The other side of Zunar: A personal note

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Up close and personal, Zunar is just a human being – funny, fond of food, humble and friendly, observes Soon Chuan Yean. So why is he so feared by certain parties?

Fazlina Rosley presenting a \’Cartoon-O-Phobia\’ T-Shirt to Nizar Jamaluddin, the former Chief Minister of Perak, who was the guest speaker at the launch on 24 September 2010. Zunar was unable to attend as he had just been arrested.

When Zunar was arrested on 24 September 2010, many wrote about his arrest. News and interviews, reports and blogs, Facebook updates and SMS messages, all full of the circumstances surrounding his arrest and the raids on his ‘Cartoon-o-phobia’.

This phenomenon showed that Zunar has indeed become a political figure, not in the way of realpolitik, but more in relation to the politics of freedom of expression in Malaysia.

Zunar’s cartoons and satire have shown up Malaysia’s cartoon-like politics – his way of showing a ‘middle finger’ to gutter politics. Perhaps, judging from the public response to and support for Zunar, his cartoons have helped Malaysians to express their dissatisfaction, disappointment and angst at the politicking among politicians in the midst of an oppressive setting.

No doubt, when one mentions Zunar, his public image cannot be separated from the Malaysian political scenario.

There is another sometimes neglected aspect of Zunar: the non-political aspect.

Zunar, a mere human

When I first arrived at his firm Sepakat Efektif on 23 September, Zunar opened the door for me and then sat down on his chair. It was quite unlike my first personal meeting with Zunar a few months earlier. He was full of zest then, coming to greet his guests with full attention and engaging in conversation on the the issues and analyses of the day..

This time, though, he was a bit quiet and the usual energetic and talkative Zunar was not there. We then started to have a little chat and began to work on his cartoons publication for a journal. Then slowly, Zunar started to talk more, not so much about his cartoons but on his ideas and plans. He told me about his plans to get the word “cartoon-o-phobia” into the dictionary, making it as a formal English term for people to understand this phobia in the Malaysian political scenario.

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He also plans to publish his books into two other languages, namely Bahasa Melayu and Mandarin, as encouraged by his fans. He wants to apply for a grant to go overseas to draw his next set of cartoons. (During the launching, guest speaker Nizar Jamaluddin, the ousted Chief Minister of Perak, mentioned that Zunar already has a 10-year plan to draw a set of cartoons about the future Malaysia political scenario, showcasing the collapse of the BN regime).

At this point, Zunar livened up to his usual talkative self.

I realized that, Zunar could sometimes have his moment of tiredness. Perhaps, his work, his travels, all the entertaining with friends and guests and his encounters with the authorities have contributed to fatigue – as it would for many of us as well. After all, we are merely human.

Zunar, the great ‘kaki makan’ with definite strokes

My first lunch with Zunar was a few months ago, when we went to a warung makan for the Malay version of ‘economy rice’. The place was located somewhere along the street behind Sepakat Efektif. To be frank, the food was just okay-lah.

But my lunch with Zunar on 23 September was somewhat different. The restaurant (not the fancy one) was serving the usual Indian bread, nasi kandar and mee goreng. Zunar, accompanied by another friend, brought us there because of the good chapatti there. Unfortunately, it was not good either because the previous owner or cook was different. When the chapatti was served, Zunar immediately knew that it was different. So he scrutinised the chapatti and concluded it was made using different flour; thus it was not crispy and too dry. As for drinks, he recommended that we try cow ‘s milk tea. And yes, that was delicious – thanks to Zunar.

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When Zunar’s wife was giving her speech during the book launch, she mentioned that Zunar “cannot miss his meal. If air enters his body (angin masuk badan) he will be very very cranky; you will not (like to) see a cartoonist when he is cranky.” Fortunately during the arrest, he was given one and half slices of roti canai; yet, Zunar was complaining to the police personnel: “Why the roti is hard (to chew), don’t you guys know how to buy (delicious ones)?”

Zunar’s ‘crankiness’ extends to the authorities. He is as straightforward and bold as his cartoons on Malaysian politics. His cartoon styles do not contain any symbolism or latent meaning in reflecting reality. The cartoons are straight to the point, clear-cut, bold and naked, unashamedly leaving only limited space for readers to interpret.

So that’s Zunar. His ‘crankiness’ and fondness for food resemble his courage and boldness in using clear, definite strokes in his cartoons.

Zunar and the missing smile

After lunch, we went back to Sepakat Efektif for some unfinished business. As usual, we asked for a photo session with him.

Zunar recalled that people told him that he does not smile when being photographed. (If you look at Zunar’s facial expression, he does have more of a serious and critical look rather than a ‘smiley cartoon’ face.) But Zunar insisted that he does have a smiling face whenever there is a photo session. We then tried to get into position for the photo session. Zunar then teased the other friend that he would be able to smile since he was standing beside his fan-cum-admirer, which made us all burst out laughing.

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Those who know Zunar well enough or as passers-by, will notice that when he speaks, it is always accompanied or followed with a laugh, not from the listeners but more from himself. In other words, Zunar seems to be a ‘happy’ and ‘funny’ guy. This ‘funny’ side of Zunar, carries into his cartoons that are satire – politically stern, but framed within an informal, loose, LOL (laughing out loud) makeup.

One example of his cartoon that caught my attention was the one with the 1Malaysia concept (or is it, one wife concept?)

Zunar, who does not ‘smile’ on the surface, always has a ‘happy’ and ‘funny’ heart. Perhaps, his talent is born within this ‘funny’ inner being of his.

Zunar, friendly and humble

Over  lunch, we discussed many issues revolving around PKR and Selangor governance. Different views and ideas surfaced from us, generating a good and productive discussion. The way he engaged in conversation with the young like us, was not to impose his ideas forcefully or to condemn us. It reminded me of my interview with him on how he trains his young cartoonists. For him, cultivating the younger generation of cartoonists is important as the younger generation has “fresher ideas that sometime I do not have”. This is humility.

Up close and personal, Zunar is just a human being – funny, fond of food, humble and friendly. It makes one wonder why Zunar is so feared by certain parties. Zunar himself had the answer to that: “They fear because they are weak. Then they tend to suppress and stop others.”

Soon Chuan Yean is an Aliran exco member

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Dr Soon Chuan Yean is a former Aliran executive committee member based in Penang. He teaches at a Malaysian university and researches on cultural politics at the local level.

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