If Malaysians ever needed a unifying factor, it could be Lat's comics. The iconic Datuk Mohd Nor Khalid not only brought multiracial Malaysia to life but also put it on the world map. His lampooning of our politicians through his cartoons showed, and continues to show, his knowledge of the psyche of Malaysian society. Many people remember the cartoonist as a reserved and thoughtful man even as his work evolved to reach new heights. Anandhi Gopinath meets an older and maybe a little more sentimental Lat.
Eminent Malaysian cartoonist Datuk Mohd Nor Khalid — whom we all know better as Lat — isn’t given enough credit. His cartoons, created over the span of almost a lifelong career, are a succinct and insightful documentation of Malaysian life by a Malaysian.
What can better explain the ethnocentricities and quirks that define us as Malaysians than a Lat comic? For example, many of us only found out what the traditional Malay circumcision ceremony entails after reading Lat’s famous comic strip.
Lat’s work over the years has immortalised multiracial Malaysia, from scenes depicting life in a village or a small town right up to carefully written political satire. Especially popular was Lat’s lampooning of the heated debates between politicians and his satirical swipes at every major government policy as they were announced.
Lat drew about Malaysians living life abroad from a local point of view and the ever-changing relationships between the different ethnic groups. And carefully masked by his humorous passages and slapstick was social commentary.
Not surprisingly, the cartoonist was awarded an Eisenhower Exchange Fellowship in 1998 to study race relations across the US — Lat was only the 25th Malaysian to do so — as part of a programme aimed at fostering international understanding, peace and productivity through the exchange of information.
In 2007, Lat was awarded an honorary doctorate in Anthropology and Sociology by Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
The generally elusive Lat — even more so in recent years as he has left Kuala Lumpur for his kampung of Ipoh, Perak — keeps a deliberately low profile.
“I was famous in the Seventies and Eighties, then it went downhill,” he jokes, citing family matters as the impetus to retreat a little from the public sphere.
Lat re-emerged in the limelight recently with a show he did with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra (MPO) called Lat’s Window to the World. Conductor Carl Davis had composed music especially for three new short films based on Lat’s famous Kampung Boy cartoons and animated series, which were broadcast on Astro Ria. Lat had agreed to meet me just a few hours before the show was to begin.
Researching Lat before we met was difficult as much of what I had read up on him revealed little — clearly a man of few words. Talking to his former colleagues at the New Straits Times, where Lat had worked at the beginning of his career, proved to be a better source of information. The general consensus was that Lat is reserved and doesn’t say much. Fame and fortune never got to him and the cartoonist extraordinaire of today is the very same person who started his career as a reporter 39 years ago.
“In this town, I was very famous in the Seventies, Eighties…” he says. “I was very hardworking in the Eighties but not so in the Nineties. Going into animation gave me a new focus. It’s based on teamwork, so I was personally doing a bit less. So, not that many people know me anymore. Children nowadays, if they know me at all, know me as the creator of the Kampung Boy animated series. You know, at some wedding reception recently, some people introduced me as the creator of the Kampung Boy to their children. Those children were actually looking for a small boy!” he laughs.
Lat is surprised that we want to know his life story as he doesn’t think it is a big deal at all. He recalls the full room that greeted him at the press conference to announce Lat’s Window to the World, consisting of eager journalists from all the major daily newspapers and several magazines as well. “Why do they want to know my story? Nothing so great-lah,” he says modestly.
• • •
The familiar smile in many of Lat’s cartoons is inspired by his own cheerful grin. As The Edge photographer Haris Hassan raises his camera, Lat flashes his trademark ear-to-ear smile, full of the same exuberant innocence I remember from the cartoons I had grown up reading.
As his father had worked with the Malaysian Armed Forces, Lat travelled a lot with his family from his birthplace of Kota Baru. They lived in Kepala Batas, Muar, Kluang, Mentakab and KL. In 1960, when Lat was nine years old, the family settled in his village in Kota Baru. His teenage years were then spent in Ipoh, which is where he resides today. “In my business, you shouldn’t be in a town like Ipoh, but since I am semi-retired, I can get away with it,” he says, winking at me.
