Home 2010: 4 Zunar, the multifaceted cartoonist

Zunar, the multifaceted cartoonist

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The struggle for democratic space is also visible in the arts. Soon Chuan Yean interviews cartoonist extraordinaire Zunar, who hopes to generate more young artists who can shape history through their cartoons.

Most of the interviews with and news reports on Zunar, whether in news websites or blogs, have focused on his cartoon styles and the raids on his magazines by the authorities.
As there is already an abundance of information about Zunar, it prompted me to think of how I should write about him and how my writing can provide readers something new, if not different, about him.


I decided to put aside the above concerns and write about Zunar according to how I felt during the interviews (15 April and 22 April 2010 over the  phone). Thus, I decided to write about Zunar as a multifaceted cartoonist – a political cartoonist, a political analyst, a freedom fighter, and a visionary.

Zunar, a political cartoonist

Those familiar with Zunar’s cartoons will categorise his style as political. What makes Zunar a political cartoonist? A brief account of Zunar’s career development may give us insights into his political orientation.

Born in 1962 in Bukit Junun in Gurun, Kedah, Zulkiflee bin S M Anwar Ulhaque was encouraged to pursue an educational path that would guarantee him a job. In those days, education/teaching and the pure sciences were two of the major courses that promised a better quality of life and job security to modest income families. Zunar eventually studied in the science stream at UTM, which provided him a job as a lab technician. Despite that, Zunar always had a passion for cartoons. He published his first cartoon at the age of 12 for Bambino magazine, then in Mingguan Perdana, Kisah Cinta, and Gila-Gila.

Zunar’s initial cartoon styles were less political due to the nature of his publishers and audiences. In Gila-Gila (1983), Zunar had to accommodate teenagers’ interests, which required less politics and more humour. While working as lab technician, he published his cartoon in Berita Harian (1993), entitled Papa, and News Straits Times (NST). Eventually he was offered a permanent position as a political cartoonist.

But his dream of being a real cartoonist was short-lived. Both Berita Harian and NST are part of the mainstream news media in Malaysia. Zunar’s political plane of cartoons was not able to spread out due to the lack of freedom of expression in the Malaysian mass media. Even though he was asked to replace Lat at that time at NST (Lat was taking a sabbatical leave for a year), Zunar did not stay long with the press. To him, he could not replace Lat, he could not become another Lat producing Malaysian cartoons. Lat is a social commentatary cartoonist, while Zunar regards himself as a political cartoonist.

What motivated him to focus on politics? Zunar could not give a straight answer. “I like politics and to be involved in politics. It is about our own daily lives.” His father, his family, the environment or his school setting never inspired him to become a political cartoonist. Perhaps, he feels, it is a passion that was born from within.

But he was inspired by the cartoons of Thomas Nast, a German-born American caricaturist in the 19th century, whose cartoons brought about the demise of Boss Tweed’s corrupt leadership in Tammany Hall. Upon further investigation into Zunar’s interest in Nast, I found out that it was not the cartoon style of Nast that attracted him but the impact of Nast’s cartoon on the corrupt and discriminatory practices of US society at that time. Zunar the political cartoonist was born.

Zunar is political because he desires to reform the society: “It is not politics, it is about reform.” He sees politics in everyday life. Through his cartoons, he hopes the messages (whether it is about human rights, the environment, animals, PKFZ, Teoh Beng Hock, Altantuya, money politics, education or ethnicity) can reach to readers more directly, easily, informally, and universally. These messages, in the form of cartoons, provide an alternative free space for the cartoonists to engage in politicking and to create an impact on society.  “Cartoonists should be the agents of change,” he says.


Zunar the political analyst

Being political requires a critical mind and sharp observation of societal change and development. “I draw with my heart and I sketch with my brain,” reflects Zunar on his approach. Before a cartoon is produced, Zunar reads a lot. Similar to a researcher, Zunar grabs any chance he gets to foray into alternative references (non-mainstream media) to enrich his knowledge of Malaysian socio-political issues. He recalls his “introduction” to Aliran magazine: once, when he was eating nasi lemak bungkus, the wrapping paper used was cover a page of Aliran. Since then, Zunar has maintained his interest in Aliran as a reference for alternative views.

As a political cartoonist, he finds that reading alone is not enough to grasp the substance of political issues. Instead of drawing a cartoon that has been depicted by others (“this would be an illustrator not a cartoonist”), he feels “you need to make a stand before you find a joke.” He would confirm uncertain facts or clarify  unclear incidents with politicians, lawyers and many others.

