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Cartooning in Malaysia: A tragicomedy

 | June 29, 2012

Instead of demanding for the restoration of their right to freedom of expression, these professionals are allowing themselves to be used as a propaganda tool by Najib.

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The latest group of professionals to fall prey to Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s charm offensive are the cartoonists. If this thought is not depressing enough, Umno appears to have politicised everything from hawkers to households, and car tyres to cartoons.

The event ‘You, PM and Cartoons: Cartoon and Animation Exhibition 2012’ had been billed as the largest gathering of cartoonists and animators, but conspicuous by his absence was Malaysia’s greatest and most well-known political cartoonist, Zunar (photo).

In the past few months, Najib has preyed on Felda settlers, petty traders and taxi drivers. He has rained goodies on them, given them cash handouts and made promises, which he probably does not intend to keep.

Last weekend, the Central Market played host to cartoonists and animation artists in the cartoon and animation exhibition. It was a joint effort by the Konsortium Cartoonist at Work (CAW) and Kelab Putera 1Malaysia (KP1M). Posters and banners for the event included the ‘1Malaysia’ logo.

Umno Youth Exco, Sohaimi Shahadan and president Kelab Putera 1Malaysia, Abdul Azeez Abdul Rahim are believed to be the two main people behind the scenes. Sohaimi is alleged to have instigated the cow-head scandal in front of the Selangor State secretariat, he was behind the harassment of Ambiga after Bersih 3.0 and he is also implicated in the IMPad scandal.

Observers have asked why the cartoonists are allowing themselves to be used as a propaganda tool by Najib. They appear to be seduced by awards, inclusion in the Malaysia Book of Records and offers of cash, when they should instead, demand that their rights and freedom of expression are restored.

Abdul Azeez claimed that the event was to acknowledge the work of cartoon and animation artists. “Not many people realise that cartoonists and animators play a very important role in the entertainment we enjoy every day.”

Awards and prize money

It was reported that the event had scored a milestone in the Malaysia Book of Records as the largest gathering of cartoonists and animators. This was disputed by various people who allege that of the 356 supposed cartoonists, only 50 were actual cartoonists whereas the rest were those who had just signed up to participate in the event.

Najib praised the work of cartoonists and presented awards and prize money to them, because they ‘helped strengthen racial unity’, but he said that “provocative and inciteful work, which could lead to disunity and discord must be avoided”.

Around RM300,000 had been allocated via KP1M, for the formation of Yayasan Kartunis 1Malaysia; however, the details of this organisation are unspecified.

He said, “Cartoonists and animators have an important role in development and progress. Humour in the jokes must insert messages on solidarity, cooperation, tolerance and togetherness to uphold the 1Malaysia philosophy,” and he urged them to “translate and communicate all government policies in a light and relaxed way easily understood by society”.

Najib has taken the unprecedented step of banning the use of caricatures in the forthcoming GE-13. Zunar’s depiction of corruption, excesses by the self-styled “First Lady” Rosmah Mansor, the murder of Mongolian model Altantuya, the Scorpene scandal and the corruption of the judiciary, make stimulating reading.

Sources close to Zunar said: “He refuses to be a part of this programme because it is a political programme, not a cartooning programme. He feels that cartoonists are being used by political leaders for their own agendas.

“The exhibition is not organised by the Cartoonist Association, but an association headed by two Umno leaders – Abdul Azeez Abdul Rahim (Kelab Putra Umno) and Suhaimi Shadan (Umno Youth’s Economic Bureau Chief).”

Beholden to Umno

When contacted, Zunar confirmed that he objects to being made a propaganda tool and has rejected the award and prize money.

Zunar, whose cartoons have courted controversy, says “Lift the ban on my books, drop the charges against me, stop the threats against my vendors and printers. If you present me with an award and prize money of RM10,000 but still enforce the ban on freedom of expression, then what is the point of the award?”

He criticised the selection procedure whereby politicians decide who receives the awards. He said that it would have been more appropriate to have a selection committee of lecturers in the cartooning field, other cartoonists and writers in the creative world.

Awards were given to 10 other cartoonists and animators including Mior Sariman Mior Hassan for the Revolutionary Cartoons category, Jaafar Taib (Cartoonist with dedication); Hassan Abd Muthalib (Father of Malaysian Animations); Lim Kok Wing (for Innovative Artwork) and Reggie Lee (Community Cartoonist).

Zunar claimed that with the award and prize money as sweeteners, cartoonists are beholden to Umno and will refrain from criticising the government: “Why do the cartoonists not demand their rights and the freedom of expression?

“Does this mean that by binding the cartoonists’ hands and feet with law and rules, he can gain support from the cartoonists? Cartoons should be encouraged to flourish so they can evolve and thrive with freedom to create. It must not to be used to support government policies”.

Zunar said that the PM should learn to accept humour as positive criticism of his policies and work. He described ‘1Malaysia as a symbol of corruption and said that Najib has detained cartoonists who are critical, banned their books and restricted their freedom, using acts such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act and the Sedition Act.

Zunar said: “My award would have been Kartunis Berminda Kritis – The Critical Cartoonist. I disagree, because everyone should learn to be critical. Are they trying to say that others do not know how to be critical? Why can’t the authorities acknowledge the content of my cartoons?”

He condemns the way Umno believes that a trophy, prize money, a photograph with Najib and a listing in the Malaysia Book of Records, are sufficient to placate Malaysians.

Zunar said: “What is more fitting than an award is to give cartoonists their rights and restore the freedom to be creative.”

Mariam Mokhtar is a FMT contributor


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