My latest for the BBC’s From Our Own Correspondent:
A city like Kuala Lumpur changes a lot when you’ve been away eight years, but the Coliseum Cafe does not. A still centre in the whirlwind, it’s much the same as in colonial times when it was one of KL’s smarter hotels, the haunt of rubber planters and station officers, military men and tin towkays – or bosses. Of late its battered leather chairs have been reupholstered and there are new faces behind the bar but Mohammad Nor Khalid’s cartoons still hang on the walls from the days when he used to stop by.
His name might be unfamiliar to most Malaysians but mention LAT, his nom de plume, and almost every face from eight to 80 will light up. LAT has been chronicling Malaysian life since the early 1970s. His first book of cartoons, Kampung Boy, a deeply affectionate depiction of rural life through the lens of his own childhood, and his many others taught me much. But LAT’s real genius, and I do not use that word lightly, lies in his ability to say the unsayable about the issues of the day with a generous humour and an absence of malice.
Great cartoonists are great truth-tellers and, in a country like Malaysia where the truth is often unwelcome, telling it without getting slated is a real skill. It’s one LAT has in spades. Even the irascible former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was a fan, despite LAT capturing his grumpy impatience perfectly.
The other Malaysian cartoonist of whom I’m an admirer is rather less concerned about giving offence. I chatted recently with Zulkiflee Anwar UlHaque, better known as Zunar, as he flitted between London and New York drawing attention to the fact he’s been charged with sedition. One of his cartoons hangs on my wall at home – Mahathir in Parliament on the eve of the Iraq war – a day when I, as the only foreign journalist present, provided a convenient stand in while Mahathir berated the entire wicked western media. It’s my favourite souvenir of my time there.
Zunar is as spiky as LAT is emollient. His work is fuelled by anger and a burning sense of injustice at corruption in Malaysian public life. At times he has a viciousness worthy of a James Gillray or Thomas Nash, founding fathers of British and American political cartooning. And though Malaysia always offered the likes of Zunar plenty of targets, the current Prime Minister, Najib Razak, has proved something of a gift.
Mr.Najib is a thoroughbred political animal. His father was Malaysia’s second Prime Minister, his uncle the third. A mutual acquaintance claimed Mr Najib, an MP at 23 and premier since 2009, told him he felt as at home in Simpson’s-in-the-Strand – a rather fusty London restaurant – as on the streets of Kuala Lumpur. I can well believe it. He was privately educated in England. His style and grooming hint at Saville Row and Jermyn Street, London’s sartorial heart. Indeed he appears as much the English gentleman as the Malay political princeling.
And as a gentleman I would of course take his word for it that he was in no way involved in the murder of a Mongolian model, linked to his former right hand man, nor with various procurement scandals during his tenure as defence minister. And then lately there’s the small matter of 700 million US dollars that allegedly ended up in his personal bank accounts that, Mr Najib maintains, came from donations and not from a deeply indebted state investment firm he chaired.
Mr Najib may be wholly innocent on all counts. The trouble is that a growing number of Malaysians, including some in his own party, have their doubts. Zunar has been merciless. So merciless his books have been banned. But rather than charge him over his cartoons, he’s to be tried over social media posts accusing Malaysian judges of corruption. It’s a common allegation but prosecutions are rare. I ask him if he’d appear in court to answer the charges. ‘Of course,’ he replies before heading back to face up to 43 years behind bars. That’s the price one pays in Malaysia for daring to pull the tiger’s tail.
As we while away a sultry Kuala Lumpur evening over a curry, swaddled by the heat, my old friends talk of little else but Mr Najib. They fear for the relaxed, inclusive, multicultural, Malaysia they love. They blame the Prime Minister and his woes for the growing reach of Islamic fundamentalists, the religious police and far-right thugs. And with a sweeping new security law giving Mr Najib unprecedented powers now, more than ever, Malaysia needs its truth tellers to illuminate the way – among them LAT with the feather end of the quill, Zunar with its point.