“Why Pinch if You Can Punch?” – Zunar Talks to MDI

Published: 18 November 2015

Country: Malaysia

By Giulia Dessi

ZunarZunar, the most famous cartoonist in Malaysia, is facing a maximum prison sentence of 43 years. Nine charges, under the British colonial-era Sedition Act, have been filed against him for nine tweets that he posted last February. In these tweets, considered seditious and detrimental to the public order, Zunar verbally slapped the judges of the cloudy trial against Anwar Ibrahim, opposition leader controversially convicted for sodomy in February.

After the ban on the sale of most of his books (the ban has been lifted on two of them earlier this month), several detentions, raids to his office in Kuala Lumpur, and the confiscation of hundred copies of his books and magazines, this trial is the ultimate attempt by the government to shut him up. With a surprising turn, however, Zunar’s lawyers have applied to the country’s high court to consider whether the Sedition Act is constitutional.

The Media Diversity Institute interviewed Zunar during his “Cartoon-O-Phobia London Tour”, before the official start of his trial, which included the launch of the exhibition of his work at the British Cartoon Museum in London.

What is pushing you to continue your work despite the consequences that you are facing? Aren’t you tempted of seeking asylum now that you are abroad?

Talent is not a gift; it is a responsibility. This is my philosophy. I want to use this opportunity to push for change. There are people in Malaysia who don’t like the government but are not brave enough to go to the street. If I escape my trial [by seeking asylum in another country], it would be good for me, but not for Malaysia. This is an opportunity for me to expose this government. If I don’t go [back to Malaysia to attend the trial], the government would be happy, but I don’t want this government to be happy. I never think of the years that I could actually spend in jail. If I did, I would stop fighting and would use self-censorship on my work. I need to keep being positive. It is true that I risk spending my next 43 years in jail but, who knows, maybe it will be our prime minister, and not me, to be sent to prison!

How do cartoons fight for justice? What is their power?

sedition_act_-_zunarI fight for a free Malaysia, free from a corrupted government. My philosophy is: “why pinch if you can punch?” In EU countries, generally, the role of cartoonist is to criticize the government, but in countries like Malaysia, you have to fight against the regime. Your cartoons cannot be light. You have to punch them [the government]. The power of cartoons lies first in the joke – and the laughter they provoke. Second in the immediacy of their visual impact – they’re quick to be registered in your mind. And, third, in the universality of the message – cartoons transcend race, age, and class. The cartoon should feel right to me and make a stand to give direction to people. It takes me about 10 hours to compose one. I do extensive homework. First, I need to collect clear information, as much as I can. It’s like being on a beach in the ocean. I need to go deep down to the sea in order to see things from the bottom. After this, I need to have an opinion – a statement or direction. And finally I need to find a way to make a joke, which must obey to my opinion.

What are your cartoons about? Do you ever mock religion or religious leaders?

My cartoons focus on two important issues in Malaysia: the corruption and the judiciary system. If you can change two things in the country, you have to change that. People are paying for corruption, and if you don’t have an independent judiciary? You corrupt. I expose it. This is my job. This is everybody’s job. I used to do cartoons on high politics before. More recently, I have started drawing cartoons about people or at least from people’s perspective. I want to tell people that they are paying for the corruption in Malaysia. I drag them into the cartoon so they can recognise themselves in the cartoons and they can see themselves the issue of corruption from their perspective. I have also taken out all the copyrights from my cartoons so that everyone can use them. I generally don’t draw cartoons about religion. At the end of October, I drew a cartoon on halal and haram, but it was to highlight corruption.

You said that cartoons play with exaggeration and have to be both funny and provoking. How can a cartoonist draw the line between being provocative and being offensive towards a person, or a group, or a religion?

I am against discrimination. All the citizens must have the same rights and some responsibilities, too. Cartoonists have artistic rights and, at the same time, moral responsibilities. Who decides? The cartoonist decides and the people too, by not buying the books or protesting against. On a legal level, there should be no line to draw, you should be free.