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Life as seen through the eyes of a cartoonist

 | March 9, 2012

Malaysia's first and only political cartoonist is still able to make a joke and make his stand at the same time.

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Last year, Malaysia’s cartoonist Zunar, whose full name is Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, filed a civil suit against the police and the government over his “unlawful detention”. On Feb 28, he was told that the trial has been postponed to April 5 and 6.

In a recent interview, he told of his long years in the political wilderness, when he was disappointed by the censorship of his cartoons and frustrated by being told what he could and could not draw. He said that he almost threw down his pen.

Now, Malaysians can rejoice because his 12-year hiatus is over, and we can again enjoy his satirical outlook on Malaysian politics.

“Give him a pen and paper, and he can create magic. Give him a screwdriver, and he probably would not know what to do with it.”

These were my observations as I helped Zunar, Malaysia’s first and only political cartoonist, set up his exhibition at the Free Word Gallery in Farringdon, London, over two weeks ago. Over 80 prints had to be framed and hung.

Zunar’s earliest memories of an interest in drawing stem from when he was seven years old.

“I cannot keep still. I must keep drawing.”

Even as we speak, he is busy doodling and sketching on pieces of paper.

In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the educational emphasis was on “sains dan teknologi”. Parents and teachers urged children to take up these subjects. There was very little encouragement for young children to take up creative arts like drawing, literature or music.

In the Zunar household, no one stopped him from drawing and his sketches were tolerated. At school, he would get into trouble for drawing graffiti on the walls. His punishment was to stay after school to wash the walls.

If drawing was responsible for getting him into conflict with his parents and teachers, it was also drawing which helped elevate him to celebrity status. At the tender age of 12, he won a cartoon competition in the newcomers’ section in the children’s magazine called “Bambino”.

The reward was to have his cartoon published in the magazine and to be given a free copy of that particular edition. The inhabitants of Kampung Durian, Sungei Tiang, Kedah, were proud to have a published cartoonist in their midst, while the students at school hero-worshipped him. From then on, everyone looked on Zunar’s artistry with awe. Little did he realise then, that his future was to become Malaysia’s foremost political cartoonist.

“I prefer to think rather than to read,” says Zunar. “A cartoon has to be composed. If I do not have a specific idea, then I will compose it in my mind first.”

He recalls his time as a teenager when he had to concentrate on his studies and drawing took a back seat. “I just drew strip cartoons and shared them with friends at school.”

Heavy political censorship

Later on, armed with a scrapbook of cartoons, the teenage Zunar would approach various magazines and draw for Gila-Gila and other local publications.

Zunar’s role model or guru was Rejabhab, who then offered him a column at Berita Harian. This satirical column, called Papa, was about a beggar and his son.

By this time, he had moved to Kuala Lumpur where he had his political awakening, and became critical of society, the treatment of the poor, and the gap between the poor and the rich. His social observations helped shape his political views which he then translated into cartoons.

When Lat took sabbatical leave from the New Straits Times, Zunar was asked to replace him. Soon, he became frustrated with being told what to draw, and contemplated retiring from drawing cartoons because he could not “give off his best”.

Zunar described the heavy political censorship in the 1980s and said he was unable to draw political and satirical cartoons. From 1986 to 1998, he hit at an all-time low and decided that there was no future in cartooning in Malaysia. He gave up drawing cartoons but continued doing illustrations for school books and teaching children in “Balai Seni Lukis” (art gallery) classes.

His advice to any would-be political cartoonist was to equip themselves with knowledge. He says, “Talent and technique are not the only important things. You must have knowledge.”

“Some people make the mistake of learning too much about several cartoonists. You become the expert in technique but it means nothing if you lack general knowledge. The cartoonist must keep ahead of the readers. You must keep abreast of the news.

“These days, one can make a good living as a cartoonist. But it’s not just about drawing. It is also about social responsibility. We have social obligations to fulfil.

“You cannot find any university courses about talent. You are born with the talent to draw. Your talent is god’s gift.

“As a cartoonist you have followers. But you cannot forget your social responsibilities. With poverty for instance, there is a big gap between the poor and rich. As a cartoonist, you must stand up and play your part to highlight this. You cannot simply keep quiet or do nothing.”

During the Reformasi era of the late 1990s, Zunar underwent another political awakening and approached Harakah to ask if he could have a cartoon column in the paper. At the time, the country was rocked by the Sodomy I trials. Malaysia’s former deputy prime minister and finance minster had been accused of sodomy. The nation was disgusted with the scenes of soiled mattresses being carried into court.

‘Why pinch when you can punch?’

Zunar’s first entry in Harakah was a depiction of the Tivoli Vilas, where the sodomy was alleged to have occurred, being transported to court in a shipping container. The readers responded positively to his depiction of the farce being played out in court.

A few months later, Zunar’s lead drawing of former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad as a kangaroo carrying his cronies in his pouch was featured on the front cover of Harakah.

When asked what gave him satisfaction in his work, he said, “It is not the money. I am happy when readers know what I am trying to convey. I like it when people respect my work. Being consistent, sharp and funny are most important. When people like my cartoons, this means they can read my mind. They get the message. That gives me great satisfaction.”

“I am not a politician but I like politics. The more simple the cartoon, the better it is. I want people to focus, because the subject is more important.

“If there is a particular issue like corruption for instance, I must be able to make a joke and make my stand at the same time.”

Despite a government ban on seven of his books, Zunar is internationally renowned and has been honoured with the “Courage in Editorial Cartooning” award presented by the Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI) body, from the US, the Human Rights Watch Hellman/Hammett Award for 2011 and last year, he served as the Artist-in-Residence at the BilbaoArte/Fundacion and Bilbao Bizkaia Kutxa (BBK) in Spain.

He says his motto is, “Why pinch when you can punch?”

Mariam Mokhtar is a FTM columnist


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