I had the pleasure to interview the Malaysian cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, who is better known as Zunar.
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, which are criticising the Malaysian judiciary in 2015. If he is found guilty of all nine charges, he faces up to 43 years of jail term.
In this part Zunar is describing his work and is talking about his trial and his visions for the future of Malaysia.
How successful is your work? Does it affect people and how does it affect them?
It is really difficult to say that it affects people in term of numbers, fact and figures. I cannot give you the details, but if you look at the fact that the government had to ban my work and my books it shows that it has an impact on the people. The government used the Printing and the Sedition Act. They claimed that the books were detrimental to public order and that it can influence people to deal with things which are against the government. I talked to someone who sat in the meeting in which they discussed my case. He told me that the government needed to ban my books because they were worried that my cartoons can change the youngsters perception of Malaysian politics. More people have started sharing, interacting or commenting on my cartoons. Furthermore I see that they are enjoying my cartoons from their feedback and the letters or the e-mails I have received from them. They describe my work as sharp and funny. I also believe that cartoon is the only media in Malaysia, that is crossing boundaries such as race boundaries, rational boundaries or social boundaries. I have a fan, who is 15 years old and I have a fan – who is a retired federal judge. Cartoons is a way to catch people who are not following politics. It is interesting that a 66 year old man and a 15 year old boy will view and enjoy the the same cartoon. Cartoon is a very powerful medium everywhere in the world. There are many cartoonists – who have been arrested in Middle- East, in China and in Central America, because of the power of their work. My cartoons are basically calling for reforms.
How has the Malaysian government interfered with your work?
Besides banning my books, they have raided my office several times and confiscated books.
I think they took more than 1000 books, which are still with the police or the Home Ministry. They also visited book stalls throughout Malaysia and warned them not to publish and sell my books. Otherwise they will risk their licenses. The same goes to the printers. Three of them were raided by the police and they confiscated the printing plate as well as other printing materials. The printers also received a warning, which was that their printing license will be revoked- if they continued printing my books. Since I was not able to sell my books in any shop, I concentrated on online sale, but the webmaster was called up by the police under the Sedition Act and the police demanded the names of all the customers, who purchased my books online. So far the government has used three laws in order to stop me, which are the Printing and Press Act, the Sedition Act and the Penal Code.
Last year police tried to stop the launch of my books twice. They came to the event and tried to stop me from continuing. In one investigation I told them “You can ban my books, you can ban my publications, but you cannot ban my mind. I will keep drawing until the last drop of my ink.” That is why I have continued my work. Some people asked me, whether I am going to stop, because I am facing nine charges under the Sedition Act, which carries a maximum penalty of 43 years. I was asked “Will you consider stopping or slowing down?” and I said “No.”, because it is important for me to voice out. Talent is not a gift, talent is a responsibility, so I cannot say “Oh, I have talent, I become a big head. Oh, now I can be rich, I can have everything. I can become famous.” No! Talent is a responsibility, so I really need to perform my responsibility and I have to fulfill my duties as a cartoonist to push for reforms in my own way. Of course people are saying “But you are facing jail now. Are you not scared?” and I say “Yes, I am scared. I am human and I have fear like everyone else, but responsibility has created this fear. As a cartoonist, as a Malaysian and as a human-being I have to call for changes.”
Have you also been arrested during Reformasi?
Yes, once for seven days, which means that it is nothing new for me to spend time in the police lockup. I
am experienced. They investigated me and I had to give three or four statements, not only to the police, but also to the police headquarters last time I went there. I was taken to the department, which focuses on social media as well. They have people monitoring the social media and I had to give a statement. They will question your background. They want to know everything about your family, where your sisters live, where you started school, information about your bothers, basically everything.
Why did the police need this information?
I do not know why you have to give this information but it´s compulsory. You have the chance to not answer certain statements during detention which can be used against you, for instance the question “What do you want to express with this cartoon?”. I do not have to answer this one but you have to answer questions about yourself. In general it is easy to monitor me and to harass me and also my family, because you have the feeling that the police knows everything about you and your family. You will think that this is dangerous for you. You are scared that they will harm your family and this is what they want to create in your mind.
How has the process of the trial been so far? When did it start?
I was slammed with nine charges under the Sedition Act. The trial was supposed to start in November last year, but they cannot proceed at the moment, because I have started challenging the constitutionality of the law of the Sedition Act. For me the Sedition Act is against the constitution, because Article 10 in the Malaysian federal constitution guarantees freedom of expression. However, they are using the Sedition Act to control the people by saying what you can voice out and what you can not. I might go to prison but somebody has to do this. If not, they will continue using the Sedition Act. If I lose, and there is only a very slim chance that I could win, I will point out, that there is something wrong in the system and if more people are doing the same the government might think twice about their decisions in the future.
When did the trial start?
It started in March 2015. They charged me a week before the trial started. After they arrest you, they release you and they start the charge against you. Normally it takes them one month preparing the charge, bringing you to the court and setting the date. When I was informed by the police that I was charged under the Sedition Act, I prepared 5000 RM bail. It was not a problem then but a few hours before the trial took place, police came back and told me that I was slammed with nine charges instead of one. It was very last minute and I needed to get 45000RM for the next day. If you do not have the money, you go straight to jail. I did not have the money, so I asked for the people´s support on the internet. I gave my account number and people started contributing. The next day I had enough money to bail me out but you can see that this is a very political decision.