His five siblings and he have been gifted with some artistic ability — his eldest brother was an artist while his youngest brother is a filmmaker. Two other brothers were as keen on drawing as he was but they didn’t stick to it like Lat did. “Actually, I think they are much better at it than I am,” he says. “Just that they never stuck to it.”
Lat recalls being able to draw well before his school days. “When I was about five or six, I was drawing and doodling all over the floor. I used to look at posters, cartoons or illustrations and would try and copy them just like how young children do. I remember this margarine advertisement as a child... There was this fat guy who wore a songkok and one thin guy. I saw it and immediately wanted to draw it. I went and saw movies with my father — ghost stories or those noisy Westerns — then I would go home and draw whatever I had seen.”
His childhood name of Lat was also gained at this time — he was affectionately called Bulat, which was then reduced to Lat.
Much like how some children are gifted with an ear for music, Lat was presented with a hand for drawing. His parents gave him paper to draw on and would point out errors in his drawings — lack of shadows in drawings of the sunset, for example. At the age of eight, Lat drew a series of comics with the story in Jawi and a teacher pasted it on his classroom wall. “My friends would ask me what the next part of the story was and I would tell them they had to wait until next week. Truth is, I had no idea what the continuation would be because I hadn’t drawn it yet,” he grins.
A latent sense of entrepreneurship began to emerge in the young boy as he began making his own comic books — cartoons drawn and neatly stapled together, complete with an editor’s note or kata pengarang, if the comic was in Bahasa Malaysia. In the last few pages, he would include a “what’s next” section and an order coupon. Publishing was in his blood. “If I can find those comics today, I would be thrilled,” he says a little wistfully.
His growing collection of comics grew to include what are cult classics today — Don Martin’s work in Mad Magazine, Gary Larson’s The Far Side and Charles Schultz’s Peanuts.
“I was so in love with comics — European, American, anything lah. I would borrow what I couldn’t afford to buy, just to see how other people were drawing. But I was basically convinced that I could produce work that was worthy to be published. So I sent in my work to Sinaran Brothers in Penang and they agreed to publish it. That story was Tiga Sekawan,” he reminisces.
Sinaran Brothers, which primarily published schoolbooks but had a smattering of comics and children’s books in its portfolio, was then what Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka is now. Tiga Sekawan was published when Lat was nine.
With no television to watch or Internet to surf, it was the only reading that provided youngsters at the time the escape they needed from their daily lives. Comics were especially popular and Lat’s even more so. He kept drawing well through secondary school, regularly contributing cartoons to Utusan Malaysia and to Berita Minggu in 1968 with Keluarga Si Mamat.
“Sometimes, I cannot believe it all started so long ago. You see things and you grow up drawing them. And suddenly, you are an adult and you have done this all your life. There is always something to draw, of course, and you never lose the belief that you can actually do all this,” he smiles.
Lat needed to find a job after school and did the logical thing — he applied to Berita Minggu where he was already a familiar face and thus bound to find work. However, his application to be an illustrator was turned down and the paper hired him as a reporter on the crime desk instead. “They told me they didn’t have a vacancy for an illustrator but they did need reporters. ‘You can type, can’t you? Okay, so you can become a cub reporter.’ That’s how I started in 1970.
“But my four years as a reporter really made me get over my shyness. I met new people every day and that made me realise that the world was very big. I met squatters in the morning and then ministers in the afternoon. So, I began to understand what the world was about,” Lat explains. He leans forward, smiling mischievously. “So during those four years, my cartoons in Berita Minggu were getting better, but my writing was getting worse,” he quips.
The reporters from NST were located at the other end of the newsroom and many of them remember Lat clearly. Former reporter Swithin Monteiro used to get frequent visits from Lat when he was writing music reviews. “He would come by and sing along with me whatever it was I was reviewing. He liked pop music and we shared an appreciation for music — The Beatles, Bob Dylan, even Elvis Presley.”
Monteiro also used to join Lat on his crime rounds in the crime car — a special vehicle designated for the crime desk reporters when they went on their rounds. They would make stops at police stations, fire stations and hospital mortuaries — with occasional stops at coffee shops. “My editors would check on our location with the radio in the car and we would concoct some story about being in some hospital mortuary somewhere. But we would be having teh tarik instead,” Lat confesses.
