Sunday, September 18, 2011


I first heard about Zunar when I read in the papers that Malaysia’s first political cartoons magazine, Gedung Kartun, was banned by the government in September 2009, after it was out in the market for 2 to 3 days. Zunar was the publisher and chief editor of the magazine. The authorities did not like the fact that this magazine was making fun the current Prime Minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak, during the Merdeka month. Gedung Kartun’s printing license was withdrawn.

More cat and mouse followed and more of Zunar’s books and magazines were banned. Finally, on 24 September 2010, Zunar was arrested in his office on the very day his book, Cartoon-O-Phobia was to be launched. Since then, Zunar has caught the attention of the international cartooning scene. He received the Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award from the Cartoonists Rights Network International in Florida in July this year. But he remains a Malaysian at heart. He wants to reform Malaysia and Malaysian politics with his cartoons.

On my last trip to KL, I caught up with him at his office near KL Sentral. He was not well, suffering from gastric pain, but still took the time to meet me. But before we get down to his replies to my questions, let’s start with his own personal statement, which he sent to me before we met.

My name is Zulkiflee SM Anwar Ul Haque. I have been drawing editorial cartoons for the past 20 years in Malaysia under a pen-name "Zunar". I consider myself as one of the best editorial cartoonists in Malaysia.

My cartoons are blacked-out by national newspapers, so as an alternative they are now being published by an internet media,

My aim is to use cartoons as a weapon to fight corruptions and abuse of power by the government. The issues highlighted in my works such as the murder of the Mongolian model by the name of Altantuya, the conspiracy against ex-Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, the domineering PM’s wife, the loss of jet engines, the Scorpene submarine scandal, racism, corruption and waste of public funds, among others.

In my career, I constantly face harassment, intimidation and oppression from the Malaysian government. I was arrested, detained and jailed for drawing cartoon. While in jail, I was treated like a criminal and jailed together with other criminals such as drug abusers and robbers.

On top of that, seven titles of my books are banned by the government, my office were raided twice, the printing factories that print my books are constantly raided and through-out the country, vendors are often warned not to sell my books.

Below are the summary of the challenges I face through out my career:


1. On September 2009, my office was raided by eight officers from the Home Ministry. In the raid, they confiscated 408 copies of my magazine, Gedung Kartun (Cartoon Store).
2. I was investigated under the Printing Presses and Publication Act (PPPA).
3. The government also threatened to charge me under the PPPA. If convicted, the penalties are 3 years in prison or RM20,000 (about USD6,280) fine.
4. They also raided the printing factory and seized the printing plates.
5. The factory was also warned not to print my books in the future, or else its printing license will be revoked.
6. The Home Ministry officials also confiscated Gedung Kartun from vendors through -out the country, and warned them not to sell my books in the future.
7. Gedung Kartun was banned thereafter.
8. The loss was estimated to be around RM10,000 (about USD 3000).


1. On June 2010, the Malaysian goverment announced the banning of five of my political cartoon publications. The ban was made under the PPPA. The books are:
a. 1 Funny Malaysia.
b. Perak Darul Kartun (Perak, The State Of Cartoon)
c. Isu Dalam Kartun vol 1 (Issue In Cartoon vol 1)
d. Isu Dalam Kartun vol 2 (Issue In Cartoon vol 2)
e. Isu Dalam Kartun vol 3 (Issue In Cartoon vol 3)
2. The government claimed that my cartoons "can influence the people to revolt against the leaders and government policies and detrimental to public order" as a ground to the ban.
3. This resulted the vendors withdrawing all the books and returning them to me. The loss incurred was about RM80,000 (USD25,000).


1. On the 24th September 2010, ten policemen raided my office in Brickfields near Kuala Lumpur, just 4 hours before the launching of my new cartoon collection, Cartoon-O-Phobia.
I was arrested, detained and locked up for two days under the draconian Sedition Act, which carries the maximum three years in jail if found guilty.
66 copies of Cartoon-O-Phobia were confiscated, as well as one of the original editorial cartoon. All these materials are still in the police custody.
2. At the same time, another 30 policemen raided two separate printing factories and warned them not to print my books in the future, or they will risk their printing licenses revoked by the government.
Police also went to the publisher, Malaysiakini, to search for the remaining stocks of Cartoon-O-Phobia.
As a result, Cartoon-O-Phobia cannot be sold openly as the vendors fear the risk of being charged under the Sedition Act by the government. I had to survive on the online sales which has a very limited market.


I will continue to draw to expose the corruption practiced by the Malaysian government as well as fundamental key issues such as abuse of power, police brutality, violation of human rights and misuse of public funds.

1. On July 2010, I filed a suit against the government to challenge the banning of my books: 1Funny Malaysia, Perak Darul Kartun and three volumes of Isu Dalam Kartun vol 1. In the suit, I sought the court to declare that the ban is illegal and an infringement to the rights of free speech guaranteed by the federal constitution.
The ban also breached the rules of natural justice and mala fide. For this case, the court will deliver its judgment on the 14th of July 2011. [Update: The court threw out my case as expected.]
2. On June 2011, I filed another suit to challenge the Malaysian government for the "unlawful detention" against me on September 2010.
The whole arrest and detention process reeked of bad faith and was politically motivated.
This suit aims to bring into focus the constitutional and human rights arguments, the police’s excessive powers and abuse, illiberal and outdated laws like the Sedition Act 1948 and the Printing Presses and Publication Act 1984, and the collusion between the government and the police.
And for this the court has yet to set a trial date. [Update: The date was set for 13 September 2011.]

