Despite threat of decades in jail, artist Zunar says mission is to expose wrongs

PETER GUEST, Contributing writer

Malaysia’s most controversial cartoonist, Zunar, still finds humor in official censure. (Photo by Peter Guest)

GEORGE TOWN, Malaysia — Walking through the lobby of the hotel he is staying in in the Malaysian island state of Penang, Zunar took in the high ceilings and polished tiles and said wryly: “It’s much better than where I stayed last time.”

This time last year the satirical cartoonist, who rarely uses his given name of Zulkifli Anwar Ulhaque, was due to open an exhibition of his work at Penang’s George Town Literary Festival when the police swooped in and arrested him on sedition charges. He spent the three days of the event in a cell.

A perennial irritant for Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak, Zunar has become emblematic of the government’s attempts to limit free speech and political opposition. He currently faces nine sedition charges that could amount to more than 40 years of jail time. Five of his books have been banned, but they are still being printed — at night, with the name of the printer blacked out by a label that says: “scratch to win.” They are widely circulated online, often being shared many thousands of times on social media.

The attacks on him have given him a renewed determination to “fight through cartoons,” he said in an interview at this year’s festival that ran Nov. 24-26. “Cartoons are very effective, that’s why there are many cartoonists in jail. This is a very, very powerful tool of communication … it’s a universal language. It can go across boundaries of age and social groups.”



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