Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – Zulkiflee Sm Anwar Ulhaque, better known by his pen name of Zunar, is one of Malaysia’s most acerbic and controversial cartoonists, picking apart the government in a country where deference to those in power has long been the norm.
Born in the northern state of Kedah, Zunar found his calling as an artist during the Asian financial crisis when Malaysia was plunged into recession and then-deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim was sacked and jailed on charges of corruption and sodomy.
Publishing in the opposition party newspaper Harakah as well as the online publication Malaysiakini, Zunar was inspired by the work of Thomas Nast on elections and campaigns in the 19th century. He now shares cartoons almost daily on Twitter.
Twice detained under the colonial-era Sedition Act and his latest book seized, Zunar is accused of producing cartoons that are detrimental to public order.
Zunar was formally charged this month with nine counts of sedition. He faces as many as 43 years in prison if found guilty. Out on bail ahead of the trial, he spoke to Al Jazeera about why he continues to draw.
Al Jazeera: You seem to have attracted more sedition charges than anyone else in Malaysia. Why do you carry on cartooning?
Zunar: For me talent is not a gift, it’s a responsibility. In facing a crisis you need to make a stand. You can’t keep quiet or try to be neutral, if neutral means you support an oppressive government.
Malaysia has been governed by the same political party for more than 58 years and people are getting restless.
I am a cartoonist. I use cartoons to push for reform. It’s a duty for me to do that. People say, ‘Why don’t you stop?’ Stop is a choice. Continuing is a choice. But this is not a choice. This is a duty. As an artist, I really think that’s important. The talent is God-sent. The talent is not mine. It is God’s gift and it comes with responsibility.
Zunar: Some might back off because of fear, we understand that. But there are always others.
The government can catch as many people as they want, but there are always others who will come because in their hearts they’re still not satisfied. The issues haven’t been resolved. Until the government really resolves the fundamental issues facing Malaysia, the retaliation of the people will go on. It won’t stop.
Al Jazeera: But they have introduced some reforms…
Zunar: There is some lipstick. I’m talking about real transformation. You must get to the root of the cause. If someone has cancer you don’t give them a Panadol.
Al Jazeera: You worked – briefly – in the mainstream media in the 1980s and then, in your words, retired. Then the Asian financial crisis and Anwar Ibrahim’s removal came along. How crucial an event was that for you?
Zunar: It was a very important moment for me. It woke me up. I didn’t know Anwar, but for me, you cannot treat people like that.
As a political cartoonist, I said, ‘This is my subject.’ This was the day I was looking for. I started to send my cartoons to Harakah. I started to see a response from the public and people were talking about my cartoons.
I knew it was the right place for me. Harakah gave me the space to express myself. It was like the missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle. I felt very satisfied as an artist even though in monetary terms I was getting less compared with my time at Straits Times and Berita Harian.
But from Harakah, I still felt I needed to go to a different level. The only way was with the internet.
Al Jazeera: It’s hard to imagine now that there was a time before the internet. Do you think people appreciated back then just how important the internet would turn out to be?
Zunar: In Malaysia, Twitter and Facebook are not social media, they’re alternative media. People use it to exchange news and views. The growth is very fast because the situation of press freedom in Malaysia makes that happen. Whereas press freedom is going backwards, people are going forward.
The people’s mindset in this era is totally different than the ’70s and ’80s. They are more critical, more challenging and want to take part in debate. They want to talk about the issues.
Al Jazeera: Obviously here in the cities that’s the case, but you’re from the northern state of Kedah. It’s quite rural. Is social media so important there?
Zunar: We have younger and older generations, we have urban and rural, we have Malay, Chinese, and Indian – in Malaysia it’s always like that, those divides. But I think my cartoons can go beyond that. The older generation might not like to read but they like cartoons.
Al Jazeera: Do you think that’s what worries the government?
Zunar: Why is a cartoon so powerful? Because first of all, it carries a joke. Nowadays people really need a joke. Especially in Malaysia. In Malaysia, laughter is a type of protest. Secondly, cartoons give a quick message and they’re also universal. These are the advantages a cartoon has. It can cross all boundaries.
Al Jazeera: So how do you go about the process of deciding what to draw?
Zunar: It’s not an easy process. Usually something is in my mind. [Zunar sifts through some sheets of paper on his desk.] First I will decide the issue, get every piece of information I can – from the media, the person themselves, maybe from a protest or a rally and after that I make a stand. Only after that will I think about the joke. It’s not the other way around. The joke must be in line with my stand – it cannot contradict.
Al Jazeera: So it’s important for you to have all the facts, right?
Zunar: It’s like this, if I stand on the beach, I can see a ship on the surface, but I don’t want to just look at that. I want to dive in and see what’s beneath. You can understand more of the sea if you dive in.
Of course there’s a risk, but you will understand more. I always have a philosophy, I say why pinch when you can punch? If you do [it] from the surface you only pinch, you don’t punch.
Al Jazeera: There’s obviously a lot of focus on political cartooning now, following the attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Can cartoonists sometimes go too far?
Zunar: Let me ask a question, if the Prophet Muhammad were still alive would he have ordered the cartoonists to be killed?
He would not. Prophet Muhammad would never have told us to do that.
You have a right not to agree with the content of the cartoon. Me, as a Muslim, I also don’t agree. But cartoonists have a right to draw what they draw, but sentiment and perspective is very subjective.
I’m the small scale of Charlie Hebdo. I’m being attacked by the Malaysian government. If they don’t agree with my cartoon fine, but don’t use criminal law against me. If you say my cartoons are defamatory, you can sue me. But why use criminal law to put me behind bars before the trial?
When it comes to Charlie Hebdo, it’s also like that. You didn’t give them a chance to explain themselves, you just went and shot them. Deal with it in a civilised manner. If you don’t agree, you can rebut it. It’s just a cartoon. So what?