Monteiro clearly remembers Lat’s sense of fun and spontaneity and laughs when reminded of the story. “He never said much, not even about his comics. I saw one or two of his drawings, but I thought it was a hobby. I was stunned when I saw his work in Asia Magazine — he never boasted about his drawing abilities.”
In 1973, the crime desks of Berita Harian and NST were merged and Lat continued to report crime in English. He never stopped drawing, however, and in 1974, when the now famous circumcision cartoon was published in Asia Magazine, Tan Sri Lee Siew Yee, who was group editor then, offered Lat his own column as a cartoonist at NST.
Lat began as a cartoonist with simple ideas and very down-to-earth plots. As he matured and saw more of Malaysia growing, the nature of his work began to change and his cartoons evolved to include social and political issues. But even Lat was not spared the censor’s scissors as his work was sometimes deemed too politically sensitive and rejected. He never stopped drawing though and a retrospective look at his body of work is a history lesson in the context of cartoons.
The work that Lat created was revolutionary at the time, when political satire was just emerging. Many people remember him a reserved and thoughtful person, showing his depth and insights through his cartoons. “His wasn’t the normal, establishment kind of views. He saw things like you and I don’t see them. That’s what makes him so different,” says Leslie Lopez, a fellow journalist and old friend of Lat’s through the Eighties.
But while his work evolved, Lat himself never changed. To this day, old friends and former colleagues remember Lat as a loyal friend with a really good heart. In his older years, Lat has retained his charm and kind nature, perhaps becoming even more sentimental. Former NST reporter Ben D’Cunha has remained in contact with Lat over the years and they have become closer as old age has made their pool of friends increasingly smaller.
“Every time he sees the obituary of an old friend, he will call and tell me about it and make an attempt to go for the funeral,” D’Cunha says proudly of his friend. “He is just that kind of man. Totally genuine and loyal. He is very easily moved, but in a quiet and unassuming way. The tough guy thing is a front — he is such a softie inside.”
Lat has never forgotten the people who gave him the opportunities that have led him to where he is, and without any prompting, rattles off a list of people whom he credits for giving him his early breaks. “The late Tan Sri Samad Ismail gave me my first job as reporter. He also accepted the cartoons I drew in school on the recommendation of Azah Aziz, the wife of our [Royal Professor] Ungku Aziz. She was at the time heading the women’s desk. My letters from Berita Harian were from her and my letter of appointment to be a reporter was from Tan Sri Samad. Then when I moved to NST, Tan Sri Lee Siew Yee saw my cartoons and wanted to hire me. And of course I will always remember Felix Abisheganaden and my boss on the crime desk, Rudy Bertrand,” he says, his voice full of pride. Lat had worked with some of Malaysia’s most outstanding journalists. No surprise then that he still considers himself a newspaper man.
• • •
With his reputation firmly established as Malaysia’s leading cartoonist by the Nineties, with a successful newspaper column and several books under his belt, Lat travelled widely. He participated in the Hiroshima Conference of Asian Cartoonists in 1984, toured Australia as a guest of the Australian government in 1988 and was guest speaker at the launch of Asian Research Centre for Animation and Comic Art at the Communication University of China in Beijing. With his books translated into many languages and selling well, even outside of Malaysia, Lat branched out into the world of animation with the Kampung Boy animated series. He dabbled in music with the recent Lat’s Window to the World musical extravaganza, which was a sell-out concert, winning critical acclaim; the organisers have received several requests for a restaging.
Lat doesn’t get what the big deal is about; he thinks that the magic was all in the music. “Carl Davis is such a genius. It’s all him really. He gave the comics so much more meaning. My cartoons have come alive because of him.”
This self-depreciating, humble nature is part of the man’s charm, especially since he isn’t trying to be humble — he just doesn’t see what he has done as all that monumental. His life’s calling of drawing and telling Malaysian stories to Malaysian people every day is a job no one should take for granted. Yet in an odd way, Lat himself appears to have done so. “Fame and fortune haven’t changed him and he is just not impressed by the trappings of becoming such a legend,” D’Cunha said. “He is still the same Lat. Still very humble.”