On the 24th June this year, I produced my new book, “Even My Pen Has A Stand.”

Q: How did you get started drawing political cartoons?

A: I started in school, drawing part-time for fun, as a hobby. I’d send cartoons to children’s magazine like Bambino. That was around 1974 when I was in primary school. In secondary school, I continue to send my cartoons to selected children’s magazines, to their new talent pages.

I just kept drawing. I left school in 1980 and had my first cartoon for Gila-Gila published. In 1982, I worked for the government as a hospital lab technician. But I kept contributing cartoons to magazines. In 1986, I decided to be serious about drawing cartoons professionally and I joined Gila-Gila fulltime. I was drawing political cartoons then, but not as hard as what I am doing now. Gila-Gila is for teenagers, so half of my cartoons were political and the others were just humourous satire.

After a few years, I felt I needed a platform for political cartoons, so I joined Berita Harian in 1991. After I only lasted for 6 months. After that, I went freelance. I found out that I couldn’t do much in a government controlled newspaper. It was very restrictive, the editor would often comment on my cartoons and asked me to remove things.

That was not enough for me. But at that time, there was no internet. So you could draw for Bertia Harian, The New Straits Times or The Star and they are all the same medium, same restrictions.

So I retired for a while as there was no place to send my cartoons. I stopped drawing political cartoons in 1996 as there was no place for me in Malaysia for my type of political cartoons. I did a lot of freelance work like book illustrations.

In 1998, former Deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim was arrested. I felt I need to make a comeback as a cartoonist and not to keep quiet about this conspiracy against Anwar. As a cartoonist, I need to show my stand and views about this situation. In February1999, I sent my cartoons to Harakah, the newspaper run by PAS. It was the only opposition newspaper then. They accepted my cartoons and they kept publishing them. I got good response from the publisher.

So here I can draw what I want to draw. I can make my stand and do my best. It was a turning point in my career. People started to know me.

In 2003, I started to draw for Malaysiakini. This is the internet era and I need to move with the times. Harakah could only reach out to Malay readers. Malaysiakini would allow me to get a wider audience.

Since then, my fan base has kept growing day by day, across the different age group. I get response from teenagers to ex-judges, lawyers and doctors.

Q: Describe your politics.

A: I support PKR (Parti Keadilan Rakyat). I support the opposition. It is very simple for me. I’m not involved personally in opposition politics, but as a Malaysian, I support PKR. (Zunar is an advisor to The Keadilan Daily) Barisan Nasional has been in power for 53 years and still could not solve two big issues – corruption and race. They have no policies for that. They cannot do it and they cannot settle it because they are the ones who are corrupted. When you are in the circle for 53 years, whether it is the police or the ministers, it’s ‘you help me, I help you’.

It is seriously affecting the people because public funds are misused. For example, the road toll. The toll agreement between the government and concession holders, that’s under OSA (Official Secrets Act). The result: when toll fees go up, the people cannot question why. The public has no access to the Petronas accounts. Petrol prices are going up. But we are producers of crude oil, and yet the people are still paying a lot. Petronas give the government RM70 billion net a year, but where does the money go?

That’s why I say the present government cannot settle this. We need to change the government. If PKR were to repeat what BN did, then we throw them out, just like other countries.

As for the racial problems, the government cannot settle it because they are the ones who practiced it. The government wants to break the people. They don’t want the people to stand together. They tell different races different things. Najib declared 1Malaysia, that’s a good slogan. But you also have Ibrahim Ali, the Perkasa president, who declared supremacy for the Malays. Najib kept quiet about such things.

UMNO’s survival is dependent on the Malays. They play the Malay racial card and sentiments to survive. There are no policies and the people are frustrated. On the ground, the people are not happy.

Q: Do you expect your cartoons to make a difference in all these?

A: I believe if I consistently do this, young cartoonists will follow my footsteps. I always say I will focus on corruption. If I stop and I compromise my stand on corruption, I will not be giving a good example to the young cartoonists. I cannot go back on my word. Some people have advised me to slow down a bit, so that I can survive. All my books are banned, there are no sales of my books in the bookshops in Malaysia. But I say no, these are my principles. There is no point for me to print another humour magazine. If I don’t do this, we cannot create culture to be followed by future generation of cartoonists.

I am single-handedly doing this now.

Q: Are you partisan?

A: My own philosophy is this: political cartoonists are important for any country. Like Malaysia now, we are facing a moral crisis, with corruption and the race issue. You must make a stand, you cannot be neutral.

This stand must be clearly seen in your work. It cannot be you making a stand, but your cartoons are different. Because as an artist, you must be a sensitive person. You are closest to the rakyat and you know how they feel. People like my cartoons because I draw what’s on their minds, what they are feeling.

