Malaysia’s artists pledge to continue pushing boundaries of political expression

Malaysia’s artists pledge to continue pushing boundaries of political expression

cartoonist Zunar
Political cartoonist Zunar in his studio in Kuala Lumpur. (Photo: Tho Xin Yi) 

KUALA LUMPUR: The signature hairdo, which curls outward at the ends and attached with a price tag of RM1,200 (US$288); and a Sapuman (Man of Steal) character who hails from a planet called Kleptocrat - a play on the fictional hero Superman from Krypton. 

These were recurring elements in the political cartoons of Zunar, who used his work to draw attention to the claims of abuse of power and the corruption allegations that gripped the Najib Razak administration. Last May, the Barisan Nasional government was ousted by Pakatan Harapan (PH).

Intimidation, detention, book bans and court charges through his career have failed to silence the 57-year-old, whose real name is Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque. 

After all, “How can I be neutral ... even my pen has a stand” was his motto. 

“People say (we should) draw until we manage to kick out the corrupt, but it was not an easy job. Not many cartoonists do it, but we keep doing,” Zunar, who has 30 years of political cartoon experience under his belt, told CNA. 

While the initial euphoria at the change of government may have faded more than a year down the road, what are Zunar and other politically aware artists up to these days? Are they enjoying more freedom of expression? 

READ: Malaysian political cartoonist Zunar arrested under sedition law

Zunar, for one, has no intention of easing off the pedal. Likewise, artists who have long been highlighting social issues and injustice say it is more important than ever to expand the room for free expression, educate people and keep the government on its toes. 


Looking back, Zunar felt he contributed towards the outcome of the general election with the cartoons he produced. 

“I can say that I played a part, based on the feedback from the people,” he said.  

“One of the most important things is (that) cartoons cut across age groups, demographic groups and social classes. There are people in the rural areas, maybe they don’t like to read or are unable to read, so visuals are very attractive to them. My mission is to educate them.”  

At the time when some media shied away from the 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) scandal, Zunar drew cartoon after cartoon featuring Najib and his wife Rosmah Mansor, who had once lamented that she had to pay RM1,200 to stylists to make house calls to dye her hair.

READ: Malaysia seeks forfeiture of assets seized from Najib, Rosmah and 16 others

Court filings by the United States’ Department of Justice, which detailed the purchase of a 22-carat pink diamond necklace worth US$27.3 million for the wife of “Malaysian Official 1 (MO1)”, raised more than just a few eyebrows. MO1 was widely believed to be referring to Najib.

All these, and Rosmah’s penchant for expensive bags such as Bijan and Hermes Birkin, gave Zunar inspiration to compare her lifestyle to that of an ordinary housewife in his cartoons. 

“She got Prada, but you got prata. People got very angry,” he recounted. 

cartoonist Zunar (1)
"How can I be neutral... even my pen has a stand" is the philosophy of political cartoonist Zunar. (Photo: Tho Xin Yi)

In his book “Ketawa Pink Pink” published in March 2018, Rosmah was the main character. Taking aim at her supposed lavish ways, Zunar wanted to get the attention of female voters and expose them to the jaw-dropping corruption allegations and the 1MDB scandal. 

“Corruption is a very complex issue, especially 1MDB. I once attended (an event, where they gave a presentation) on the money trail. I saw the map that showed the flow of the money, I went back and had migraine for three days. 

“It’s so complex. So I thought, why don’t I use Rosmah and the things that people understand, the ring, the bags?” Zunar said.

“I make my cartoons simple. I want people to laugh and at the same time, make sure they do something about it.” 

Things seemed to be looking up for Zunar after PH came to power. His travel ban was lifted, and so was the ban on some of his books. The nine charges of sedition against him for allegedly insulting the judiciary were dropped too.


Although his goal of helping to bring in a new government is now achieved, Zunar thinks his job is not done yet. His pen is still standing upright, scribbling across the canvas as he keeps a close eye on the current administration.

One of his latest works depicted Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad driving a road roller, flattening two characters labelled as “Cabinet” and “Parliament Select Committee” while crushing a sign that read “Reform”. 

It was a reference to Dr Mahathir’s recent admission that he did not consult his Cabinet nor the parliamentary select committee on public appointments before naming Latheefa Beebi Koya as the new chief of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission. 

“In Malaysia Baru, let’s not give so much power to any government from now on. That’s the job as a political cartoonist that I will definitely do,” Zunar said.  

