Malaysia's cartoonist Zunar vows not to pull punches over embattled leader Najib Razak

Zunar, facing decades in jail for sedition, has become a symbol of Malaysia's crackdown on dissent under embattled PM Najib Razak

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 July, 2015, 12:02pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 July, 2015, 5:46pm

Zunar has made a living of sketching scathing criticism of Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak - often drawing ire from the government in the process.

And despite facing up to 43 years in jail for a record nine sedition charges, the satirical cartoonist is not about to start pulling his punches.

"Why pinch when you can punch?" Zunar says in a recent interview, cracking a cheeky grin and adding that his aim is always to produce "hard-hitting cartoons".

The 53-year-old Zunar - full name Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque - has come to symbolise a crackdown on dissent in Malaysia that has been accelerating since Najib's long-ruling National Front coalition scraped back into power in 2013.

Najib has been on the ropes for some time, but last week the leader was fighting for his political life after explosive allegations surfaced that hundreds of millions of dollars from a state investment fund had found their way into his accounts.

The claims were just the latest in a series of scandals to put the government on the back foot. Najib's bruised government has responded by lashing out at critics, unleashing a crackdown that has seen more than 100 opposition politicians, activists, students, academics and journalists targeted this year alone.

It is not just Malaysians who have been caught up in the crackdown. Hong Kong student activist Joshua Wong Chi-fung and pan-democrat lawmaker "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung, were both barred from entering Malaysia in May to give talks on democracy.

But the most high-profile figure - and least likely to be silenced - is Zunar.

The satirical cartoonist faces a slew of charges after sending a series of tweets about the jailing of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim earlier this year on what the politician says were trumped-up sodomy charges.

But his run-ins with the authorities began a few years back, as soon as he started using his artistic talents to challenge the government.

Sensitive subjects he has touched upon include Anwar's trial, the brutal murder of a Mongolian woman that the opposition has tried to link to Najib-the premier has repeatedly denied any connection with the crime - and Najib's controversial wife, Rosmah Mansor.

In January, authorities raided his office in Kuala Lumpur, seized his books and banned their publication. When he refused to stop drawing, officials threatened actions against the printer producing his works or bookstores carrying his books, according to the cartoonist.

"I told the police officer you can ban my book, ban my cartoons, but you can't ban my mind. I will keep drawing until the last drop of my ink," says Zunar, wearing a black t-shirt bearing his famous slogan: "How can I be neutral, even my pen has a stand".

Most of his 17 publications have been banned in Malaysia and he no longer lists the name of his printer - violating Malaysia's strict publishing laws - to protect their identity. He has turned to the internet to sell his books and continues to publish his cartoons through a news website.

Malaysian cyberspace has enjoyed relative freedom due to a pledge by the government in the late 1990s not to censor the internet in a bid to attract foreign investors. But that freedom has also come under threat in recent years with authorities using other laws to target those who speak out against the government online.

"We have a government that has a phobia of cartoons. This is a cartoon government - governed by the cartoons, of the cartoons, for the cartoons," he adds.

Anwar - Najib's political nemesis and leader of an opposition alliance that made unprecedented gains in the 2013 election - was jailed for five years in February, in what was widely viewed as a move to neutralise the most serious threat to the coalition that has ruled Malaysia for more than 50 years since independence.

Zunar posted a series of tweets suggesting Malaysia's judiciary had bowed to pressure from the government, after which he was slapped with a record nine charges under the Sedition Act, a British colonial-era law that has been criticised as a tool to quell dissent.

The increased use of the archaic law was a marked shift after Najib pledged to scrap the act in the run-up to the 2013 elections.

But after the poll, under pressure from hardliners in his party, Najib not only promptly reinstated the law, but strengthened it with tougher penalties being introduced.

While Najib has faced a number of scandals, the latest involving controversial state investment fund 1MDB is by far the most serious.

Concern about the fund had been mounting for months, but last week's reports in the Wall Street Journal and on the whistle-blowing website Sarawak Report claiming US$700 million made its way into Najib's accounts marked the first time he was directly implicated in the probe into the debt-laden 1MDB.

The premier has strongly denied taking any funds for "personal use" and is weighing legal action against the newspaper.

Nevertheless, the allegations provided more fuel for his critics, including Mahathir Mohamed, who served as prime minister for more than 20 years and still wields huge influence.

As authorities scramble to control the controversy, Zunar seems little concerned about his own predicament and insists he is looking forward to the trial as it will put the government in a bad light.

As for the long list of charges he faces, he views them as a point of pride: "I broke the Malaysian record with my nine sedition charges, I'm a record holder."

No dates have been fixed for the start of Zunar's trial as the court wants to hear a separate case challenging the constitutionality of the Sedition Act.

Zunar says he and his wife have not given much thought to the possibility of him spending more than 40 years in jail.

"I don't want to think so far ahead, I don't want to start censoring my own work," he says. "But you are facing the Malaysian government and this is a political case, so there is a very slim chance of winning."

Among Zunar's cartoons is one in which he portrays the prime minister as a judge at Anwar's trial, and one in which he pokes fun at first lady Rosmah - known for her penchant for designer goods - by drawing a dollar sign on her huge mane of hair.

While he puts a brave face on his own case, Zunar is concerned about how the government will act as it comes under increasing pressure. He believes authorities will step up their crackdown on dissent and tighten control over individual freedoms.

After the new allegations about Najib emerged last week, the country's internet regulators threatened Malaysians with jail for spreading parodies or false news through social networking sites or even chat applications.

"Anything for them is a threat," Zunar says. "This is why they started using the Sedition Act."

A Malaysian student charged with sedition fled to Sweden to seek political asylum last year, but Zunar insists he will stay to fight his case.

"The job of political cartoonists everywhere in the world is to criticise the government of the day. But in Malaysia, that is not enough. When you live in a repressive regime, you not only criticise, you have to fight. My job is to fight through cartoons."