Jokers Without Any Sense of Humor

By M. Bakri Musa

Banning books in Malaysia is now such a routine matter that it is no longer newsworthy. That is the scary part.

So when the Associated Press carried the news of the Malaysian government banning Zunar’s books of political cartoons, that perked me up especially when the news item was also picked up by major American papers such as the Washington Post and influential online portals like the

I have long been a fan of Zunar, or Zulkifli Anwar Ulhaque, ever since his cartoons appeared in What struck me then were his astute observations, brazen courage, and devastatingly powerful caricatures. Much to the discomfit of our politicians, Zunar has only gotten better. Now he is even more biting, cuts even deeper, and as reflected by the government’s action, can goncang (shake) even the most powerful.

In trying (that is the appropriate and operative word) to explain the government’s action, Home Ministry Secretary-General Mahmood Adam said, “[The books] have been banned for their contents that can influence the people to revolt against the leaders and government policies.” Adding, “The contents are not suitable for and detrimental to public order.” To think that this joker not only lacks a sense of humor but he is also the ministry’s highest civil servant!

Another way of looking at the Secretary-General’s “explanation” is that Zunar has really goncang powerful folks. Or that those seemingly powerful people are made up of softer stuff. Zunar is not at all perturbed by the government’s latest stupid action. On the contrary, like a Great Dane facing the irritating yelping of a diminutive pariah dog, Zunar is ready to pounce back, and with not an ounce of mercy.

The publisher of his One Funny Malaysia, one of the banned books, has already initiated legal action. As for Zunar, a cartoonist for over 20 years, his dismissive response was, “They can ban my books, they can ban my publications, but they can’t ban my mind! I will not stop drawing till the last drop of my pen.” That may not sound like a Great Dane ready to pounce on a pariah dog, more the flicking off an irritating flea. But then that’s what Great Danes do to lull their prey. So I am really looking forward to Zunar’s next cartoon following this latest government folly.

Zunar now has three prime ministerial notches on his cartoon belt. The materials on the first, Cartoons on Tun and Others, showed that Zunar was not in the least in awe of or intimidated by the most powerful and mercurial personality. He was merciless in his treatment of Mahathir. As Zunar rationalized in his introduction, “Why pinch when you can punch?” Way to go, Zunar!

Some would claim that at times he punches below the belt. I disagree. Rather that his victims have their belt and samping way too high!

Zunar’s critics take exception to his caricaturing Mahathir’s nose. Like Jews, we Malays are sensitive about the shape and size of our snouts, and Mahathir has been known to express his irritation to this less-than-flattering caricature. Beyond that, there was nothing more.

One of Zunar’s most memorable cartoons depicts a scene right after Mahathir’s shocking announcement of his resignation. Many, and not just his supplicants, were pleading for him to change his mind. There was Zunar appearing in his own cartoon lamenting whose nose he would be drawing now that Mahathir would be gone!

Zunar’s fame has spread despite his intentionally bypassing the mainstream media. Kowtowing to the establishment or the powerful is just not his style or mode of working. That is what makes his work so refreshing and, well, Jebat-like. Luckily, as Amir Muhammad noted in his preface to one of Zunar’s collections, “[His] talent matches his bile!” I would also add, “And courage too!”

Just as he was merciless with the mercurial Mahathir, Zunar was no less sparing with Mahathir’s pliant successor Abdullah Badawi. In many ways Abdullah was more of a challenge as he was so pathetically out of his league. Too tough and you would appear to be picking on the village idiot. That could backfire, evoking sympathy instead. At the same time you have to puncture the idiot’s increasingly uppity pretensions. A delicate balance!

Zunar was more than up to the task. The one cartoon that best captures Abdullah’s tenure is one showing him slumped in an oversized chair issuing endless edicts: “Zero Corruption! Zero Red Tape!” followed by a series of Zs ending with his snoozing in his chair. That summarizes better than the kilobytes of critical commentaries by erudite columnists. The chair was just a tad too large for him, or the man too small for it, and Abdullah was reduced to uttering useless slogans. He succeeded only in putting himself to sleep.

One would expect Abdullah’s successor to have minimal difficulty to shine. Alas that was not to be with Najib Razak. As for the reasons, you could torture yourself and read the various dry commentaries by the pundits and academics, or you could spend RM20 and get a copy of Zunar’s latest book, the one banned by the government, “1 Funny Malaysia.” The title obviously pokes fun at Najib’s 1Malaysia slogan. You will be entertained, as well as being educated.

Thanks to the inefficiency of the Home Ministry, the publisher already sold the first printing of 5,000 copies before the ban. With Internet marketing and with many of Zunar’s cartoons readily available free online (, the Ministry’s ban is, like all the government’s actions, all fury with no significance. That makes the whole banning exercise less scary than first thought.