I support PKR because of the problems we have in Malaysia now. People say I am biased, but I have a reason why. It is the situation, you don’t have a choice. When the field is not balanced, you need to play a different game. If you play the same way, you will get KO’d, 100-0. So now you play more rough, to give support to the underdog, until the day the field gets more balanced.

I am partisan. Barisan Nasional has every cartoonist in the mainstream newspapers to support them. I am the only one in the opposition’s side. I have to do that.

Q: What happened after Gedung Kartun was banned?

A: In Malaysia, you need a license to publish magazines. But you don’t need a license to publish books. So since the Gedung Kartun magazine is banned, we went into ‘book’ publishing. We published Perak Darul Kartun as a book. That was our most saleable publication, it was reprinted twice.

Then we set up a new company to get a new license and we managed to publish three issues of Isu Dalam Kartun. That was a team effort with the young cartoonists. As for my personal work, my Malaysiakini cartoons were collected and published as 1 Funny Malaysia.

Then all were banned by the government.

But since the government banned all of them, I realized that the government was afraid of cartoons. So we decided to do a second book of my cartoons, Cartoon-O-Phobia.

On 24 September, on the day of the launch, I was arrested. That night, the launch went on without me and the books. I was kept in the KLIA police lockup. The next day, I was brought to the magistrate court and was to be remanded for five days. They did not inform my lawyer of the hearing, so I had to represent myself.

I questioned the detention. The police said Cartoon-O-Phobia was seditious, which carried a maximum sentence of 3 years in jail. I said this book is not out in the market yet, how would you know it would be seditious or not. At least Isu Dalam Kartun was out in the market for 3 months before it was banned. (Isu Dalam Kartun was very popular. Just 2 weeks before the ban, we signed a contract with a major distributor to distribute it to other parts of Malaysia, including Sabah and Sarawak. And then it was banned. Maybe the authorities got the info about the distribution deal…)

I asked the police if they had read the book. They said no. I told the magistrate this was not fair, and they released on the same day. (on 25 September) They had no grounds to arrest me.

But when they cannot stop me from drawing, they did two other things – they stopped people from printing my books and they stopped vendors from selling my books. In Malaysia, no shop dared to sell my books until now. The police will harass the shops and the court can take away the shops’ license. For printers, they can revoke their printing license.

So for my new book, …Even My Pen Has A Stand!, it has been very difficult. I searched for 2 months for a printer who dare to print my book. I searched from Penang to Seremban and in the end, managed to find one.

Q: How and where do you get your ideas?

A: The way I get my ideas is different from others. The first step is to collect information from every aspect, source and perspective. I will go to the internet, I will talk to the persons involved if I know them. If there are demonstrations or court cases, I will attend.

Second step, after collecting all these, I will make my stand.

Third, then I will find the joke. And this joke must be aligned with my stand. This is the most difficult part.

I have drawn cartoons about Mahathir, Badawi. But with Najib, there are more issues and I get more ideas. Especially his wife. (laughs) They are the ones who provide the ideas. They do funny things.

Q: How do you survive since your books are banned?

A: I can still sell my books through the internet, but it is hard to make money through that. I am broke and I have printing debts. All my staff has resigned, the 7 young cartoonists who worked with me.

But in life, there is always risk. If we don’t take risk, nothing happens.

The young cartoonists have gone freelance. But we will regroup when the right time comes.

As long as you want to fight, people will support you. From 3 October to till of the end year, I will be one of the Artists-in-Residence for the 2011 Art and Censorship programme to be held in Bilbao, Spain. So I believe if you work hard, you can get the support. You will not be rich, but you can survive.

Q: Any upcoming events to promote your books?

A: If you are in KL on 24 September, we will be M Corp Mall at PJ. We will be setting a stall to sell our books. It’s a Hari Raya thing, get together with some friends.


On 14 September, Najib Razak announced that his government will repeal the ISA and the Emergency Ordinance. He will also lift the licensing curbs on the media, including the Printing Presses and Publishing Act (1984), which was used against Zunar. I emailed Zunar for his reactions to these latest news. Below is his reply:

"It is just lip service and a PR exercise by PM Najib because the election is said to be middle of November this year.

a. ISA will be replaced with another law similar to Patriot Laws in the US, which allows the government to detain people without trial. Even though Najib says the laws are specifically for terrorists and not for the opposition, the government said the same thing when they introduced the ISA 60 years ago.

b. There is absolutely no media reform because the PM only mentioned there is "no need to review license" of publishing companies on an annual basis. But the government still has the right to cancel licenses if regulations are flouted. They also decide whether you can have a publishing license in the first place. It means that government still has an absolute power to deny any applications.

c. In his speech Najib did not touch on the fundamental issues for reform for Malaysia:

First, a need for free and fair elections. Second, corruptions. Third, racism. Fourth, judicial reform. There is also the issue of police brutality."

NB: Zunar just won the Hellman/Hammett Grant from the Human Rights Watch.

1 comment:

teo soh lung said...

Brave man. We certainly need talented cartoonists like Zunar. The world needs him. He will win more and more awards! Congratulations!