I STARTED drawing cartoons since my school days at Sekolah Kebangsaan Padang Durian, in Pendang, Kedah. My first cartoon was published in Bambino Magazine in 1973, when I was in Primary 5. Since then I continued to actively draw and my cartoons were published in magazines such as Anak Kijang and Pak Adil. There were no payments for these cartoons, but I would get free copies of the magazines with a note “Dengan ingatan tulus ikhlas dari…” (“With best compliments from…”). I was happy enough just to show the free magazines to the whole village.
While in secondary school years (I moved from schools in Sungai Tiang, Pendang and Jitra) I stopped drawing for a while. But there were some cartoons that I drew which I compiled for my own collection to be shown to friends at school. I also drew for the school magazine. As a matter of fact, controversies are nothing unusual to me. My first controversial cartoon was a work of satire in the school magazine in 1980, titled Tom Tombak, which was meant to criticize the school and the teachers. I was immediately summoned by the disciplinary board. I would like to take this opportunity to apologise to the teachers concerned.
In school, I was forbidden from pursuing arts because my parents wanted me to be enrolled in the science stream. To them, art could not guarantee a better future. I do not blame them because at that time, not many artists, especially cartoonists, could make a living. When I was young, I did not have a clear goal what I wanted to be. My life and career ran as is, without plan. In the 1980, I entered Universiti Teknologi Malaysia at Jalan Gurney to pursue Science Education, but I dropped out a year later. After failing to complete my course, I chose to stay in Kuala Lumpur and worked in factories and construction sites. At this time, I continued to draw cartoons which were published in Bintang Timur newspaper and in Kisah Cinta entertainment magazine. My first payment was RM4, in the form of a cheque.
On February 1st, 1980, my career moved to a new level when my cartoons were published in the Gila-Gila magazine through its Mekar di GG column, a column for new talents. In 1982, I got a job as a lab technician in the government. At this point in time, I became more active as my cartoons were frequently published in Gila-Gila and also in other magazines such as Gelihati, Kisah Cinta, Panorama, Salina, Bujal, Lagu-lagu Filem & TV and Bintang Timur. At that time, my work only focused on simple and plain jokes.
In Gila-Gila, I became close to the late cartoonist Rejabhad. He guided me a lot on the art of drawing cartoons and I regard him as my guru. I was given a permanent column called Gebang-Gebang in Gila-Gila, which was the starting point for my satirical and political cartoons. In addition to that, I drew on a daily basis for Harian Nasional newspaper with a character called Ali Bisnis but the newspaper did not last long and eventually folded.
In 1986, I resigned from government job and became a full time cartoonist. In Gila-Gila, I was given additional columns, Ofis Korner and Liza. I was lucky to be acquainted with famous cartoonists/illustrators such as Jaafar Taib, Azman Yusof, Zainal Buang Hussien, Don, Tazidi, Long, Kerengge, Reggie Lee, Ujang and others during my tenure there. I remember one commentator who said that my reputation in Gila-Gila was not as “hot” as the others, but only “warm”, in which I agree.
My political cartoons for Gila-Gila started through the newly-created column called Panaurama. After almost two years drawing Panaurama, I personally felt that this column lacked impact as most Gila-Gila readers were teenagers who were not interested in politics. I kept hoping to get a platform that was more suitable for political cartoons, like in the newspapers.
Later, I got what I wished for when Berita Harian agreed to publish my satirical cartoon strip called Papa. Papa is a beggar who lives in the heart of the city with his son Kedana. It was only in 1990 that I got a column for an editorial cartoon called Sendawara. It was during this time that my cartoon on the Nuri helicopter tragedy became controversial. At that time, 30-year old Nuri helicopters kept crashing. My cartoon showed a court scene where the judge said to the accused, “You are found guilty of murder. We hereby sentence you for a ride on a Nuri”.
The government was not happy. The editor was made to explain and apologise to the Ministry of Defence. I wish I have the copy of the cartoon in my keeping. In 1991, I resigned from Gila-Gila to work full time with Berita Harian. In Berita Harian, apart from drawing cartoons, I was also asked to do graphic, but this did not really suit me. I resigned six months later, but still contributed my cartoons to Berita Harian. During this period, when Lat took sabbatical leave from the New Straits Times, I was asked by the NST editor to fill-in for the famous cartoonist’s column.
I tried doing it but it also did not last long. One of the reasons was that I did not feel qualified to replace Lat. Lat and I are two different cartoonists.At the same time, I initiated the setting-up of the Cartoonist Association of Selangor and Wilayah Persekutuan (Pekartun) which appointed me as their secretary, Muliyadi Mahmood (now a professor in the UiTM) as the president and Lat as the patron. In 1993, I was chosen to represent Malaysia in the Asean cartoon exhibition in Shibuya, Tokyo.
After four years with Berita Harian, my cartoons failed to make the impact I wanted. Among other factors, it was due to the fact that my cartoons were often censored by the editor. As for me, I failed to find the right formula for my cartoons. My career was still uncertain. My work was also published by The Malay Mail, but it only lasted for a short while. At that time, I tried sending my cartoons to The Star, but they were rejected. I felt so lost and dejected. Something was amiss and I did not know what. At this point, I felt that there was no room and future for critical political cartoonists in Malaysia and I seemed to have “retired”.
