No one in a small village in Pendang, Kedah could escape the twelve-year-old boy as he tore around Kampung Padang Durian forcing everyone in his path to take a look at a magazine.
The year was 1974 and villagers travelled up to four hours to reach town to get their hands on a magazine but here was this boy holding the prized reading material he received free of charge.
The magazine – Bambino – was a gift from the publishers and in it contained Zunar’s first cartoon.
Today a world famous political cartoonist, Zunar, or Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, 54, is known for his bold strokes which critique corruption among the powers that be.
His no-holds-barred style has made him an enemy of those in power and he has nine sedition charges to show for it.
Unassuming in his casual white T-shirt, pants and slippers, Zunar does not cut the figure of a fierce activist doing battle on the frontlines.
But the slogan ‘Defend Cartoonists Rights’ emblazoned across his shirt hints at his fighting spirit – the same spirit that keeps him after arrested for the umpteenth time last month.
Speaking to Malaysiakini in his small studio in Fraser Business Park, Pudu, he said the memory of running around the village with his first published cartoon is the most enduring memory of the role of art and drawing in his childhood.
“I like to draw, it comes naturally. It’s an unexplainable talent. I remember when my first cartoon got published, I got a free magazine with a rubber stamp.
“I bought that magazine to show everyone in the kampung and told them: ‘You see, you need to buy magazines but where did this rubber stamp come from? I got it because my cartoon was published,” said Zunar breaking into his usual wide smile, his eyes narrowing into slits.
Laying bricks and cleaning drains
Being typical Asians, Zunar’s parents were concerned that art would not provide him a secure future. “Become a cartoonist? How can you survive?” they asked.
And so, Zunar followed his parents’ wishes by studying in the science stream in secondary school until he entered Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) where he pursued a degree in Science and Education.
He plodded along believing that his future was in science, but fate intervened when he missed the final examination of his first course.
“I did not to take the exam because actually I did not like the course. Maybe that was when I started to realise that my interest was in cartoons,” said Zunar.
Faced with such a decision, what else is an 18-year-old to do but drop out of university?
The year was 1980 when needing to fend for himself, he took up jobs as construction worker stirring cement and laying bricks, and cleaned drains, toilets, office buildings and factories. One factory – the F&N factory – was located a stone’s throw away from where his studio is now located.
The escape from the sciences did not last very long. After four years, Zunar found himself back in a lab coat when he answered a vacancy for a hospital laboratory technician.
This time, however, he tried to keep both the science and the art within him. He started contributing to the cult comic magazine, Gila-Gila.
“So in the day I did medical work, while at night I did creative work,” Zunar said, of his 10 cartoons a month deal with Gila-Gila at the time.
“I started to spend more time to draw cartoons and it affected my calculations, I just couldn’t count properly. This was dangerous to patients’ lives because I needed to do tests and prepare reports including for blood test, I couldn’t make any mistakes.”
Faced again with a fork in the road between the sciences and the arts, Zunar chose to become a full-time cartoonist.
‘Rogue prime minister’
It would be difficult to find similarities between Zunar’s cartoons today and those published in the fledgling Gila-Gila. Unlike today, his cartoons, like one called “Ali, Siapa Namamu” were just for laughs, he said, nothing more, nothing less.
But as he developed as an artist, Zunar started to experiment with using his talents to send “messages”.
Hungry for references in a pre-Internet era, the cartoonist even had to resort to “stealing” a copy of Time magazine from a hospital ward, thanks to a friend at his former workplace.
“I stole that one magazine because I really needed it as a reference. I couldn’t afford to buy Time magazine at that time, it was very expensive and very difficult to find,” he said, his eyes narrowing again as cracked an embarrassed smile.
He stressed, however, that he only did this once, because he is not a “rogue prime minister”.
In fact, it was a “rogue” move by one prime minister which prompted a 23-year-old Zunar to turn to political cartoons in 1985.
