives covering issues across the globe.
When we first met in 2015 I asked about the heart of the matter, whether the prime minister and his allies genuinely thought your cartoons amounted to criminal acts or they just disliked your portrayal’s effect on the minds of those who see you work. Can you explain your opinion?
This is a tricky question, and I can’t speak on behalf of others, but from my point of view… Where I live it is considered a crime to make cartoons that question or mock government policies, the judiciary, public scandals and corruption. Since cartooning is a special and effective medium, the public’s interest and attraction to it are very dangerous for the government because it can change people’s perception. I think that is why it is considered a crime and seditious!
I love the way you’ve incorporated specific criticisms back into your cartoons; tells us about “Twit Twit” and how you ended up drawing Donald Duck.
The Chief of Police of Malaysia at the time loved to use Twitter. At one point he instructed his men to arrest me via a Tweet. That night eight policemen came to my house. They arrested and detained me for three days under the Sedition Act. Upon release, I made a statement that I will draw him every day in my cartoons, holding a phone and “Twitting”, which I did! I think that affected him. I was arrested again a year after that, during an exhibition. During a press conference the next day a journalist asked him why he arrested me and he replied because I drew bad cartoons about him and the Malaysian politicians.
“As a political cartoonist, what should Zunar draw?” asked the journalist again. He replied, “Zunar should draw Donald Duck.” That was how I produced the infamous cartoons that portrayed the Prime Minister as a Donald Duck and his wife as Minnie Mouse.
Sedition charges where eventually leveled against you carrying a sentence of forty+ years, your passport was seized and for a while you couldn’t hold a public event without a mob disrupting it. And yet to me you always looked cheerful. What was the lowest point?
They say laughter is the best medicine. That is my way of handling sadness or depression; I will try to find a small glittering marble in a big dark cave. However my lowest point was when I was alone in a detention cell. That was very demoralizing.
The elections of 2018 changed everything. You lost your muse after Najib and Rosma were toppled. And in the concluding line of your memoir “Fight Through Cartoons” you say that your mission was accomplished. But earlier this year Malaysia was on tenterhooks over the future of its government. What’s your next book going to be about?
When I say “mission accomplished” it is referring to just one battle out of an entire war. As a cartoonist I will not stop performing my duties, to be a watchdog on the government of the day. I will still continue my “fight through cartoons” in my country. I am in the midst of coming out with a new book about all the recent political upheaval in Malaysia.
What’s been happening since the advent of the coronavirus crisis? Have there been issues for those scrutinising or even criticising the government in Malaysia, as we’ve seen elsewhere in South and South-East Asia? How has the situation impacted your own work?
Malaysia’s new government now finds itself in an insecure condition. During the pandemic many have been arrested or charged for criticizing the government. Moreover the action taken against the news portal Malaysiakini is a very significant blow to freedom of expression in relation to the internet and social media and may yet have a bearing on me. The editor is now facing a charge and possible jail term because of the comments left by users in a comment column, which the government says is an insult to the judiciary. Should the verdict be guilty (and I personally think it will), it may spell danger for me because social media is my primary means of reaching an audience but what happens to my cartoons afterwards, who says or does what with them and where, is beyond my control. I could see this new tactic having an effect on me soon.