The cartoon cover of the banned volume is illuminating enough. It shows Najib commanding his ship, KD Altantuya, presumably the newly-acquired and exorbitantly expensive submarine that would not sink, shouting out orders to no one in particular. Or perhaps no one cared to listen! Notice the ship’s name!

In other cartoons Najib is reduced to his oversized glasses, pin-sized eyes, and prominent forehead, an unmistakable befuddled deer-in-the-headlight look. That also describes Najib’s leadership – befuddled.

Zunar was equally tough on all our leaders. Not so the reactions of his subjects. I am certain that both Mahathir and Abdullah were none too pleased to be so unflatteringly caricatured and mercilessly skewered by Zunar. Nonetheless, very unlike Najib, they did not see fit to ban Zunar’s books or undertake any such nefarious actions.

That is the significant difference between them and Najib, a “transformation” in our leadership that should scare us. It is noteworthy that while the world notices this as evidenced by the extensive global coverage of the ban, the matter receives scant attention in the mainstream Malaysian media. Nor has the ban attracted much commentaries or editorials. That too is equally significant, and scary.

Zunar, we need you now more than ever. We need you to keep them straight when they strayed, soften them when they become sclerosed, and bring them down a notch or two when they get too uppity. May the ink in your pen never run dry!

  1. #1 by bennylohstocks on Tuesday, 13 July 2010 - 9:41 am

  2. #2 by BoycottLocalPapers on Tuesday, 13 July 2010 - 1:36 pm

    Malaysia will soon ban the Bible in English and other languages and holy books of other religions just like what Saudi Arabia is doing.

    UMNO regime seeks to emulate Saudi Arabia.

    Resistance is futile. You will be forced to be assimilated by these evil UMNO borgs. Get out of this country while you can. There is no hope for Malaysia. Malaysia is turning into Pakistan & Saudi Arabia.

  3. #3 by johnnypok on Tuesday, 13 July 2010 - 3:01 pm

    Very interesting indeed. I must be a stupid fool not to know about who Zunar is, although I have seen and enjoyed the few cartoons as described above.
    Thank you cowboy-keris for banning the book.

  4. #4 by frankyapp on Tuesday, 13 July 2010 - 3:31 pm

    On one hand the government encouraged more people to read and on the other it banned opposition’s newsletters,local cartoonist’s work ,dozens of books and films. I’m pretty sure malaysian readers are smart enough not to believe let alone influence by whatever they read. It seems the political leaders from the ruling regime are lacking confidence in themselves of what they are doing,hence the ban to hide their very own weaknesses or evil doing. Banning would not work as the people have eyes and ears and will act according to what is just and fair especially on polling day. I’m of the opinion that it will be counter productive for them.

  5. #5 by Bigjoe on Tuesday, 13 July 2010 - 7:11 pm

    Well, Najib is the biggest joker. He got Nazri saying get rid of Perkasa and he got Ibrahim Ali says get rid of Nazri. If he think he can avoid making a stand, he might as well say he does not want to do his job and just resign.

    Seriously, can be like ‘gong gong’ when you are PM? What is he? Sgt Shultz of Hogan Heros – ‘I know nothing’????

  6. #6 by HJ Angus on Tuesday, 13 July 2010 - 7:13 pm

    LAT us have the last laugh by voting the clowns out of town.

  7. #7 by ringthetill on Tuesday, 13 July 2010 - 7:16 pm

    I think these politicians lack humour and are taking themselves too seriously. They think the cartoons will depict them in a bad light. In actual fact, many of them are already behaving poorly and would make hilarious reading.
    Come on, we Malaysians have put them on the pedestal and have given them more credit and face than they are worth.

  8. #8 by Bigjoe on Tuesday, 13 July 2010 - 7:24 pm

    NOW Muhiyiddin is saying lets do Islamic state with PAS. From 1Malaysia to Islamic state in 15 months..Only clowns make these major policy change just like that.

    How can they fault Zunar when they are such big jokers??

  9. #9 by son of perpaduan on Tuesday, 13 July 2010 - 8:29 pm

    Make no difference like living under communist regime rule????? The Republic People of Malaysia.

  10. #10 by TheWrathOfGrapes on Tuesday, 13 July 2010 - 10:24 pm

    HJ Angus :
    LAT us have the last laugh by voting the clowns out of town.

    ZU-U-NAR what you are talking about?


  11. #11 by boh-liao on Tuesday, 13 July 2010 - 11:53 pm

    Umno/BN r so scared of words n cartoons which r mightier than swords
    We certainly hv 2 get rid of Umno/BN

  12. #12 by monsterball on Wednesday, 14 July 2010 - 12:57 am

    Yes ban this…ban that are all writing and drawings to fight for freedom and rights are done right now.
    Latest is DAP “Rocket” …targeted.
    Home Minister …….KrisMooDin doing his part to survive.
    CNN is hopping mad…UMNO B accused them accepting a fee to interview Anwar.
    But when Mahathir was accused for paying US1 million for meeting Bush…US Govt did not deny it…and Mahathir said that money was donated by “someone”.
    Here lies the differences.
    UMNO B is so used to bribing…with no shame to accused others. Fortunately..CNN responded.

