All images credit Zunar

I first met Zunar last year when I attended his tea party at the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall (KLSCAH). Unfortunately, even before the tea party began, Zunar or his full name Zulkiflee SM Anwar Ulhaque, was arrested and his creative works were confiscated.

Going and in and out of lock-up has been a norm for this political cartoonist. As if that was not enough, the Malaysian government has also imposed a travel ban on him, preventing Zunar from leaving the country.

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I have always wondered what makes people like Zunar ever so ready to throw away their freedom merely to showcase their stand and belief. I guess his slogan “How Can I be Neutral, Even My Pen Has a Stand” explains it quite well.

I was quite lucky to receive a call from Zunar a few days ago, inviting me for a chat. Three hours of conversation over coffee and some biscuits, Zunar as usual was witty, brilliant and captivating.

The following is part of my conversation with Zunar.

What is the difference between a cartoonist and an illustrator?

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A cartoonist have their own mind. An illustrator work on instructions and demand. I have no beef with illustrators, but if you are an illustrator, say you are. Never claim you are a cartoonist when you take instructions and ideas from others to draw.

In my early days, I too was given payment and instructed what to draw. I said no. I am a cartoonist, not an illustrator. For me it is wrong and against our principles as a cartoonist to be told what to do.

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There are many illustrators these days, especially as we get closer to the general election. These people often do not attach their names to their own materials, it shows they are not willing to take responsibility for their work.

I don’t believe an illustrator should do political cartoons. With political cartoons, you are sending out messages to the people; with illustrations, you are taking someone else’s messages. How can you give out any messages when they are not yours in the first place? And how can you claim yourself as a cartoonist if you are not willing to stand by it and be held liable for those messages?

What does it mean for you to be an artist?

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A cartoonist is an artist. And as an artist, I sketch with heart and draw with mind. Sadly in Malaysia, we are lacking artists with principles.

What principle should an artist have?

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Let me give you an example. The level of corruption in the world today is unacceptable and people around the world keep asking the same question – why are people not doing anything. As an artist, I ask the same question to my fellow artists. It doesn’t matter if you are a singer, an actor, a dancer, a comedian or a cartoonist, the question remains the same – why are you not doing anything?

I believe artists should be front runners. They should be in the frontlines when we have crisis. Artists are close to people, so they must be on the people’s side. They cannot be on any other sides because they represent the people and they reflect the people, they carry the sentiments of the people. Artists should be the reflection of the people and the society.

Why do you think many artists around the world come forward using their art as a protest during revolutions? It is because artists bear responsibilities to shoulder the issues within a society by translating it into their creative work of art.

Would you agree with me if I said there are different types of artists – not everyone are willing to shoulder the responsibility of reflecting the society?

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Talent is not a gift, it is a responsibility. Of course I am not referring to the god given talent – I mean it is not a gift from god for us to enjoy.

Some people think when they are talented, it is a chance for them to earn fame and wealth. These sort of artists do not care about the people. For them, it is all about themselves.

Would you call these artists, irresponsible?

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Yes. They are irresponsible. In fact, I consider them to be very selfish too. You must understand, when you are born with a talent, it does not belong to you. Instead it is borrowed to you. So you have to use your talent for the benefit of the people.

You can’t enrol into a university to study how to be talented. No university can offer that because this is a god given talent. God chose you to be talented. And with talent, you have a heavier responsibility compared to those without.

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Many artists in Malaysia fail to understand this. And even if they do understand, they refuse to subscribe to the idea that talent is a responsibility.

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