Malaysian cartoonist Zulkiflee SM Anwar Ulhaque was only 17 when his first cartoon was banned; he had criticised a teacher in his school magazine for what he saw as a failure in fulfilling her duty. He could not have realised it then, but the incident portended his future.
Zunar, as he is better known these days, is now 56 years old, and is Malaysia’s best-known—some would say only—political cartoonist, one who’s fiercely critical of people in power who fail to uphold their duties.
Sitting in his office in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, Zunar’s light-hearted speech and gentle demeanour belie the firebrand activist persona he’s known for. Easily given to broad smiles, he breaks out in infectious peals of laughter when something particularly tickles him, such as when he gleefully opens a list of recent movie titles on his computer; he’s adapted each one into puns based on Malaysian politics. Among the ones that have made it into his comics are “Sapuman: Man of Steal” (“sapu” means “to sweep” and can also refer to stealing) and “Steal Wars: The Teruk One” (“teruk” means “terrible”).
“Laughter is the best protest for Malaysia,” he says. “People are scared of the government, of losing their jobs, their scholarships. If you tell them to join a demonstration, they don’t want to go. But if you say, come and laugh at our PM, they will. And of course, his wife as well, they laugh even more at her.”
“This is the way I approach people. And nobody can say anything because there’s no law against laughing. They can go against me, but they cannot stop you.”
A target of oppression
Zunar is not speaking hypothetically—his cartoons have led to repeated persecution from the Malaysian government. On top of numerous raids, seizures, and bans of his books, Zunar is currently facing trial for nine charges under the Sedition Act, which could see him imprisoned for more than 40 years. He has also been placed under a travel ban since 2016; he’s challenging this in court.
For the past two decades, Zunar has been a critic of Malaysia’s government, run by the Barisan Nasional coalition party since the country’s independence in 1957. While initially starting off in print media, his work really began making an impact with the rise of the Internet and social media, which enabled quick dissemination and easy sharing.
Bitingly satirical, Zunar’s cartoons push the boundaries in Malaysia
While five of his books have been banned, his cartoons remain widely shared online, often shared several thousand times on various social media platforms. His refusal to back down despite frequent attempts at censure by the government has also turned him into an icon of sorts, one of many prominent voices calling for a change in government.
Bitingly satirical, Zunar’s cartoons push the boundaries in Malaysia, where free speech is often limited by the government through various means, including keeping a tight leash on traditional media outlets and enacting laws to criminalise peaceful speech and assembly. He usually engages with current political issues, using a combination of broad caricatures and specific cues to create cartoons that are immediately recognisable to the Malaysian public. His cartoons are also known for being rich in detail, with clues and allusions to specific people or ongoing scandals placed within many of his panels.
Putting the spotlight on Najib and Rosmah
He has increasingly turned his pen on Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak and his wife Rosmah Mansor in recent years, focusing on what he sees as corruption and a failure of governance.
Since coming into power in 2009, Najib has had to contend with a surge of support for opposition parties, including his party’s losing of the two-third majority in parliament. An extremely close race in the 2013 elections renewed questions about his leadership.
Things came to a head in 2015 when news of the 1MDB corruption scandal broke in the Wall Street Journal. The newspaper alleged that MYR2.6 billion (USD700 million) had been diverted from 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a state investment fund, into Najib’s personal bank account. Najib has denied any misconduct, but investigations related to the scandal are being conducted by various authorities around the world, including the United States’ Department of Justice.
Najib’s government has also overseen a steady tightening of control, with dissidents being pressured into silence by, among others, the Sedition Act—a colonial-era piece of legislation that criminalises speech with “seditious tendency”, such as statements that create hatred or disaffection against the government, or incites hostility between Malaysia’s different races. Meanwhile, critics within his own party—including former deputy prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin—have been sacked and replaced with more amenable candidates.
For Zunar, 1MDB and stories that swirl around it—allegations of Najib and Rosmah’s lavish lifestyles, the luxury items purchased, connections with Hollywood—provided an opportunity to hone in on specific details and depict corruption in a way that’s easily understood by all levels of readers, particularly as Malaysia continues to grapple with an uncertain economy.
