Malaysian political cartoonist Zunar’s work are simultaneously simple and complex. The former fulfils a vital aim: to be easily understandable and relevant to all levels of Malaysian society. Yet, a closer examination of his work reveals many layers of meaning and symbolism.

These symbols situate the subject of any specific cartoon within a larger narrative on Malaysian politics. Certain objects or symbols, repeated across many cartoons, can also be a reminder of ongoing or unresolved scandals.

While relatively obscure to those unfamiliar with the day-to-day political happenings in Malaysia, Zunar’s visual language connects easily with the local audience, who recognise these allusions. His emphasis on images rather than long sentences, and the ability to use both English and Malay in his work, further increases its accessibility.

Credit: Zunar

Zunar is also fond of abbreviations and acronyms, which both serve to make his cartoons easily readable and add to the humour. These abbreviations can often end up being a part of the larger punchline: for example, Rosmah is usually referred to as “Mah”, which lends itself well to punning, such as in one cartoon where he dubs her “Wonder Womah”.

Credit: Zunar

Among the more common acronyms that pop up in Zunar’s panels is WCM, which accompanies a character usually depicted with a gaping mouth or biting onto something. WCM stands for “Wa Cari Makan (I’m making a living)”, and the character symbolises a bureaucrat that’s more interested in feeding off the system than truly serving the public. Zunar began using the character in November 2015, when Public Accounts Committee chairperson Hasan Arifin responded jokingly to questions on whether Najib would be investigated for the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal by saying “Saya pun cari makan. (I am also trying to make a living).”

Since the breaking of the 1MDB scandal in 2015, when it was alleged that MYR2.6 billion (USD700 million) had been diverted from a state investment fund into Najib’s personal bank account, the acronym 1MDB and the number 2.6 often appear in various forms in Zunar’s cartoons.

Credit: Zunar

Similarly, specific elements are continuously used in the background of Zunar’s cartoons, often without a direct link to the main subject. One of the most popular is the small drawing of a policeman armed with a mobile phone, accompanied by the words “twit twit”. It’s a send-up of former Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar, who had a penchant for monitoring Twitter and even issued instructions via the social media platform. Zunar’s arrest in 2015, in fact, was ordered via Twitter. Since his release, Zunar has made a point of including this figure in his cartoons every day, until Khalid resigned in September 2017.

Yet another recurring motif is a diamond ring, sometimes with the word “cincin”, meaning “ring”. Zunar first began including it in 2011, following allegations that Rosmah had bought a diamond ring valued at MYR73 million. Even if Rosmah isn’t actually featured in a cartoon, depictions of Najib are always accompanied with the ring somewhere in frame—a reminder both of Rosmah’s unseen hand and a critique of her lavish spending.

Credit: Zunar

In 2015, Zunar added another element to his depictions of Rosmah: a price tag of MYR1,200 on her head. This was in reference to her apparently commiserating with other housewives at a public event by complaining that it cost MYR1,200 to dye her hair. Widely mocked as an example of her insensitivity to the general public, Zunar seized on the incident as another way to depict her excesses.

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Sharmilla Ganesan

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.