Reason for Zunar’s head on chopping block

By Steve Oh

While the history of political cartooning makes for a good read on a lazy afternoon over the weekend, it is easy to understand why books like ‘Cartoon-o-phobia’ and other books of political caricature by Malaysia’s contemporary Malaysiakini cartoonist, Zunar – full name, Zulkiflee Anwar Hague – are banned.

One man’s humour may be another politician’s downfall.

Until I did some research for an article on William M Tweed, the 19th century corrupt New York politician whose bête noire, Thomas Hast and his political cartoons ridiculing the political boss of New York, I had not realized the enormous power of caricature.

Most Malaysians like me would have thought that political cartoons merely painted their subjects in an embarrassing or negative light or funny way and provided light relief to those who can’t stand serious text or are illiterate. Who but the most erudite would have known that there is a more serious and potent effect of political cartoons than make us snigger at the exaggerated drawings of the subjects?

The truth is political cartoons can turn the tide of public opinion against public figures.

William ‘Boss’ Tweed was caricatured in a negative light by Thomas Hast whose remarkable drawings were sometimes let down by a less ingenious theme. Nevertheless they were effective in the eventual political demise of one of America’s most corrupted public figures, among other factors including a crusade against political corruption by newspapers of social conscience then like Harper’s Weekly and the New York Times.

Is this why Zunar’s political satire has been guillotined before they can do the real damage?

How cartoons hit home

Political cartooning of a more editorial nature took off during the Protestant reformation. From A Brief History of Cartoons, “While caricature originated around the Mediterranean, cartoons of a more editorial nature developed in a chillier climate.

“The Protestant Reformation began in Germany, and made extensive use of visual propaganda; the success of both Martin Luther’s socio-religious reforms and the discipline of political cartooning depended on a level of civilization neither too primitive nor too advanced.”

In Luther’s time, both woodcutting and metal engraving had become established trades, with many artists and draughtsmen sympathetic to the cause of his socio-religious reforms. A high illiteracy rate probably influenced the rise of cartoons.

“Luther recognized that the support of an increasingly more powerful middle class was crucial to the success of his reforms, but in order to lead a truly popular movement he would need the sheer weight of the peasantry’s numbers. The distribution of simple broadsheet posters or illustrated pamphlets throughout population centres proved to be an effective strategy because the images would reach a large amount of people and enjoy the greatest possible amount of comprehension,” according to A Brief History of Cartoons.

I suppose there is a parallel in Malaysia if you are trying to reach the rural heartland and win over the hearts and minds of the masses there. So it makes for strategic political sense for the authorities to clamp down on Zunar.

But is the ban on Zunar moral and fair and in the longer term national interest? What does it say about the intellectual development of the nation and the ability to learn from self-criticism and not to take oneself too seriously?

Transcending language differences

In a country of language diversity and cultural differences I recall how the cartoons of Lat in an earlier generation were able to capture the imagination of the nation in his clever cartoons.

Lat’s ability to communicate the nuances and idiosyncrasies of the people through their physical gestures in his drawings was a stroke of genius. He could typecast people without being offensive. Lat was mischievous but not menacing.

Zunar is not Lat and while his caricatures appear more serious it is because political satire is deadly serious in a time of high political stakes. It is why the authorities take a more serious approach to political cartoons that may appear light-hearted reading but carry a similar sombre political message not unlike Hast’s 19th century visual invectives against Tweed and his ring of corrupt cronies.

Political cartoons are able to reach the masses across the language and cultural barriers because of the medium of visual art. A picture paints a thousand words and a clever caricature may well carry more than a thousand votes.

Benjamin Franklin drew the first American political cartoon above in his political cause.

That is why the enemies of Zunar’s cartoons are scared.

They threaten to charge him with sedition.

But that gives us all the more reason to ‘read’ Zunar’s cartoons in between the drawings. Banned books often gain unexpected publicity and that was how I got to know about Zunar. And after seeing some of his cartoons, I realise it is his talent at art combined with a political insight that makes those who become his subjects take him seriously.

So now we know that the pen is mightier than the sword and more so when it is used in sketching political cartoons in a place like Malaysia. Elsewhere in civilised places where political humour is not taboo, they even give the best political cartoonist a Pulitzer Prize and put the winner on a pedestal.

In Malaysia they want to put his head on a chopping block for indulging in dangerous humour. I wonder if Zunar can do a cartoon of that.

  1. #1 by Jeffrey on Friday, 29 July 2011 - 1:21 pm

    The govt bans Zunar Cartoons, the supporters of the ruling power elites bray for his blood (sedition), and repression is generally resorted to instead of engagement because there is no political caricaturist of Zunar’s talent on the government side to lampast and lampoon Opposition by pro govt or anti opposition cartoons, so maybe that’s why he must be silenced. Generally there are more intellectual resources arrayed against the political establishment than the other way around in the discourse arena and blogosphere! So if one can’t engage on level playing field and win, one has to resort otherwise to force.

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