When cartooning is a crime
While elsewhere in the world cartoons, including political cartoons, are often seen as light-hearted deflections from the news, the Malaysian government seems to think otherwise.
I’ve been charged under the Sedition Act, a piece of old colonial legislation which was and continues to be used to silence dissent as well as suppress free speech, a constitutional guarantee that is now subject to its political masters’ whims and wants. A guarantee is no longer a guarantee when it becomes conditional.
This legislation was used by the British administration to suppress threats to its power; threats that have long since diminished since Malaysia became independent in 1957. The ruling Barisan Nasional (BN, National Front) party’s stronghold on power for almost 58 years makes it the longest-ruling power in the democratic world and a living, breathing contradiction. This makes the BN more of a regime than a people-mandated government.
The job of the political cartoonist is to criticize the government and hold it accountable for what it does or doesn’t do while helping to shape public opinion, including broaching topics like the introduction of suppressive laws, including the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) which backpedals on the BN’s election promises, the government-backed 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB)’s mounting debts, as well as the murder of Mongolian national Altantuya Shariibuu. Malaysians want answers to all these questions and yet our demands for answers are often met with harassment, interrogations and arrests.
Those in power have a strange love-hate relationship with cartoons: it feeds their egos as it puts them under the spotlight and perhaps sometimes tickles them, while also managing to make them appear foolish and incompetent and putting forward ideas that might damage the public’s perception of them. But if a government does a good job, what does it have to fear?
A simpler reason that cartoons are so powerful is because they are universal and easy to understand, especially for those living in the kampung (rural) areas of Malaysia where internet access and literacy might be issues. It appeals to people’s senses and emotions. So impactful are my political cartoons that the government feels a need to threaten and silence me – in this case the old cliché does ring true: a picture does paint a thousand words.
Most people are afraid of confronting the government, preferring a life of convenience while abetting its corruption through compliance or inaction – I can understand that fear, but if no-one stands up to this oppression, we will forever be disenfranchised, regardless of what our constitutional rights might be. My cartoons are a voice for the Malaysian people and a driving force for change – why pinch when you can punch?
My talent isn’t just a gift, it’s a responsibility. We artists, including cartoonists, need to overcome self-censorship and do what’s right according to our principles. How can I be neutral: even my pen has a stand! I will keep drawing until the last drop of my ink.
For the government to determine which cartoons are or aren’t seditious means the passing of subjective judgment when it is artists and editors who should determine what does or doesn’t get censored, not the government. Sentiment and perspective are subjective matters too. However, if my cartoons have raised awareness and have exposed the wrongdoings of this regime to Malaysians and the rest of the world while empowering people to laugh at them, then I know I have done a good job.
There are many ways to protest, but laughter is the best form of doing so.
Zulkiflee Anwar Haque, better known as Zunar to Malaysians, is a cartoonist who has been drawing editorial cartoons for over 20 years. Seven of his books are banned by the Malaysian government and he was charged with 9 counts of sedition for tweets posted following a controversial court ruling sentencing opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to jail. If convicted, Zunar faces 43 years in prison. zunar.my
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