Zunar speaks about his passion for art and for political reforms.
KUALA LUMPUR: His passion for art and comics has led him down many dangerous paths, but Zunar the cartoonist is not about to give up anytime soon.
The cartoons he draws today are controversial and he is even considered a national threat by the government of the day.
Speaking to FMT in his office in Pudu, Zunar said cartoons and other forms of art had always been an all-consuming passion with him. When he was a boy, he found himself willing even to commit a crime to get his hands on a magazine with political cartoons in it.
When he came into adulthood, he did try for a more settled life. At one time, he even took on a government job. However, he soon realised that he could not stamp out his desire to draw, no matter how hard he tried.
Zunar, whose real name is Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, did not come from a wealthy family. He was raised in a small village in Kedah where getting hold of a comic book meant long trips into town.
Newspapers and magazines weren’t cheap, he says, especially for a boy whose interest in political cartoons meant having to buy international publications.
“Once, I stole a Time magazine because of two pages of political cartoons in it. I couldn’t afford to buy it.
“I also drew cartoons in school exercise books and on school walls. In fact, I was caned for that.
“And at one point, I didn’t have ink and couldn’t afford to buy it. So I used iodine. You could get it for free from mobile clinics then.”
Zunar is 54 years old now and has been churning out cartoons for decades. His first was published in a children’s magazine when he was only 12, an impressive feat for someone without any formal education in art.
In school, he was placed in the science stream. That decision was made for him by his late parents and he objected at first. But he now says that learning science subjects made him more knowledgeable and gave him more material for his cartoons.
“I wanted to be a scientist then, actually,” said Zunar, laughing as he recalled his school days.
“My late parents said I had no future being a cartoonist. but with science, I could be a doctor or a scientist. Of course back then every parent said that.
“If I can meet the 12-year-old me, I would tell him to go ahead with the science stream. It has helped me a lot. I can put the Darwinian theory and physics theories in my cartoons. Art you can learn later.”
Although he has been prolific since his childhood, Zunar became a professional cartoonist only in 1985. Before that, he worked as a laboratory technician in a government hospital. While the job guaranteed him a stable and secure future, his heart wasn’t in it and his hands kept itching for pen and paper.
So he juggled two jobs for a while, working in a lab coat during the day and drawing comics at night, contributing to Gila Gila, which used to be a popular comic magazine.
Before long he came to the unpleasant realisation that art and scientific logic did not always complement each other. He found that the more he got in touch with his artistic side, the more he struggled with his mathematical abilities.
“I could no longer count properly and this was dangerous for the patients,” he said. “So I had to decide which way to go. I knew I couldn’t have both.”
He chose to follow his passion and went all out with cartooning to eventually become the cartoonist the whole world is paying attention to.
Zunar had his work banned for the first time when he was 17, when he served as editor and cartoonist for his school magazine.
“It was banned because I criticised a teacher,” he said.
A decade later, he began drawing political cartoons to express his objections to practises or policies he disagreed with.
“I became interested in politics in the early 80s. I went to forums. I sent letters to editors. But then I thought that I should use cartoons to do all these.
“That was how it started. If I wanted to say something, I used my cartoons to say it.
“But I didn’t expect to be arrested. I thought, of course, some people wouldn’t be happy with my cartoons, but not to the point of arresting me.”
Change of style
Zunar had been featuring political figures in his cartoons for some time before the 2013 general election, but it was only after that election that he decided on a change of style that would provoke his readers to think about the effect of bad policies and bad governance.
“I sat down and thought I hadn’t been doing enough to create awareness among the public. That’s why I changed my style.”
Merely making fun of a politician might grab readers’ attention but would often leave them wondering what the cartoon had to do with them, he said.
“To create more impact, you have to make the message resonate with them, such as showing them that they are the ones paying the price when leaders are corrupt.
“So I try to understand what the people want, what makes them angry, what touches their heart. This will provoke them and make them react.”
Despite making national and international headlines with cartoons that often call for total institutional reforms, Zunar does not consider himself an activist.
He calls himself a “creativist” instead.
He says he has taken it upon himself to work towards making Malaysia a better country for all citizens. To him, this means pushing Barisan Nasional out of power.
“Some people say that I, as an artist, should be neutral. But I tell them ‘no’. We have to make our stand clear. Being neutral is just a form of escapism. Even my pen has a stand. How can I not?
“If I’m standing at a bus stop, with a lady beside me and a mat rempit comes and snatches her handbag, can I sit still and be neutral? Of course not. I have to help the lady even though there are risks in doing so.”
With his popularity with Malaysians at an all time high, and the international community cheering him on, some may assume that Zunar would someday take on the role of politician.
He was offered the role once but turned it down, saying it was never part of his dream.
“I don’t want to join politics. I’m not a politician. Let me draw cartoons as this is what I know. Many people can be politicians. So let politicians be politicians.
“I know what I’m doing is not enough. But I’m still looking for the right formula to make cartoons more than enough to bring reforms.”
One would think that such a committed fighter for decent politics would be quite a reader of books, but Zunar admits that he hates reading. If anyone wanted to take him out for a date, he said, it had better be to the movies rather than a bookshop.
“When I was in school – in Standard Five, I think – I won a competition for directing a stage show. The prize was a novel called Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan.
“I didn’t read the book, not even a single page, until the year 2000. I read it only because I had to attend a programme where I had to speak to the author. I read it so I would have something to say about it.”
To those interested in catching a movie with Zunar, he is more of a romantic comedy fan than one who likes horror or action movies.