Sensing that Lat was getting a little uncomfortable about talking about himself for so long, we change the topic of our conversation. It gradually moves on to the comic industry today and the kind of talent young people have displayed.
“A lot of young comic artists and cartoonists are beginning to go global now,” he says. “I see a lot of influence from manga [Japanese] comics, but I think we should start developing our own kind of manga, a Malaysian manga. We should be more original, show that Malaysians have something else to offer that is about who we are. If young people want to go further, this is what they should do. If you are going to be too universal, it can be done by anyone and the novelty is lost. If you do something that already exists, no one will read it because there is no mystery. You have to pique people’s curiosity with depth and meaning. And you have to base it on real life — then it is more interesting. Whether the artist draws comics or cartoons, he has to be able to lead the reader away. But you have to lead them somewhere, so you must have a proper story.”
But while creative output is one thing, as Lat puts it, a healthy attitude to work is quite another.
“When you are young, you cannot think too much about copyright. Focus on what you want to draw because quality of the material is most important. If you are a beginner, the focus should be what the best thing is about your drawings that will attract readers and publishers. People don’t know you, so you must create work that is outstanding and original. Publishers may tell young cartoonists that they want to own the rights. If these young people argue, the publishers will think they are all about the money because copyright is about money and payment. To claim copyright, you need to produce really good work. That should be what you are concentrating on.”
What is his creative process, I ask him. “I think in pictures… but sometimes, even a simple phrase can be turned into pictures. When I hear a certain word or sentence, they become pictures in my head. But now that I am older, it has become harder to decide on a subject to draw about. How do I make it accessible to everyone? Sometimes, I think about drawing something, then I realise only a few people might understand it,” he says, glancing at his sketchpad, its cover revealing the beginnings of a new comic.
“But you know, you must draw what you think you want to say. Don’t give yourself too many obstacles with self-censorship. If it isn’t going to work, the editor will tell you so. I guess there is no formula to this comic business. If an idea comes in your head, you draw it and it appeals to you, well that’s how it happens. Is it funny? Does it make you laugh? Then boleh jalan. It’s that simple!”
The secret to Lat’s success is that very simplicity. Honest and real, Lat’s work is appealing on so many levels because the story he tells is not just about the other Malaysians but also his own — Kampung Boy and Town Boy draw a lot from Lat’s own growing up. It takes a very brave man to open up like that, but Lat sees nothing to hide.
“You know, there are always people who read the comics, and you actually work for them. This job means you work for people,” he says thoughtfully, when I ask what he likes most about his job. “My cartoons are about people; the people I live and work with. Without them, I will have nothing to say. Knowing that there will always be people reading what I have to say keeps me going.”
MPO Chamber Concert
June 14 (3pm)
Dewan Filharmonik Petronas
Level 2, Tower 2, Petronas Twin Towers, KLCC
(03) 2051 7007;
The Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra Chamber Players performs Mendelssohn’s Overture for Wind Instruments (Op 24), Enescu’s Dixtuor for Wind (Op 14) and R Strauss’s Suite in B Flat (Op 4).
Kaleidoscope — Hands Drumming Festival 2009
June 10 to 14 (various times)
KL Performing Arts Centre
Sentul Park, Jalan Strachan, off Jalan Ipoh, KL
RM38 to RM72
(03) 4047 9000; (03) 6141 4480 (to register for workshops)
Hands Percussion’s annual student concert is back, but this time as a full-fledged festival. There will be a series of workshops conducted by Hands, Hands Gamelan Group, Wadaiko Syo, Mokabo Art Groups and Dhol Federation. These same groups will also be performing, along with Kencana Putra which will be playing traditional Malay drums, Deafbeat from YMCA and several schools trained by Hands.
Last Hippie Standing
June 11 (9pm)
21 Jalan Mesui, off Jalan Nagasari, KL
(03) 2142 2148
Presented by Epic Tribe and Palate Palette, this documentary by Marcus Robbin is an exploration of the idealistic desires of modern society at the turn of the millennium as seen through the eyes of freaks and third generation flower children.
