Catching up with Zunar – fighting through cartoons

Zunar 04By Ghui

Zunar, celebrated cartoonist and Malaysia’s Enfant Terrible was in London recently and I had the opportunity to speak to the man about his cartoons, his aspirations and what motivates him.

As a political cartoonist, Zunar has no doubt been successful. He has published numerous books, been commissioned by the Washington Post, and had exhibitions in the United States, Sweden and the United Kingdom. His latest cartoon book has even been accepted into the Congress Library’s Collection in Washington, DC.

So popular is he that he has gotten flak from the establishment. Zunar’s books have been banned, he has been detained, charged with sedition, and had his office raided numerous times.

Zunar, whose cartoons often seek to highlight the political blunders and corruption within Malaysia’s corridors of power, isn’t really that controversial a figure. What is controversial is a system that has left corruption unchecked but yet, it is somehow Zunar that is the target. A case of shooting the messenger?

Across, the causeway, Singapore has its fair share of political commentators, such as Alex Au, Roy Ngerng and Mr Brown who have all sparked the ire of the ruling classes. Our very own cartoonist, Leslie Chew, has also been arrested for sedition for two cartoon strips.

In democratic nations, it is the responsibility of all citizens to be concerned about the policies in their countries. They have a stake and should have the right to question the government that they have elected. This ensures accountability.

Issues that affect the people should be freely highlighted. This is especially so in the age of the Internet where we have the means to be better engaged and informed.

Zunar 03Clamping down on individuals who have managed to amass a large following simply for pointing out various issues and asking inconvenient questions is at best a massive “sense of humour fail” and at worse seen as the establishment “trying to hide something”. None of these scenarios boost the establishment’s reputation and it is a paradox that they still persist.

Zunar’s battle cry “To Fight through Cartoon” is as profound as it is catchy. He firmly believes that everyone has a duty to fight against cronyism, corruption and nepotism – traits he believes plague the current government of Malaysia, which has incidentally been in power for over 57 years. He believes that any party that has held on to power for too long is bound to abuse its power. It becomes too easy and it is only human nature.

“We fight with whatever we have,” he believes. Being blessed with creative talents, Zunar could have chosen an easier and more lucrative route. But he believes that he is accountable to God for his talents and wants to use what he is blessed with to educate the people of Malaysia and help them achieve a better life.

Cartoons have far more impact on the masses than articles and blogs. While the latter are equally important, cartoons are able to deliver an effective message that is also short and sweet. Cartoons are also more accessible to those who may not have the time or interest to follow political blogs and the like.

So while Zunar’s humourous cartoons, many of which are inspired by Malaysia’s divisive “first lady”, Rosmah Mansor (so much so that his new book will be dedicated to her), he spends much more time composing the message behind the cartoon than drawing the cartoon itself.

A cartoon takes him about two hours to draw but the message behind it may take up to two days to conceptualise. He will not produce a cartoon that does not have a message – in his own words, “the message is more important than the cartoon”.

Across the Johor Straits in Singapore, while our political situation is very different from Malaysia’s, we cannot be complacent. Being engaged, being concerned and interested in the issues that affect Singapore must continue.

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