I eventually left Berita Harian in 1996 and stopped drawing. At this time, I did all kinds of freelance work – illustrations, marketing, cartoon workshops, event management and script-writing for TV.
In September 1998, I had the urge to make a comeback when Anwar Ibrahim was sacked. As a human and a cartoonist, I felt it was my duty to fight the injustice and tyranny of Barisan Nasional (BN) under the regime of Dr Mahathir Mohamad. I decided to go back to my drawing board. At first, I made some copies of my cartoon and distributed for free at Anwar’s house (where ceramah, or rallies, were held every night before his arrest) and at the court.
One day a friend suggested that I should send my cartoons to Harakah, the party organ for PAS. I then drew some cartoons and I contacted the editor of Harakah, Zulkifli Sulong. I was lucky as Zulkifli knew my work. In February 1999, my political cartoons were published in Harakah. Unexpectedly, I received very good responses from readers. With Harakah, I was given the freedom to totally express myself. Harakah and I complemented each other. I finally found the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle. Although the payment that I received was much lower than the payment I got from the mainstream newspapers, but the satisfaction meant so much to me that nothing else mattered.
The appreciation that I got from readers were priceless. From one angle, I realised that this great honour came with a big responsibility. According to feedback from fans, they liked the way I drew the then prime minister’s face – with a hugely exaggerated nose. However, when I was in Harakah, a new controversy struck over a cartoon that compared the then PM’s nose to a pig’s snout. The message was that he was the one to blame for the SAR’s outbreak. I received a lot of criticism but I still defended this cartoon as it was my opinion.
Apart from Harakah, I also contributed cartoons to a newspaper, published by Ahmad Lutfi Othman. With Harakah, I managed to publish five cartoon collections: Dari Kerana Mata, Kroni Mania, Lawan Tetap Lawan, Lagak Pak Mahat, Kerana Mu Hidung, and Malaysia Boleh (English).
I joined Malaysiakini in March 2003 by accident. When Mahathir announced his resignation, I got an idea for a cartoon based on his popular phrase “dah lama dah..”, which can mean “it’s been a long time” and also “there is a long time to go”. Since the idea was in English, I thought the cartoon would be more suitable for Malaysiakini. So I emailed the editor, Steven Gan, and he agreed. After that, Malaysiakini agreed to give me a permanent column – Cartoonkini.
With Malaysiakini, the feedback was overwhelming. I was very motivated. I received plenty of feedback from fans from various races, background and age. I received emails from students, professionals, government employees, businessman, doctors, judges, lawyers, politicians, retirees and others. From my works on Cartoonkini, I have produced a few collections such as Cartoons On Tun and others, 1 Funny Malaysia, Cartoon-O-Phobia and the book you are reading now.
In August 2009, I set up Sepakat Efektif Sdn Bhd and collaborated with young cartoonists such as Jonos, Ronasina, Naza, Art, Lan, Oly, Enot and others to produce the first political cartoon magazine in Malaysia, Gedung Kartun. It was a magazine that touched on current issues with satire and scathing criticisms. The front page of the issue depicted a top Malaysian leader yelling “Merdeka!” but waving a Mongolian flag. The government did not like this kind of jokes and as a result, eight officials from the Ministry of Home Affairs (KDN) raided my office in Brickfields and seized 408 copies of Gedung Kartun just a few days after they hit the newsstands.
At the same time, the printing company was also raided and the printing equipments were confiscated. They were warned not to print my cartoons in the future. Gedung Kartun was eventually banned. I was later investigated under the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984, but so far no charge has been laid against me. Our team continued to produce one more book called Perak Darul Kartun, which commented on the Perak political crisis in 2009. The response was overwhelming. We have to go through three reprints. In March 2010, through another company, we managed to get a permit for monthly cartoon magazine called Isu Dalam Kartun.
By April 2010, three volumes of Isu Dalam Kartun were produced and the response was very positive, except from the government. The Home Ministry started seizing the publications from distributors throughout the country. In June 2010, the government announced the ban of Perak Darul Kartun, Isu Dalam Kartun and 1 Funny Malaysia. The reason given (as gazetted by the Home Ministry) was that the content of the books and magazines are considered to be a threat to public order and it may influence people to topple the government. Due to the ban, the publications were withdrawn from the market. Malaysiakini and I filed a suit in court against the ban on Perak Darul Kartun and 1 Funny Malaysia.
The case is currently being heard. The government, in its affidavit, stated that it banned the cartoons because the cartoons criticised Malaysian leaders, particularly the prime minister in some pages. My affidavit in reply did not address those points. Instead I highlighted the definition of political cartoons, citing Wikipedia, were “drawn based on events in the history according to the cartoonist’s view”. The content of Perak Darul Kartun and 1 Funny Malaysia is about the history of Malaysia according to my point of view.