Until June 14
KL Performing Arts Centre
Pentas 2 foyer, Sentul Park, Jalan Strachan, off Jalan Ipoh, KL
(03) 4047 9000
Visithra Manikam and Kervin Chong’s photography exhibition takes us through subjects and messages we often miss in the modern, hectic lives we live. The photographs, shot in various places across Malaysia, reveal the uniqueness in ordinary subjects, hidden beauties, random connections, forgotten innocence and abstract interpretations of everyday life.
Until June 30
53A & 56 Jalan Sulaiman 1, Taman Ampang Hilir, Ampang, KL
10am to 6pm (Mon to Sat)
(03) 4270 6588
This exhibition features a German-Malaysian artist couple, Brigitte and Azzudin Shahabudin, who have worked together as a team for many years. They are showing their common and individual works for the first time in Malaysia, works that express the aesthetics and mysteries of the human form inspired by the paintings of classic European and Eastern masters.
Two Three Six
Until June 24
8 Jalan Scott, Brickfields, KL
Noon to 7pm (Mon to Fri); 10am to 5pm (Sat)
(03) 2260 1106/07
Artist Chen Wei Meng pays homage to his home state of Terengganu in this exhibition of 10 sublime paintings of the East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia. Chen spent eight months travelling by car, living, eating and breathing this magnificent state. The works resulting from this excursion overflow with the spirit and essence of the splendour of the state.
Mapping Invisible Cities
Until June 21
The Annexe Gallery
Central Market Annexe, Jalan Hang Kasturi, KL
11am to 8pm (Sun to Thurs); 11am to 9.30pm (Fri and Sat)
(03) 2070 1137
Presented by the Goethe Institut Kuala Lumpur, Mapping Invisible Cities is a photography exhibition of more than 50 images from Southeast Asian capitals, taken by 26 photographers in Jakarta, Hanoi, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Manila and Singapore. The exhibition presents an arresting and provocative look at our homelands, the ever-changing “invisible cities” of Southeast Asia.
Memoirs of Joy
Until June 14
Art Village Gallery
G2, Bangsar South, 2 Jalan 1/112H, off Jalan Kerinchi, KL
11am to 7pm (daily)
(03) 2282 6992
Be reminded of the joys of living in this country in the group exhibition with works by four Malaysian artists: Yap Kim Boon, Lee Weng Fatt, Liew Choong Ching and Kuen Stephanie. The series of about 35 new works depict the beauty found in this country in the form of landscape, flora and fauna as well as cultural and built heritage.
Days of Thunder
Until June 13
Valentine Willie Fine Art
17A Jalan Telawi 3, Bangsar Baru, KL
Noon to 8pm (Mon to Fri); noon to 6pm (Sat)
(03) 2284 2348
Jonathan Ching’s first solo exhibition is marked by the artist’s fascination with both the immortality of youth and entropy as conflicting forces as embodied in popular culture. Using well-known media references, Ching questions whether a star personality or cult figure knows when to quit. Depictions of Muhammad Ali as an old man, a retired Lone Ranger and a ruined statue of Ferdinand Marcos show how the vitality of youth is not destroyed in most cases, but continues on. These portraits express the poignancy of human achievement and loss.
Until June 13
Valentine Willie Fine Art
17A Jalan Telawi 3, Bangsar Baru, KL
Noon to 8pm (Mon to Fri); noon to 6pm (Sat)
(03) 2284 2348
VWFA’s Project Room presents Rock Kaka, a group exhibition featuring four Malaysian artists who come from different creative scenes but share the same fervour for rock music. Capturing the spirit of rock and exploring how it affects the Malaysian society, participating artists include Fahmi Reza (filmmaker), Callen Tham + Blur (VJs), Saiful Razman (visual artist) and Vincent Leong (visual artist).
Until June 20
Pelita Hati House of Art
22 Jalan Abdullah, off Jalan Bangsar, KL
10am to 6pm (Mon to Sat)
(03) 2284 8380
This yearly sculpture exhibition features 25 Malaysian sculptors, such as Ahmad Fauzi Amir, Ahmad Noor Rashidi, Azman Ismail, Aznan Omar, Cindy Koh, Diana Ibrahim, Mohd Afifee Ibrahim, Mohd Daud Abdul Rahim, Mohd Faizal Ramli, Mohd Razif Rathi, Mohd Roslan, Mohd Saharuddin Supar, Norazlan Ahmad, Peter Lagan and Tan Bee Him. The main objective is to provoke the imagination of the public as the works are displayed indoors or out or hung on the wall.