READ: Malaysian civil society speaks out after Mahathir bypasses Cabinet in anti-graft chief appointment

Multidisciplinary artist Sharon Chin added that the election of the new government was not the end, but the beginning of a new chapter.
“It is a new start, it is a blank page but it matters what we do with it. People would think that it’s the end, but it’s actually the start. The work is just starting!” the 38-year-old said. 

Sharon Chin
Sharon Chin and the two posters she created for the "Walk for Peace and Freedom" event organised by the Malaysian Bar in 2014. (Photo: Tho Xin Yi)

Two pieces of her 2014 work that said “Writers Against the Sedition Act” and “Artists Against the Sedition Act” were recently exhibited in a group show titled Rasa Sayang at A+ Works of Art, an art gallery in Sentul, a suburb of Kuala Lumpur. 

The two posters were originally created for the “Walk for Peace and Freedom” event organised by the Malaysian Bar on October 16, 2014. Calling for the repeal of the Sedition Act 1948, the event protested against oppressing dissidents and advocating instead for a robust debate, diversity of opinion, freedom of speech and expression.

While repealing the Sedition Act was part of PH’s election manifesto - along with the Prevention of Crime Act, Universities and University Colleges Act, Printing Presses and Publications Act, National Security Council Act and mandatory death by hanging in all Acts - it has yet to be abolished. 

“I am not disappointed, my expectations were not that high. Process takes a long time. We are working towards that, that’s the reality. It’s important for me to look at it straight,” Chin said. 

The yet-to-be-fulfilled promise was also a concern for Zunar. In the past, he was probed under the Sedition Act, the Printing Presses and Publications Act, the Communications and Multimedia Act, the Penal Code for activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy, and the Immigration Act. 

“In the bigger aspect, we can’t say we have the freedom yet. Maybe a bit better, for the first two years of course when you change a new government, but we need indicators,” he said. 

“What I worry now, all the laws still exist, especially the Sedition Act and the Printing Presses and Publications Act,” he said. 

Zunar said he is yet to be fully convinced that the PH government has the willpower to abolish the acts, unless the prime minister makes a clear statement on the matter. 

“For Malaysians, we can understand if you talk about the government needing some time to overcome the damage done on the economy by the previous government. But to abolish laws, you don’t need money, you just say you want or don’t want,” he said. 

READ: Malaysia to review seven 'unsuitable' national security laws: Muhyiddin

Last month, de facto Law Minister Liew Vui Keong was quoted as saying that the Sedition Act was expected to be abolished this year. A new formula would be introduced to replace it, he added. 

Another artist whose work was seen as a symbol of defiance against Najib, Fahmi Reza, also called for the abolishment of laws that can be used against the artistic community.

He was charged in June 2016 under the Communications and Multimedia Act for uploading a caricature of Najib on his social media account with the intention to offend. The caricature that mocked Najib portrayed him as a clown with red lips and a big red nose.

In February 2018, the Sessions Court found Fahmi guilty and sentenced him to a month's jail and a fine of RM30,000.

The High Court later in November upheld the Sessions Court's conviction against him, but reduced the RM30,000 fine to RM10,000, in default of a month's jail.

Fahmi is seeking to overturn the conviction at the Court of Appeal.

"All of the clown related artwork and items that were confiscated by the police during my arrest under the Sedition Act in 2016 are still in their possession. The case is still open today," he said.

He noted that even though he sees PH as an improvement compared with previous administration, almost all of the laws that they pledged to abolish are still in place. Most of the election promises for democratic reform have not been fulfilled, he said.

The laws that were used to arrest, investigate and charge him, especially the Sedition Act and Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act are still being used by PH to probe activists, Fahmi added.

“Until they abolish these laws, I have little confidence that they would not take similar oppressive action against artists, activists and dissidents during their rule".


Censorship in the local art scene is not unheard of.

In 2014, the National Visual Arts Gallery removed two artworks by the finalists of the Young Contemporaries 2013 contest. One by Cheng Yen Peng featured the words ABU = ASHES spray-painted across image of condom-like balloons, while the other by Izat Arif Saiful Bahri featured black T-shirts with Arabic alphabets of “Fa” and “Qof”. 

ABU is widely known as the acronym for Asal Bukan Umno (Anything But UMNO, the United Malays National Organisation). 

The gallery had said that the action was prompted by negative feedback from visitors. 

In November 2017, the police confiscated several pieces of installation art from the inaugural Kuala Lumpur Biennale for allegedly containing “elements of communism”, following complaints. 

