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Pens Under Pressure

Malaysian cartoonist Zunar’s drawings often ridicule controversial laws like the Sedition Act and censorship (Image © Zunar)

In an era of fake news, vilification of the press and the polarisation of intellectual debate, satirical art has become an important tool to question politics. Despite crackdowns, some artists will not be silenced


Text Mangai Balasegaram

have been harassed, threatened, publicly scorned and surrounded by large, aggressive mobs.  They have been held behind bars, and faced the wrath of furious governments. Yet, they appear not to have lost their moral compass, their passion, or their hearts.

Their “crime”? Art.

Despite government pressure, Malaysia’s Zunar and South Korea’s Hong Sung-dam continue with their “crimes”. In fact, both consider it a moral imperative to do so.

Zunar, whose cartoons often flag corruption and censorship issues, says talent comes with responsibility. “It’s my duty as a cartoonist,” he says emphatically. This month, he is scheduled to face trial for sedition charges, which could land him in prison for 43 years. He remains undeterred. “The risk is very high, but I have to keep doing this.”


It’s my duty as a cartoonist. The risk is very high, but I have to keep doing this.

-Zunar, Malaysian cartoonist


Satirical artist Hong likens the role of artists to rabbits in submarines. Sensitive to oxygen, rabbits were taken on submarines to monitor oxygen levels. Likewise, artists are watchdogs who work to help “uphold human dignity”.

In his native Korean, in an email interview, Hong explains: “Artists are people who tell the world about the preciousness of Nature and life. I have an obligation to communicate through art all the conspiracies to destroy human dignity and Nature.”

Artists Zunar and Hong are among Asia’s “rabbit watchdogs” who have, metaphorically, found it hard to breathe at times. In some Asian countries, it can be a luxury for artists to have the unrestricted space and freedom to express their inner vision and views.


Artists are people who tell the world about the preciousness of Nature and life. I have an obligation to communicate through art all the conspiracies to destroy human dignity and Nature.

-Hong Sung-dam, Korean cartoonist


Amnesty International’s latest annual report warns of a “shrinking civic space” in the Asia-Pacific region, with governments “choking dissent” and cracking down on citizen rights. Artists expressing ideas with a razor-sharp political edge may have to wrestle with authoritarian governments.

China’s most famous dissident is the artist Ai Weiwei. He has previously said that the Chinese government was “afraid of freedom” and that “art is about freedom”. Ai has been in and out of prison for challenging the government on human rights abuses and corruption.

After the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Ai launched a “citizen’s investigation” on the deaths of children in response to the government’s lack of transparency. Shoddy construction was blamed for part of the destruction. Ai collected names of more than 5,000 children, and later honoured them in exhibitions.


I want to use my art to confront the official record. It’s harder to censor visual language.

-Ai Weiwei, Chinese artist


Despite a near-fatal beating – which required emergency brain surgery – solitary confinement, and a four-year travel ban, he is resolute and unrelenting. In 2011, Ai was named “the most powerful person in the art world” by ArtReview magazine. He has also received Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award, for “exceptional leadership” in the fight for human rights.


Ai Weiwei
Ai Weiwei’s “Forever” sculpture. The artwork refers to a brand of bicycles mass-manufactured in Shanghai since 1940 that are now scarce. (Photo © Marvin Chik)
Artist and dissident Ai Weiwei’s piece called S.A.C.R.E.D. – an installation that gives viewers a very literal look at his experience in solitary detention. (Photo © Eugene Regis)
Controversial Chinese artist Ai Weiwei during his visit to a makeshift refugee camp in northern Greece. (Photo © Giannis Papanikos)


The limited confines artists have in China forced one of the country’s leading cartoonists into exile in Australia. He goes by the pen name Badiucao – for “safety” reasons. After his account on the Chinese social media site Weibo was shut down 30 times, he took to Twitter to distribute his work.

Within China, people have to find a way around the infamous “Great Firewall” to access his work, yet some still do.  Badiucao says:“I want to use my art to confront the official record. It’s harder to censor visual language.”


One of Badiucao’s cartoons showing a VPN (virtual private network) as a ladder to help Internet users “scale the Great Firewall,” which is about to be mowed down by a chainsaw-wielding Xi Jinping (Image credit: Badiucao)


In Turkey, the situation for renowned cartoonist Musa Kart is dire. He has been behind bars for months, after a failed coup last year.  He was arrested along with 18 other journalists and staff from the leading opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet.

Upon his arrest, Kart was quoted as saying: “I have been taken into police custody because I drew cartoons!”

Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) called the indictment of Cumhuriyet staff – which could result in sentences of seven to 43 years in prison – an “absolute disgrace”. RSF said earlier this year: “Only too often, cartoonists pay a high price for their irony and impertinence. The threats they receive are barometers of free speech, acting as indicators of the state of democracy in times of trouble.”


I have been taken into police custody because I drew cartoons!

