Interviews

When they throw the book at him, he throws it back

It’s the height of the election campaign season in Malaysia, and Zulkiflee Anwar Haque — better known as Zunar — is busier than ever. The government of Najib Razak has been trying for years to neutralise the cartoonist, but the attacks seem to have only made him stronger and more committed.

He has embarked on a daily, multimedia assault on the government, convinced that his beloved country is in crisis and that it’s his responsibility to use his talent for the wider good.

No Malaysian newspaper will give him space, but his cartoons appear on his website, social media, the independent news site Malaysiakini and his books. He also converts his cartoons to animated gifs to appeal to the young.

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The ruling party's logo...

BN logo cartoon

... transformed into a reminder of the elite's excesses

Zunar

Several of Zunar's books have been banned.

He has become an icon of resistance, which only adds to his sense of responsibility. If he gave in to the pressure, other Malaysians would get demoralised, he believes.

Zunar’s full frontal assault on the Barisan Nasional ruling alliance is a high-risk gambit. He knows that if BN is returned to power – which most sober analysts expect – it would eventually get round to punishing him. But he tries to put that out of his mind. “The worst kind of censorship is not government censorship but self-censorship,” he says.

He has an unerring ability to make the government’s attacks backfire. For example, when a police chief suggested that Zunar would be better off drawing cartoons like Mickey Mouse, the cartoonist promptly depicted Najib and his powerful wife as Disney characters.

Here’s what Zunar says about why he keeps doing what he does, despite the risk:

But why does the government keep going after him when it’s clear that their actions only increase his fame? Here’s what he thinks:

 

Postscript


21 September 2018: Zunar at the American Association for Editorial Cartoonists Annual Convention in Sacramento, California. Introduced by Patrick Chappatte.

 

Cherian George. This is an extract of an interview conducted in Kuala Lumpur in May 2018 for a book project with Sonny Liew, Drawing Fire.