Under the PH government, concerns over censorship still linger, despite there being more room for expression, said those interviewed.

Last August, pictures of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activists Nisha Ayub and Pang Khee Teik with the Malaysian flag were taken down from a photography exhibition at the George Town Festival 2018 on the orders of a federal minister. 

“The mechanics of censorship and self-censorship are complex. One of the major problems still prevalent in Malaysian arts is the lack of transparency,” said Mr Joshua Lim, director of A+ Works of Art.

He noted that there have been instances in the last few years where complaints were made about artworks in exhibitions, and then the works were covered up or taken down, or the artists were asked to change their works.

“There is no due process, no transparency, no discussion, and what this means is that there is both censorship and the hiding of censorship,” added Mr Lim.

A+ Works of Art’s “Rasa Sayang” is a group show by Malaysian artists, writers and poets to commemorate the first anniversary of the historic 14th general election.  

In the show, which ended on Jun 15, the flag of Malaysia received an artistic facelift by Sabah-based art collective Pangrok Sulap.

Pangrok Sulap
"Siaran Ulangan (Repeat Broadcast)", a woodcut print by art collective Pangrok Sulap. (Photo: Tho Xin Yi)   

In place of the red and white stripes were little images of catchphrases, promises or hot button issues that surfaced every election, like media freedom and political “frogs” (those who jump from one political party to another). This artwork was given the title of “Siaran Ulangan (Repeat Broadcast)”.

The exhibition’s curator Mr Eric Goh said: “This work raised the question of how much has changed since the general election? One of Pakatan Harapan’s criticisms of Najib was spending a lot of money on frivolous projects and yet these continue after they took over. It’s quite ironic.”

“This work, made of woodcut printmaking, isn’t saying that nothing has changed, but it’s just asking what really has changed and asking the audience to reflect on them.”  

Eric Goh
Eric Goh, the curator of "Rasa Sayang" at A+ Works of Art. (Photo: Tho Xin Yi)

The gallery’s director Mr Lim said regardless of the outcome of the election, the exhibition would have been held anyway. While he noted more room for expression in Malaysia Baru, he said more work still needs to be done. 

“One of the very important changes since last year’s landmark election is that the media and news are more independent than before. This contributes to a sense in the larger culture that there is more room for free expression, and the arts benefit from this. But there are still issues that are neglected, topics considered too sensitive, so more changes are still needed,” he said. 

A+ Works of Art
"Rasa Sayang", acrylic paint on Malaysian batik sarung cotton cloth by Yee I-Lann, on exhibit at A+ Works of Art. (Photo: Tho Xin Yi)


It has only been slightly more than a year since Dr Mahathir led PH to a shock victory, and the general sentiments are that the PH leadership still needs more time to set things right.

“I don’t agree with people that oh, nothing has changed, because it is a real change, but we need to be more honest about the nature of that change,” Chin said.  

She is now working on her upcoming project, “In the Skin of A Tiger: Monument to What We Want”, an installation art commissioned for Singapore Biennale 2019. 

The National Visual Arts Gallery in Kuala Lumpur has agreed to host the first public participation event for the project, which would be followed by the second at the National Gallery Singapore ahead of the opening of the Biennale on Nov 22. 

“This artwork is about the historic change of government,” she said. 

At the participation events, members of the public will be invited to sew something on the banners made of the various political party flags Chin had collected in Port Dickson during the election. 

“While it’s always been possible for local artists to engage the National Visual Arts Gallery, the nature of the engagement is perhaps now more open. It’s easier to have dialogue,” she said. 
For Zunar, space for political cartoons in Malaysia's mainstream media remains limited, and he is not one who will tone down his cartoons to toe an editorial line. Editorial cartoons should not just illustrate the headlines, but convey the cartoonists’ perspectives on the issues, he insisted. 

For years, Rosmah Mansor, the wife of former prime minister Najib Razak, is a recurring character in Zunar's cartoons. (Photo: Tho Xin Yi) 

But one thing is for sure, he will miss Rosmah, who now mainly stays out of the limelight.  

“People hate Rosmah but they love to see her. When she spoke, she spoke out of her heart. I once had an exhibition and the visitors did not respond much to my other cartoons on 1MDB, judiciary, etc, except the section on Rosmah.

“For that aspect, she has more character. The thing I miss Rosmah is about that. She is very cartoonable,” Mr Zunar said with a laugh.  

Source: CNA/tx(aw)