June 8 to 12 (7.30am, 8.30am, 9.30am)
Chinatown MRT, Exit A (street level)
Dream-Work/Dream-Home explores our daily journey from the private to the public and back again. This walking performance takes the form of journeys to and from a job in the city. Following performer-commuters during the morning and evening rush hours, audience members tune in to personal receivers broadcasting the sounds, the speech and the songs that make up life in the morning and then unmake it again as night falls.
Moscow State Chamber Choir
June 11 (7.30pm)
Esplanade Concert Hall
1 Esplanade Drive, Singapore
S$16 to S$60
One of the world’s greatest a cappella choirs, the Moscow State Chamber Choir is in Singapore for a one-night-only showcase. The choir, formed in 1972, has a repertoire ranging from ancient liturgical choruses to 20th century masters. The choir’s debut performance in Singapore will feature a selection of sacred and secular choral masterpieces from such great composers as Rachmaninov, Mahler, Schubert and Mozart, as well as rousing popular favourites of the Russian folksong tradition.
June 11 to 13 (8pm)
Esplanade Theatre Studio
1 Esplanade Drive, Singapore
Long Life is a play that poignantly looks at ageing. It follows one day in the lives of five retired elderly people sharing a communal flat in Riga. They communicate with each other through daily objects and material things that are seemingly endowed with a life and soul of their own. These objects are not props produced in theatre workshops, but actually used objects collected from the apartments of deceased lonely old people.
Hip Hop — Short stories.com
June 12 & 13 (8pm)
69/1 Soi Wat Rakhang, Arun Amarin Rd, Bangkok
THB400 and THB600
(+66) 02 262 3456
As part of the French cultural festival La Fête, French dance troupe Accrorap Co presents Hip Hop — Short Stories.com, where choreographer Kader Attou created a piece on dreams but with an eye on reality. Attou delved into the memories of his dancers and his own childhood to create this piece, and it is performed to a soundtrack made up of music and sounds, from J S Bach to TV news. The show is composed of short sequences inspired by burlesque cinema in which tiny touches of humour keep step with choreographic surge in a free, light and poetic style.
A Talking Picture
June 18 (8pm)
Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand
Penthouse, Maneeya Center Building, 518/5 Ploenchit Road, Patumwan, Bangkok
(+66) 02 652 0580 1
A Talking Picture is a Portuguese film directed by Manoel de Oliveira, who at 101 years old, is probably the world’s oldest, working director. This critically acclaimed film is about a luxury cruise on the Mediterranean Sea, where a bunch of privileged people from different countries meet and connect, even though they don’t understand each other’s languages. It presents a metaphor for the state of the world, old and new, which does not seem very connected, and the explosive ending provides the final answer. To celebrate the screening of this film, the ambassador of Portugal will present some choice Portuguese wines.
June 11 (6pm)
Jl Sam Ratulangi 9-15 Jakarta Pusat
(+62) 21 2355 0208
A concert featuring Indonesian acts Taufan I Siswadi, BintaNg IndriAnto, Kiki Dunung, imam garmansyah and AKORDEON.
Indonesian Contemporary Self Portraits
From June 18 to 30
Jl Mahakam I, 11 Kebayoran Baru, Jakarta
(+62) 21 726 0949
The group exhibition features works with the theme of self portraits by Agus Suwage, Astari, Budi Kustarto and FX Harsono.
First Asian Grand Piano Concert
June 12 (6pm Junior Concert; 8.15pm Gala Concert)
KL Convention Centre
Plenary Hall, KLCC
Admission by a minimum donation of RM20
(012) 665 7863;
Persatuan Chopin Malaysia and the Korean Music Society present a night of classical piano pieces performed on four 9ft-long grand pianos simultaneously, with pianists from South Korea, Hong Kong and Malaysia.
This article appeared in Options, the lifestyle pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 758, June 8 - 14, 2009.