  13. #13 by dagen on Wednesday, 14 July 2010 - 8:43 am

    Public figures. Thats wot they are really. People in public position. And serving the public. There is another word to describe them. Public servants. Yes. Ministers too. They are the head of the various gobermen depts. And the head of all the heads is of course the prime minister.

    And who judge their performance? The public of course. They pass their judgment through the media. Should the media fail them, then they will take their issues to the street. Eventually the issues will end up in the ballot box.

    But clearly umno has forgotten that they are public servants. That the public is their master and judge and they are entitled to pass whatever comments upon them.

    And people like cintanegara is doing a wonderful job here. Constantly reminding us of umno’s arrogance; and of umno’s wasteful, bullying, abusive and corrupt ways. So keep the comments coming, bro. Keep the 308 fire burning. As it is, umno is already working hard to fan that 308 fire. Suppressing opposition voices, hurling ridiculously made up allegations against pakatan leaders and many many others.

  14. #14 by Jeffrey on Wednesday, 14 July 2010 - 11:08 am

    Its an usual story. The ban defeats its own objective of suppressing Zunar’s message. Now Zunar & his message is becoming even more well known!

    Yet it is the only thing, for the want of imagination, this administration knows what to do with something it dislikes that is within its control – printed materials like books news bulletins & other publications whether Suara KeAdilan Rocket or Harakah. It can’t do much where messages are published online. And now an online publisher like Malaysiakini may challenge Home Ministry’s decision to ban Zunar’s ‘1 Funny Malaysia’ that it uses as content, not so much that Malaysiakini expects to win but the publicity such a trial generates for Zunar and his message as well as the government’s autocratic (read undemocratic) actions.

    From the Establishment’s point of view they have reason to be pricky. It is not that they have no sense of humour. They feel Zunar’s cartoons cross the line and cause the top man’s ire.

    A few points on this. These kind of political cartoons not just lampoon, by caricature and satire, the high and mighty leaders and bring them down to size to levels as the rest of us voting them in. (That’s tolerable for humour when leaders’ nose or sleep disorder is poked fun at). The cartoon cover of “KD Altantuya” is no laughing matter to the caricatured captain commandeering it!

    Why do you think mention of Altantuya issue – the issue that does not go way – is banned in every ceramah during by election campaign?

    It is bad but not so bad if cartoons just by exaggeration point out a particular oddity of a leader’s personal characteristic or absurdity of political platform or policies provoking humour : but here they strike at a raw nerve, a particular Achilles heels! Just like controversy on use of word “allah”: the police tried banning it in Sibu by election that contributed to the electoral result against BN!

    What more, a substantial part of Zunar’s cartoons are expressed in Bahasa reachable to the very masses that the ruling establishment require votes and whom it thinks it could control by propaganda via their reading materials requiring KDN Licence as it is assumed internet penetration has not reached them!

    What further more Zunar is attacking ruling party’s top leader and not the Opposition, meaning that he is, by cartoon, what Raja Petra is by Malaysia Today – for civil rights, civil society which of course favours Opposition’s political stock at BN’s expense!!

    Especially if cartoonist like Zunar is sharp because he could provide insight to leadership’s foibles by humour which mans he could influence even the politically apathetic voter who is susceptible to anything that tickles and makes him laugh. Humour is a weapon twice over because by humour its not easy to sue this guy for libel/defamation as compared (say) to RPK. Besides whatever the talent that is left in this country, which has not joined the brain drain, whether online commentators writers citizen journalists or cartoonist seem to be arrayed against the ruling establishment with very little of these people on the ruling side to compete and lampoon on level playing field the foibles of Pakatan Rakyat or iots leader Anwar or Kit siang or Nik Aziz! Not having a territorial advantage its used to the govt seizes the only weapon it could control, which is the ban justified on grounds of public security which all know is interpreted to means political security of the ruling leaders/party/coalition.

  15. #15 by k1980 on Wednesday, 14 July 2010 - 2:32 pm

    Paul, the world-famous soothsaying octopus managed to correctly predict the results of both World Cup games this weekend, leaving him with a perfect record of 8-0.

    Can Paul predict the results of coming 13 GE? PR or BN?

  16. #16 by johnnypok on Thursday, 15 July 2010 - 4:34 am

    He Suck Urine and his big mouth is full of sheet … why don’t you ban people from going to school? After GE13 you will have a lot of time to play with your little crooked keris.

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