-Musa Kart, Turkish cartoonist


One of Asia’s more liberal countries is Thailand. Yet last year, Amnesty International called for the government to “relax” its grip on freedom of expression. An exhibition entitled simply “FEAR” captured the public concern for the future amidst recent political turmoil – military intervention, the king’s death and street protests.

Manit Sriwanichpoom, who uses photography and video to raise social and political issues, was uneasy when he made visuals poking fun at the army government. “No government likes criticism… I was so worried that the army might call me to go through [an] ‘attitude adjustment’ programme like other commentators, but the show went on smoothly,” he says.


Artist Manit Sriwanichpoom’s exhibition “FEAR” aimed to articulate public concern for the future amidst recent political turmoil in Thailand (Image credit:  Manit Sriwanichpoom)


Activism in art was important, he felt. “I care about my society… I don’t want to live my life with fear. There is no other way but to do what I got to do,” he says.

FEAR passed without incident.


I was so worried that the army might call me to go through [an] ‘attitude adjustment’ programme like other commentators… I care about my society… I don’t want to live my life with fear. There is no other way but to do what I got to do.

-Manit Sriwanichpoom, Thai artist


Elsewhere though, exhibitions have turned violent. In November last year in Penang, Malaysia, a mob of 30 people aligned to the ruling party stormed an exhibition of Zunar’s cartoons. The mob surrounded and threatened the artist, and demanded that he remove some of his cartoons, which they deemed “offensive” for insulting their leaders. They also vandalised his artwork.

Zunar, a pen name for Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, was forced to call off the exhibition. The police offered him no protection. Instead, they later confiscated 20 of his drawings and took him into custody.

A month later, Zunar was arrested again while selling books to recoup financial losses from the exhibition’s cancellation.

Zunar has also been locked up for “sedition” twice before. Several of his books have been banned, his staff arrested, his office raided and his publisher warned not to publish more books.



Zunar’s cartoon parodying the US$17 million ring that the Malaysian prime minister’s wife, Rosmah, allegedly bought. (Image © Zunar)


Despite this, Zunar has not put down his pen. His tagline is: “Even my pen has a stand.” Instead, the leading dissenter uses the Internet to share his cartoons freely, without copyright. His bold cartoons ridicule controversial laws like the Sedition Act, censorship, the US$700 million corruption scandal that has embroiled Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, and the US$17 million ring that the prime minister’s wife allegedly bought.

Although he receives little local media attention, he has drawn wide international interest, winning the 2015 International Press Freedom Award and the Cartoonist for Peace Award. His defiance was captured in a self-portrait where he is bound in chains, with the text: “I will keep drawing until the very last drop of my ink.”

Asked about his upcoming court case, he says: “I don’t want to think so much about the outcome. I want to concentrate on drawing cartoons. If I think about it then it will affect my output. I will start to practise self-censorship.”

He adds: “We’re not a culture to confront the government. Some people don’t want to be in the front row, but they do support me.” When he was charged in 2015, his USD12,000 bail money was raised overnight through crowdfunding.


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Another Malaysian artist who has found a space online is Fahmi Reza. He is facing charges that could land him in jail for two years for painting clown lips on a picture of the prime minister and sharing it online.

“I believe that in a country where artists, designers, cartoonists and satirists have been censored, arrested and charged in court for their art, it is important that this vital form of artistic expression – parody and satire as a form of political protest – continues to be practised and defended at all costs,” Fahmi told BenarNews.

In South Korea, the struggle between artists and governments – which has involved bans, detentions and even jail terms – culminated in cataclysmic change recently. The revelation that the presidential office kept a blacklist banning 9,000 artists from state funding was a key scandal that led to the downfall of President Park Geun-hye, who was ousted in March, after months of protests involving hundreds of thousands of people.


South Korea’s ruling party threatened to sue the left-wing artist Hong Sung-dam, who painted the former president Park Geun-hye giving birth to her father, former dictator Park Chung-hee, likening the work to “Nazi propaganda”(Image credit: Getty)


The blacklist caused deep reverberations in Korean society, particularly because it evoked memories of Park’s father, who had ruled the country with an iron fist. Hong believes that Park upheld her father’s ideology, saying, “She returned Korean society to 50 years ago.” He said many artists joined the large protests in Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Square to criticise a government that “suppresses the thoughts of people.”

“All artists want freedom to express themselves,” says Hong. But most “pursue freedom of form only” rather than “social freedom”. Hong argues that freedom should precede nationhood, which he sees as “a means of suppressing people’s thoughts”. He also believes that a “new power structure” will emerge in this cyber era, which artists will have to guard against. “It is an age when artists need more intuition and sensitivity.”

Being a rabbit in the submarine of society was “very difficult” at first, Hong says. Yet, this former Amnesty International prisoner of conscience now feels vindicated with the recent victory of the people.  


For more stories on politics in Asia, see  Asian Geographic Issue 04/2017 No. 126



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