Zunar (Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque) is a Malaysian cartoonist who has been political active since the Reformasi movement (1998).
His cartoons are cynical, regime-critical and are dealing with several political issues such as corruption, cronyism or the glamorous life of Prime Minister Najib Razak and his wife Rosmah (1MDB scandal).
Zunar was imprisoned during the 1990s and was slammed with nine Sedition Act charges for his cartoons as well as his tweets last year, which are criticising the Malaysian judiciary. If he is found guilty of all nine charges, he faces up to 43 years of jail term.
But Zunar has not given up the fight and I met him beginning of this year within the context of the opening of his art exhibition as well as the prize-giving ceremony of “Dessins pour la Paix” (= “Cartooning for Peace”) in which he received the price together with the Kenyan cartoonist Gado in Geneva.
Read the first part of the interview in which Zunar is talking about his career and the Reformasi time.
What inspired you to start drawing cartoons?
Cartoons have been in my mind and in my heart since my childhood. My first cartoon was published in a children´s magazine when I was 12 years old. I always wanted to be a cartoonist and I kept on drawing all the time, but I was unable to take art class in school. I needed to choose a course and my parents encouraged me to take science instead of art, so I followed their advice, which means that I do not have any formal education in art. I taught myself and therefore referred to other cartoonists. Once in a while I could publish my cartoons in a magazine column for newcomers. After school I went to university for one year, but I decided not to continue my studies because I really did not like the course.
Did you study a scientific course?
Yes, I chose science and education. I would have become a teacher and I am glad I did not. I dropped out of university in 1981 and worked in several part-time jobs such as in construction work. Later on I was offered a job in a hospital as a technician. This was my first permanent job and I worked there for about five years. This was from 1981 to 1986 but I already had my own column in a cartoon magazine during that time.
Was drawing cartoons somewhat of hobby for you during that time?
It became a part-time profession. I completed two cartoons every week, which can be regarded as a regular column. But after a while there were conflicts because science and cartoons are totally different from each other. It is not only a different job type, but it also includes a different kind of mind set. When you draft a science report you are dealing with numbers, facts and figures but I became creative and I had to create something during the night time. When I spent more time as a cartoonist, I started to lose this scientific thinking. My reports went wrong and it is dangerous when you cannot come up with a simple report. At that time I knew that I had to follow one path and I decided to become a professional cartoonist instead of a scientist in 1986. During that time I drew cartoons for a magazine, called Gila-Gila. That was when I started to be a bit satirical. Later on I became more politically-oriented. I liked politics, I liked to inform myself about current issues, so it got into my mind- since I like politics and I also like drawing cartoons, why not combine both interests into a political cartoon? This was when I started to become politically active.
When did you decide to start drawing political cartoons?
This was about the end of the 90s. The audience of the magazine I was working for were mostly teenagers and they did not understand politics during those times. I drew so much political staff but only a few people appreciated it. I knew that I needed another platform, so I started to work for a Malaysian newspaper. This was in 1991, but if you work for a government-owned newspaper, your creative mind is limited in many ways. There are so many Do´s and Don´t s.
I only worked there for six months. Then I decided that it was not the place for me. There was no space for a cartoonist to survive in Malaysia. During those days, we did not have the internet and we were not aware of alternatives. You go from one governmental newspaper to the next and the policy is the same, so I kind of retired from being a political cartoonist which means I also did not know what was going to happen in the future and I did not care. I started to do cartoon-related work, such as teaching people how to draw cartoons or book illustrations. This was until 1998 – the year in which Reformasi started. This was the point when I started to return to draw political cartoons, because some political changes happened in Malaysia in September. The Reformasi movement changed Malaysia´s politics. It changed every perception of it. We started to have some opposition tabloids and I sent my cartoons to them. I finally could draw what I wanted to draw.
Does that mean that the opposition tabloids gave you more freedom?
Yes and my cartoons were well received by the readers. In 1999 I started working for Harakah which was owned by the opposition and I started working for Malaysiakini in 2003, because I needed a wider audience. Harakah is more specific for the Malay audience but I wanted to work with a wider audience.
Did you start drawing cartoons about Anwar Ibrahim´s arrest during the time of Reformasi?
Political cartoonists do not draw that specifically. Sometimes I did not draw Anwar but Mahathir instead to represent a specific situation. You could figure out the Reformasi content in my cartoons.
I wanted reforms, not only because of Anwar Ibrahim´s case. I wanted to see a total reform of all institutions in Malaysia and I started thinking about ways to achieve reform. First of all you need to target the government in power. This was what I did during that time.
Which changes have you observed throughout the years in Malaysia beginning from Reformasi until today?
Politically? There have been changes and Reformasi was the turning point for that. One example was that people always supported the government, but 1998 changed that perception. People started questioning. They started looking for alternative content. Before that they were dependent on the news coverage and its content. In the beginning people focused on Anwar´s case, but people started going beyond it. We started criticizing, we started questioning the credibility of the police, of the judicial system, of the Attorney General and of the anti-corruption agency. Also the press changed and more people started talking about reforms in Malaysia which was beyond political parties. Before that it was only opposition against government but people started thinking that we need total reform, regardless of political party. The change might be slow but it is heading in the right direction. The Bersih movement came up with a very essential topic as well which was to protest for free and fair elections.
This is very important for every democratic country and important for us to achieve. We need to reform the electoral process first which is a matter of time, but I am sure that we shall finally see the change. Important now is the mindset of the younger generation. Young people like you are different. They have different mindsets. They are very critical, they analyze rather than just listen and following orders and this is very dangerous for any government in the world. That is why it is not only happening in Malaysia. This also happened during the Arab Spring.
Do you think Pakatan Harapan has a chance to win the upcoming election although laws in Malaysia have become tighter?
We need to understand that the Prime Minister and his cabinet are battling to survive. They do not care about the nation, so, they will introduce more laws to stay in power even beyond the next general election. They introduced the National Security Council law, they are using SOSMA (=detention without trial) and they have started monitoring Facebook and Twitter. They have also continued to use the Sedition Act.
The opposition definitely will not win, but we have to focus on the people´s power, because the power of the people is more important than any law. Just look at other countries, such as the Philippines. Marcos used military power but he could not break the people´s power. More people are dissatisfied with the government compared to the previous years and those people understand that change is very important. I think the number went up to 60% by now, so for me people´s power is more important than any law.
What are your main concerns in Malaysian? Which things should change?
Malaysia seems to be a very good country, if you view it from the outside. It looks pretty democratic, but people should know that we do not have strong and independent institutions. The power is centralized to a few individuals.The power of the leader and the judiciary should be balanced out in a democratic country. The executive should not control the judiciary. If you do that, it is the end for every democracy, but this is happening in Malaysia. The Prime Minister and also his wife are on the call. The police depends on the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister controls the police and even the judges in several cases.
He can tell them how to make a decision. He even controls the AG and the media. We need to change all these institutions. Strong independent institutions are the foundation for democracy. The judiciary must be very independent. There should not be a Minister of Justice. Malaysia has a minister in the Ministry department, who controls the judiciary. The anti-corruption agency must also be free from government control. They must be answerable to parliament. The same situation applies to the police but they are following the orders of the Minister instead of the people. On top of that we need to change the education system and we have to free the media.
The media can help the government to combat corruption which is another problem in Malaysia, but freedom of the media does not exist! People should be able to monitor the government.
The second part of the interview will follow soon.