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Zunar: Consummate political cartoonist surmounting the odds

Zunar with Kofi Anan in Geneva

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Nothing has been able to break the indomitable spirit of this caricaturist, writes Benedict Lopez.

Even till today, many Malaysians are unaware of Zunar’s renowned credentials as a cartoonist of ingenuity and stature.

I realised this only recently when I mentioned his name to some of my friends, and they were unaware of his reputation. This completely surprised me as Zunar has been drawing cartoons for more than 20 years.

Zunar’s global standing among many Malaysians may be unfamiliar as he had always been blacked out by the mainstream print and electronic media mainly for his controversial cartoons – which often incurred the wrath of the powers that be. “I have been arrested, my office has been raided, my art destroyed and confiscated and my team has been harassed,” lamented the cartoonist.

Zunar took all these tribulations in his stride and cynically remarked that these ordeals actually enhanced the efficiency of his operations. Nothing has been able to break the indomitable spirit of this caricaturist.

Friends and associates of Zunar too paid a price – the printers, vendors and bookstores which sold his books. But they stood by Zunar through thick and thin, in good times and in bad.

International NGOs have showed their support for Zunar and helped him during difficult times. A few years ago, the France-based group, Reporters Without Borders, bought 75 copies of his book “Cartoon-o-phobia” and distributed it in Jakarta through the Alliance of Independent Journalists.

In 2018, I met Zunar twice – once while accompanying Lembah Pantai PKR candidate Fahmi Fadzil to the nomination centre on nomination day and the second occasion when I bumped into him at a supermarket in Bangsar. On both occasions, he was the cheerful cynical cartoonist I have known him to be.

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When I enquired about the charges pending against him, he simply replied 9/43. Baffled, I asked him what he meant by that, and he told me that he was facing nine charges under the Sedition Act for which he could be jailed a total of 43 years. Yet again, he good-humouredly said he was only second to former PKR Pandan MP Rafizi Ramli, faced 13 charges.

Zunar was detained and locked behind bars twice under the Sedition Act – the first time was in September 2010 for two days and the second in February 2015 for three days. Five of his cartoon books were banned by the government as the contents were deemed to be “detrimental to public order”.

Just scanning through all his cartoon books would reveal his immeasurable talent as a political satirist. He has the gift of scanning prevailing political events and portraying it with a dose of sarcasm to deride the culprits involved. His motto? “How Can I be Neutral, Even My Pen has a Stand.”

I attended the launch of one of Zunar’s books and was kept spellbound by his remarkable talent. He was able to draw a cartoon in just a few minutes, much to the excitement and pleasure of the audience.

Zunar was the only Malaysian cartoonist selected by Amnesty International for their biggest annual international campaign “Write for Rights (#W4R)” in 2015. Eclipsed locally, Zunar has nevertheless been recognised internationally as a cartoonist. The international awards have poured in:

  • Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award by Cartoonist Rights Network International, St. Petersburg, USA, 2011.
  • Courage in Fighting Censorship by Fundacion Bilbao Arte and BBK, Bilbao, Spain, 2011.
  • Human Rights Watch/Hellman-Mammett Award by Human Rights Watch, Bangkok, 2011 and 2015.
  • International Press Freedom Award by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 2015. In his acceptance speech from CPJ, Zunar remarked that the award was not for him alone, but for all concerned Malaysians who were fighting for reforms in the country. According to CPJ’s website, Zunar is the first full-time cartoonist to receive the award.
  • Cartooning for Peace Award, Geneva, 2016. This award was presented to Zunar by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. Zunar was also given the opportunity to enlighten Kofi Annan about his cartoon at the exhibition at Lac Leman, Geneva.
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Zunar says his natural talent is not a gift, but a responsibility. “It is a duty for me as a cartoonist to use the art as a weapon to fight unjust leaders. Fear and intimidation are the potent tools being used by the regime to scare the people. I believe strokes of art can lead the people to cross the line of fear.”

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Benedict Lopez was director of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority in Stockholm and economics counsellor at the Malaysian embassy there in 2010-2014. He covered all five Nordic countries in the course of his work. A pragmatic optimist and now an Aliran member, he believes Malaysia can provide its people with the same benefits and privileges found in the Nordic countries - not a far-fetched dream but one that he hopes will be realised in his lifetime
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