In September 2010, I published my third collection with Malaysiakini, Cartoon-O-Phobia. The title was inspired by the Home Ministry’s move in banning my earlier cartoon books and magazines. The launch was scheduled at 8pm on Sept 24, 2010 at the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall. At 4pm that very day, while I was preparing my speech for the launch, 10 police officers raided my office. A total of 66 copies of Cartoon-O-Phobia were confiscated while I was arrested. I was taken to seven police stations within six hours, before finally being held at the KLIA police station lock-up under the Sedition Act 1948.
In a separate operation, the police also raided the printing company. Shockingly, another printing company that printed my previous cartoon books was also raided! They were warned not to ever print my cartoon books. In Kuala Lumpur, the launch proceeded as scheduled. Cartoon-O-Phobia could not be sold as the police surrounded the area. My wife, Fazlina spoke on my behalf. The launch proceeded without the books and without the author of the book- a new record!
The next morning, after I was brought to the court, the magistrate ordered for my release. My arrest drew wide coverage from the international media. An independent body that represents cartoonists from around the world, the Cartoonist Rights Network International (CRNI), issued a statement condemning my arrest. Cartoon-O-Phobia also got the attention of the American cartoonists who organized a charity dinner “The 23rd Cartoons and Cocktails” on October 2010 at the National Press Club in Washington. They requested for copies of Cartoon-O-Phobia to be auctioned for charity together with more than 150 works of other cartoonists from around the world.
I was very honoured that the 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner for editorial cartoons, Mark Fiore, had himself promoted my cartoon books in the event. I was also invited to contribute my work for an international website “Cartoon Movement”, which is based in the Netherlands. In May, CRNI has announced that I am the recipient for the award of ‘Courage in Editorial Cartooning’ for 2011.
Many asked how do I get the ideas. This is actually a difficult question because the idea is often too complex. It may come in a split second, or I might be fumbling over it for days. Do I have to wait for ideas to come or do I look for them? When I was in school and drawing was just a hobby, I just waited for ideas. As a professional, ideas must be found. But as mentioned before, ideas are complicated. Sometimes it just comes, just like that.
My approach is different from other cartoonists. It is in line with my cartooning philosophies: “My cartoons are not drawn by brush, but by brain” and “How can I be neutral when even my pen has a stand”. How do I draw my cartoons? I prefer to use the term “composing cartoon” and not drawing the cartoons because it involves several steps. In general, my ideas are based on current issues, especially politics. When an issue arises, the first step is to understand the issue from different sources and perspectives.
I read the newspapers, Internet and history. If the issue involves people that I know, I would call the person directly to get the inside story. There are times that I may need to go to the scene, for example in court or demonstrations, in order to dig deeper into an issue. After gathering all information, the second step is to take a stand on the issue. This is actually an important step because it will determine the direction of my cartoons. The right stand will convey the right message. I do not want to convey the wrong message just to get people laughing.
The third step is to find ideas to make the cartoons funny. In other words, first make a stand, then a joke. The ideas and jokes must be consistent with my stand. I will not draw any cartoons if the joke is contrary to my stand. I stand firm and will not compromise on this. Even though this approach would sometimes affect me for the whole day, especially when I could not find the ideas and the deadline is getting nearer, I am pleased that I am doing it this way.
From another angle, BN leaders are also helping me to find ideas! Every day there would be ministers who make funny statements. This provide ‘raw materials’ for my cartoons. Many people think that cartoonists need to travel a lot to get ideas. Not for me – I do not like traveling, but I like thinking. Do I accept ideas from other people? Yes, I welcome ideas from all parties as long as it is inline with my views. Not all of my cartoons are based on my ideas alone.
I am annoyed when I see cartoonists who draw on instructions of other people and touch on subjects they do not understand or do not agree with just for the sake of money. When I was in NST, I was asked to draw some cartoons based on the ideas from the then prime minster. I refused on the grounds that I am a cartoonist, not an illustrator. In the early stages I have also received lucrative offers from some politicians to draw cartoons that criticise opposition parties especially during the election season. I said: “NO”.
In terms of technique, I feel that my drawing is not good which is the reason why I keep trying to find new approaches that are rarely used by other cartoonists. I use simple drawings to explain heavy messages. The simpler, the better. Usually editorial cartoons consist of objects and subjects. The object is a character while the subject is the content and message. In my drawings however, the object is usually used as the subject.
Characters in my cartoons can be formed in many ways: human characters, animal characters, logos, symbols, transformation, slogans, etc. The object itself is often the message.
One often-asked question is: “Why do my cartoons only criticise BN and not Pakatan Rakyat?” In a country that is facing a moral crisis like Malaysia, criticising is not an agenda but a responsibility. Caliph Ali says: “The highest level of patriotism is to tell the truth in front of an unjust ruler”. At present, BN is in power and they are the ones who are committing injustice and corruption, hence my criticism. I do not criticise Pakatan Rakyat because they are not in power and they should be given the opportunity to take over Putrajaya to implement the reforms that they have promised.
If one day Pakatan Rakyat rules this country and do what the BN did, they will equally face my sharp and critical pen.
Zunar, 22 Mei 2011