It’s notable that he skewers Rosmah almost as frequently as he does Najib, often positioning her as the one pulling the strings behind the scenes. Frequent jabs are also made at her supposed extravagant tastes, and her disconnect with the concerns of the common man.
He says, however, that he avoids getting personal, focusing instead on her role when it comes to politics.
“It is an open secret that she’s the one in control; this is what happened with Imelda Marcos. When I choose my subject, this is what I think. If it’s in their own home, we don’t mind. But not when it comes to the management of the country. And for a cartoonist, she is very cartoonable. She keeps saying what she wants, without thinking!”
Cartoons for all Malaysians
“I always want my cartoons to reach from the highest to the lowest of Malaysia, from A to Z,” Zunar says. “To do that, I need to understand what people want, what’s in their hearts. In terms of subject, object, presentation, visual language. I want everybody to understand, but I will never sacrifice my commentary, my thoughts, my stand.”
With an election looming in Malaysia this year, Zunar has increased his efforts, putting out a cartoon a day. His interests are not mainly commercial; instead, he sees his work as more of a public service. He offers his work copyright-free so they can be freely distributed.
“For me, my talent is not a gift, but a responsibility”
“[M]y cartoons are free of copyright until we have a regime change. For me, my talent is not a gift, but a responsibility,” he says.
Producing work that’s both humourous and accessible is no small feat: each cartoon takes between eight to 10 hours to create, and involves an extensive amount of reading and research To maintain this level of productivity, Zunar holds to a strict schedule: his day starts at 6am, and he draws till lunchtime at noon. After lunch, time is set aside for reading and research. He then gives himself a break by listening to music or watching television. Dinner is at 6pm, bedtime at 10pm. He admits he’s a creature of habit and doesn’t like complicating his life with activities that distract him.
“I don’t like numbers, I don’t like giving or asking for directions, I don’t like looking for parking spaces, I don’t like queuing up. These things bother me. Because my mind is working all the time, and these things interrupt me,” he says.
A born cartoonist
Born to a Malay-Muslim family in the state of Kedah in the northwest of Peninsular Malaysia, Zunar has been drawing cartoons since as far back as he can remember—his first published cartoon was at the age of 12, in a children’s magazine called Bambino.
“It’s something that came naturally. In school, I drew cartoons in my exercise books, on the school wall… and my teachers would become angry!”
Despite his natural talent, he recalls that cartooning was not viewed as a viable career choice: “I never studied art. In fact, until university, I took science. Parents in the 1970s, if you tell them you want to study art and become a cartoonist, they will say, how are you going to make a living?”
Entirely self-taught, he cites American editorial cartoonists as a defining inspiration, particularly Thomas Nast, who’s often considered the “Father of the American Cartoon”. Zunar recalls being so desperate to learn more about editorial cartooning that he stole a copy of Time magazine while in his early 20s.
“They had four pages of editorial cartoons! I couldn’t afford the magazine at that time, so I had to steal it. I stole for good, I’d like to think,” he says.
He quit university after one year and took on various odd jobs before joining a hospital as a lab technician. By then, he had a regular cartoon column with Gila-Gila, a humour magazine geared towards teenagers. He decided to take the plunge to become a full-time cartoonist around 1986, but felt that something was lacking.
“Even back when I was 17, I had started thinking that cartoons aren’t just simple jokes”
“Even back when I was 17, I had started thinking that cartoons aren’t just simple jokes. We need to put our mind, a message into it. When I joined Gila-Gila full time, I tried to do this, but the audience was not right,” he says.
Wanting to focus on political cartooning, Zunar joined the Berita Harian newspaper in the early 1990s, where he had a regular column. He had his first real taste of controversy in 1992 when one of his cartoons—a commentary on the frequency of crashes by Nuri helicopters—earned the ire of the Ministry of Defence. He was suspended from his job for a week.