Zunar sees change as essential. Through his analysis on Malaysian society, change is juxtaposed as a “puzzle” – a puzzle that needs to be filled with stern and legitimate implementation. For Zunar, Malaysia is caught in a big puzzle that has not been looked upon seriously by policy makers, the politicians, the power holders. It dissatisfies and frustrates the rakyat. Though there was a New Economic Policy that to some degree has changed society, no real change has taken place since then.

What is this puzzle? Zunar indicates that it consists of a volume of unfinished works namely issues surrounding the judiciary, human rights, poverty, corruption, money politics, freedom of speech, education, and race. In Zunar’s mind, the Barisan Nasional has failed to change and as for Pakatan Rakyat, problems still arise but its calls for change are targeted at this puzzle.

Through this political analysis, Zunar’s cartoons are direct, forward, contemporary, issue oriented, non-historical, urbanised, satirical and political. Zunar’s bold portrayal of Malaysian political issues of the present day ensures that his readers do not miss his simple, direct, sarcastic, humorous yet critical messages. It is an “uphill battle” for Malaysia to change, he feels. Thus, a straight-to-the-core issue method is necessary: “Why pinch when you can punch?” he asks. Malaysian society has been caught for 50 years of this puzzle so such an approach is badly needed, he thinks. That is the political analysis of Zunar – to draw cartoons to create a “punch” for change.

Zunar the freedom fighter

Throughout the interview, I felt that Zunar’s passion is rooted in a desire to be free from suppression. He said he was a loner who did not join any political parties; nor did he have a group of like-minded people during his early struggle to share his political cartoons and to make them come alive. This did not stop him from drawing political cartoons.

At one point, during the low period of his career, he felt there was no space for a political cartoonist in Malaysia. He then worked in various places just to eke out a living.

Until the reformasi period in 1998, he drew his cartoons and photocopied leaflets and distributed them to people. He visited Anwar in jail (Zunar told me that Anwar even drew him during the visit), participated in the demonstrations and made banners. Like scores of others in that period, he was even thrown into a lock-up for a week in September 1999 for taking part in a demonstration. Upon his release, his talent was discovered by Zulkifli Sulong, the editor of Harakah. He was asked to contribute cartoons in February 1999 – cartoons were something of a novelty to Pas at that time. Since then, his cartoons have been well received by publishers and readers alike. More importantly, he is now free to draw – without being subjected to control.

Zunar has never bowed to acts of suppression. When his magazines were confiscated in August 2008 by the Home Affairs Ministry for publishing without a permit, Zunar fought for his right to continue to draw. Three months after the raids, Zunar and his Gedung Kartun team bounced back to produce an 80-page book entitled Perak Darul Kartun, focusing on the Perak political fiasco. Unlike magazines, under Malaysian printing laws, books do not require permit but only an ISBN. Such politics of suppression fails to annihilate his politicking for change. “It is not politics but reform,” he insists. .

Zunar the visionary

In a casual conversation with one of Zunar’s fans, he provided me an insight into what Zunar is like as an artist. Zunar, the fan told me, is an artist who is not “individualistic” but “jalan ke bawah” (goes to the grassroots). Zunar works with the people surrounding him in the struggle for reform. He does not suppress others’ new ideas but allows for compromise within a larger context. This is not to say Zunar has no style of his own. But he does not create a Zunar-style cartoon at the expense of the other collaborating cartoonists’ styles and ideas. No, this is not Zunar. He is a loner or “individualistic” only as far as his passion is not yet shared or articulated within the larger structures of the Malaysian political context.

To create a culture of political cartoons, individual effort is not enough but requires group work. His Gedung Kartun is evidence of his passion to generate new young artists who can continue to draw and express their ideas through cartoons. “The young have fresher ideas which sometimes I do not have,”  he says modestly.

In his interviews with merdekareview after the raid, Zunar said Gedung Kartun is just a medium or a tool. The raid on the magazines was not a problem. What is more essential is to create space for a new generation of cartoonists to express their views and ideas critically and without control. This is this raison d’etre for Gerdung Kartun.

Zunar’s un-individualistic attitude as an artist has made him a visionary. His hope is to create a legacy of cartoons that can influence history and result in change in Malaysian society – a path that will be continued and expanded among the younger generation. As an artist, Zunar’s vision is not only to change society but to generate new young artists who can create and shape history through their cartoons.

Zunar can be reached for enquiries or correspondence at [email protected]

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