“I can say that 90 percent of people were very happy with (then premier Dr) Mahathir Mohamad but I started to feel something was wrong. For example, the Look East Policy did not benefit people but only benefited Mahathir,” Zunar said.
The one “rogue” move which changed Zunar’s his entire career was the sacking of then-chief justice Salleh Abbas.
“How can you sack a judge?” he asked, still indignant, decades after the incident.
To learn more about what happened, he bought the Bar Council published monthly magazine Insan, then the political magazine Aliran before he started attending and participating in forums and talks.
After participating in one Bar Council forum, however, something sparked in his mind. He asked himself: “I am a cartoonist. Why should I take part in ‘Q and A’ sessions when I can draw this in my cartoons?”
This set him on a 30-year journey to become the most dangerous cartoonist in the country, at least in the eyes of the authorities.
Over the years Gila-Gila has gained reputation for being a critical magazine, which amid the jokes, held a mirror to society. Even so, Zunar said, outwardly political satire found little appreciation among the magazine’s mostly youth readers, especially in its early years.
This pushed him to join Malay language daily Berita Harian, but it took just six months before Zunar left the newspaper, depressed. The experience left him so dejected, he said, that he stopped submitting cartoons for publication for two years.
“So many do’s and don’ts – you cannot draw political cartoons freely. I thought that was place where I could really draw political cartoons but in fact there are owned by government and I couldn’t draw what I wanted to draw,” said Zunar.
Reformasi changes everything
Believing he was “retired” as a cartoonist, he sustained himself by teaching children how to draw and wrote the occasional screenplays for movies. Life was quiet, until 1998.
Malaysians old enough to remember 1998 would recall financial crisis, political upheaval and a country in turmoil. For Zunar, it was the year the dormant political cartoonist in him awoke from slumber.
In the nights before his arrest, sacked deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim held forums and meetings at his home in Bukit Damansara on a nightly basis. Fired up by the electric Reformasi movement, Zunar drew political cartoons reflecting the times and made copies to distribute at the forums.
The cartoons were soon enough picked up by PAS organ Harakah, which at the time was selling like hot cakes as Malaysians clamoured for news blacked out by mainstream media. Zunar’s star was rising.
“I had freedom to draw and people started to respond to my cartoons and started to recognise me,” he said.
As Reformasi fever waned, however, Zunar found the need to expand his audience beyond Harakah’s mostly Malay readers. He wanted a stage which could garner him international attention – the stage was news portal Malaysiakini where his cartoons lampooning the ruling government continue to be published to this day.
The exposure and his bold and cutting style has earned him accolades, last year winning the Cartooning for Peace award on World Press Freedom Day.
But while international cartoonists alliances and journalism bodies are quick to serve up praise, so too are his critics at home ready to attack his work.
Last November, Zunar’s exhibition in Penang was attacked by a group of people unhappy with his works criticising Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak. Despite the disruption to his event and damage to his artwork, it was Zunar who was the next day arrested for alleged sedition.
This, on top of holding the dubious record of facing the highest number of sedition charges when he was charged with nine counts under the Sedition Act in 2015.
Three weeks later, after the Penang incident, he was once again arrested during a fundraiser event to help pay for his mounting legal expenses.
At least 1,000 of his cartoon books and T-shirts bearing the word “dedak” (the Malay word meaning animal feed, which in political parlance generally refers to political bribes) were confiscated.
A lesser person would have raised the white flag, but Zunar’s paintbrush and pen are still firmly in his hand.
Just before the interview, the cartoonist was stopped by a man at a restaurant below his studio. Thrilled to meet Zunar in person, the man quickly pulled out a RM100 note and bought some cartoon books.
In their conversation, the man encouraged Zunar not to give up drawing.
“As the slogan of Liverpool FC ‘You Will Never Walk Alone’, I never walk alone because of the people supporting me.”
Yap Jia Hee @ MALAYSIANS KINI is a series on Malaysians you should know.