Zunar stayed on at Berita Harian for about four more years but left in 1996 dejected by the censorship his work faced within the organisation. But Malaysia’s tightly controlled media landscape meant that the situation was no different elsewhere. After failing to publish in other Malaysian newspapers, Zunar decided to stop cartooning, taking on freelance work such as illustrating or teaching for the next two years to make a living.
Zunar’s turning point came almost at the same time as Malaysia’s: during the Reformasi movement of 1998. When then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad sacked and eventually jailed his deputy Anwar Ibrahim, a huge national movement against the Barisan Nasional government was sparked, leading to a wave of demonstrations and rallies. (Anwar has since gone on to become one of the leaders of the opposition coalition, now known as Pakatan Harapan.)
“I got the freedom to do what I wanted to do, and that can bring out the best in you”
As an expression of solidarity, Zunar began printing and distributing his cartoons at rallies held outside Anwar’s home and the courthouse. Encouraged by a friend, Zunar submitted some of his work to Harakah, a newspaper published by the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, which was enjoying a surge of popularity as an alternative to mainstream media outlets. Zunar began publishing his cartoons regularly in Harakah from 1999 onwards.
“People started talking about me, I didn’t expect that. I started hearing people say, ‘Eh, what did Zunar say today?’ This is what an artist needs,” he says. “Maybe before that, I was at the wrong time, wrong place. But now, it was like I found the last missing piece of my puzzle. I got the freedom to do what I wanted to do, and that can bring out the best in you.”
More opportunities followed as Zunar’s popularity grew, including the publication of a series of books and a stint at online alternative news portal Malaysiakini. It was also around that time that run-ins with the authorities became more frequent, including seizure of his books and the raiding of printers who published his work.
Zunar has since been honoured with, among others, the Human Rights Watch Hellman/Hammett Award, the International Press Freedom Award, and the Cartooning for Peace Award. Late last year, the United Nations also requested that all sedition charges against Zunar be dropped and the travel ban lifted, but the Malaysian government has remained unmoved thus far.
“I don’t want to think about these charges now,” says Zunar. “What is the biggest enemy of the artist? It’s not the government or the law, it’s self-censorship. And I want to avoid this by not thinking about what happens next; I want to concentrate on what I’ve got to do.”
For now, that’s got to do with the upcoming general election, which has been surrounded by no small amount of drama in the last few months—most controversially, Pakatan Harapan has aligned itself with the 92-year-old Mahathir, selecting him as their prime ministerial candidate in a bid to oust Najib. To those who hold Mahathir responsible for shaping Barisan Nasional into what it has become today, this is a difficult turn of events.
When asked his thoughts on the opposition’s decision, Zunar—who has been pointed in his criticism of Mahathir—immediately grabs a sheet of paper and pen. He rapidly sketches out a football field with uneven goalposts; a representation of how Barisan Nasional plays politics.
“I support Pakatan Harapan one hundred percent,” he says. “Because our election is not about changing a government, it’s about changing a regime. Reform is what I want. I am only one part of this movement. We need writers, artists, activists, to all move in the same direction. We need a political party. And this is not about the individual. Whoever who moves in this direction now, I will accept them. Even if it is Mahathir.”
“We need numbers now. All our institutions are gone. There’s corruption. Our education system is failing. And nothing can be done. For changing the regime for a better Malaysia, I take this stand.”
But what does the ideal Malaysia look like? His answer is immediate.
“Five important institutions much be overhauled: the judiciary, the police, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, the attorney-general’s office, and the media. They must be professional and go through Parliament, not the PM. If you do that, it will create public monitoring. Then we can create a good government.”
His job as a cartoonist in Malaysia, he asserts, is unlike those in Europe or the United States. “There, their job is to criticise the government of the day. But here, we want to change a regime. So when Pakatan Harapan comes into power, I will become a cartoonist who criticises the government of the day.”
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Sharmilla Ganesan is a radio producer/presenter, features journalist, and culture writer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She has previously written for The Star (Malaysia), The Atlantic, South China Morning Post, and ArtsEquator.