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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Jokers Without Any Sense of Humor

Jokers Without Any Sense of Humor

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 Huffingtonpost.com.

I have long been a fan of Zunar, or Zulkifli Anwar Ulhaque, ever since his cartoons appeared in Malaysiakini.com. 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 (www.cartoonkafe.com), 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!


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