The government is trying to silence me – they used so many tactics, such as using three laws against me, raiding the office and my printers, and banning my books, but I decided to keep on drawing, so they thought about another way to stop me from drawing, which was slamming me with nine charges. Sometimes you get released because they do not have enough evidence against you but with nine charges and this political vendetta it is getting difficult. This case is very extra-ordinary and nobody had that many charges in Malaysia before.
They want to make sure that I stop. If they send me to jail, I can not draw anymore.
How has your wife reacted to the nine charges and the possibility that you might go to prison for 43 years?
It is very important that you make sure that your family is not worried. They will get the signal very clearly. If I started worrying, they would worry as well. We are definitely facing this, but we also try not to think too far ahead. You go day by day. If I started worrying it would affect my work as well and there is no reason for me to slow down. I need this strength, so that my family is strong. But what gives me the strength? It is again the people´s support. I know that I am not doing this alone. People have been very supportive by donating money for example. The main enemy for every artist in the world is censorship and I do not want to practice that. In fact, since my detention, I have drawn more cartoons and I am still looking for a solution to draw a very effective cartoon. Since March 2015 people can see that there are many differences between my current and my previous cartoons. There are many small items in my cartoons. One is the AG which appears in my cartoons everyday. I also have kept on improving the display of the cartoons. I keep challenging myself everyday but also based on the expectation of my readers. I try to understand their mind and I try to catch their imagination, because I want to draw something with which they are familiar.
How likely is it that you will go to prison and that they will find you guilty?
The charge is politically motivated, which means that it is really difficult to win against the government. There are so many cases, for instance Anwar Ibrahim.
For me everything is part of the script. I do not see a way to win this battle. There might be a chance of 1% to win but I want to face this trial to create awareness, not only in Malaysia but also in the international community. A lot of things will come up during the trial and the government has to justify it. It will be based on my journeys all over the world. Many NGOs and embassies have promised to come and to send representatives to watch my trial. It will become an international issue and this is what I want. I want people to see how bad the situation of freedom of expression and human rights is in Malaysia. But if I skip the trial and seek asylum in Europe, the government would be very satisfied and they would win.
But, if you migrate to Europe or Australia, you could still continue drawing cartoons.
Yes, I could continue. But again, I want to face the trial. I do not want to think too far ahead. I am a very simple person and I do not have plans on anything.
How do you feel about this case?
I do not think about it now. If you keep thinking about that, you will start making assumptions and based on this you will make a judgment. But we do not know anything yet. You really have to be sure what you are fighting for. The line must be very clear. Sometimes we get confused because the lines become blurry. I am fighting through cartoons. This is my line and I will continue this. I will face this and I believe that the line is more important than the result. I do not want to think about the result because there are so many possibilities. We need to stay positive and optimistic.
If I fight hard enough with my tour around the world and I keep on drawing cartoons, keep challenging the law and the repressive regime, then I am not sure whether I am the one who is going to face 43 years of jail or if the Prime Minister of Malaysia is the one who is going to face 43 years in prison. We need to be really optimistic about this. If we are not optimistic, we do not have to fight. If you do not have self-confidence, you cannot fight. You need to believe that you will win, although you do not know the final result.
Do you think that more Malaysians should become political active although many of them are controlled by fear?
I am really looking for more creative persons. We have street protests in Malaysia and I think that the number of demonstrators is really huge now. We also have political parties that are fighting on political platforms and we have a parliament where we can go and protest to but there is a lack of creative mentalities. Do you know the difference? The government – or those who are in power – are trained to overcome these protests. They know how to deal with street protests. They were trained that way but the creative way is one where the government does not know how to handle. That is why I hope that more people come out to fight in creative ways, because this is something which is out of the government´s control. This is important in every country in the world. Just take the Arab spring as a result. There were so many singers, song writers, artists, and cartoonists, who came out and did something which the government was not expecting, such as people who started singing. It is very simple and the government does not know what to do. What will the government do if you start laughing? Can they stop you from laughing? And somehow, you can forget the prominent artists in Malaysia. I have the feeling that they do not care and that they are already gone in the term of reform but my hope is for the youngsters.
There is an artist who is called Fahmi. They can charge him but other people can still spread his pictures. I heard that they have started spraying his pictures. If more creative people start protesting, the time for change would become shorter. Once you are creative, you can attract more people to start protesting but I agree with you: people are scared. We can not expect that everyone is brave. I do not expect everybody to go to the street. They have reasons like a job or family but I think “Come. Let us laugh about the government. We will laugh together.” This is a safe and quite effective way. I call it “Cartoons for the people” and that is also the reason why I removed the copyright from my cartoons. People can just copy and share the cartoons. They do not need permission because it is the people´s cartoons. I want them to take part in the process. If I used copyright, people would not be able to join me in the fight, so I hope that more artists are doing this. Artists have to be close to the people. If you are not sensitive, you cannot be an artist. They have to touch the people´s hearts through their work. This is art.
What is your wish for the future of Malaysia?
I wish that we can achieve total reforms one day, even, if it will not happen during my lifetime. Once Malaysia was a very good country. We lived in harmony, There were not racial tensions between us. Malays, Chinese and Indians could live together but tensions were created by the government. Back then we had people with characters. I hope we can go back to that time but before this we need total reforms. People have to decide the path of this country.
Thank you very much for your time, Zunar.