It’s no understatement when we say Malaysians are in love with Lat. After all, his cartoons have brought laughs and joy throughout a nation for over 30 years. A simple man with the kampung boy still very much at heart, Lat shares with us stories from his childhood and how he hopes his cartoons will be able to tell the rest of the world about the Malaysian culture.

I wish I knew Lat when I was a little girl growing up. We would have so much fun – playing in the rivers, exploring jungles and estate plantations nearby, running home after school to the bird’s nest on a tree nearby to see if the eggs have hatched. He would show me how to fish, I would teach him all about masak-masak. We will dance ourselves crazy when we hear his favourite 50s rock tune on air – Lat with his crazy curls swinging in the air and me with my silly grin and Chinese eyes shut tight.

It sure sounds like fun. So let me tell you this, I am envious of the man sitting in front of me whose eyes sparkle when he tells me about his childhood memories of years ago. Dressed in a simple short-sleeved shirt, his hair is less curly and wild from his younger days. His cheeks still remind me of a cherub’s. The large grin still exists, occasionally showing itself throughout our conversation. His drawing – tomorrow’s cartoon for the New Straits Times – is sprawled on the table, half inked in. It’s rather surreal that I am sitting in front of Datuk Mohd Nor Khalid, or more popularly known as Lat, while his hands work fast over the drawing, with details worked in as we chat affably.

“You don’t mind eh, if I finish this up first,” he asks politely.

How could I refuse when Malaysia’s foremost cartoonist is working right in front of me, as another of his masterpiece slowly reveals itself through with each pen and pencil stroke?

To be present at this moment is indeed one that I will remember in time to come. Surely it makes good conversation amongst my friends when I tell them how I spent an afternoon with Lat, drinking milkshakes and talking about his childhood. But the one thing I will definitely take back from this moment is what a simple man Lat is. And here’s a bonus – he’s really chatty and can crack a mean joke or two as well. You know the little kampung boy in Lat’s comics who runs around topless in his shorts without a care in the world, trying to absorb as much of his surrounding as he can? That’s him sitting in front of me as he quickly scribbles over his drawing pad, occasionally stopping to ask a question or two about myself.

Don’t get me wrong – the Lat grandeur still exists. Simple as he may seem, here is someone who has achieved a lot in his lifetime as well as has contributed to making Malaysia well known in foreign lands. His cartoons have become fundamental to Malaysian life. Images of urbanites and kampung folks, old and young, politicians, delegates, important figures and your regular Joe in Malaysia – these are some of his popular subjects in his cartoons that till today still raise a chuckle among his readers. It was said that a child from across the seas once wrote a letter with one simple address: “Lat, Malaysia.” That letter arrived promptly to the cartoonist.

Born in Kota Baharu, Perak, Lat started selling his comics to school friends when he was just a student in primary school. His first published comic book, Tiga Sekawan, told the story of three friends who banded together to catch robbers. Sinaran Brothers, who paid the young lad RM25, published the book. “We took the cheque and cashed it at Malayan Banking next door. I gave my mum 10 dollars and told her to go back. My brother and I hung around town. We bought Beatles records, went to the movies and finished all the remainder. This was the first real reward and we wanted to celebrate,” says Lat in his book 30 Years Later.

The years passed by and Lat moved to Kuala Lumpur where he worked as a crime reporter for Berita Harian. Lat still continued to draw and his big break came when in 1974, his Bersunat series came out in The Asia Magazine. From then on, he started drawing cartoons for the New Straits Times, in a series called Scenes of Malaysian Life. Today, Lat has published over 25 books, each depicting unique scenes in our country as well as bits and pieces of his life and experiences as a cartoonist and individual. In 2004, he was commissioned for his art by Air Asia, to be used on the carrier’s Boeing 737 exterior.

Mention his name to anyone and you are bound to get gushes of how his cartoons are funny. You heard anecdotes on which cartoons are most memorable. Lat books were my source of familiarity when I was a student abroad, the pages reminding me of the comforts of a home I left behind. “He made me laugh through my childhood! You have to tell him that. I love him!” says a friend. Being the good friend that I was, I told the cartoonist of this admiration.

“So how do you feel when you know you made people laugh?”

“If that happens, I feel like somebody belonging somewhere. Like somebody who belongs in the entertainment group. Special, you know. I feel like an entertainer.”

“My father also drew, so it is no big surprise that I would draw too. He would bring home paper from work for me to draw on. You know, the drawings are always there. It has always been in the background. Before school, during school and even now.”

“Is it like a job then, to you?”

“Job… well, if it is a job then how come it’s been going on for 33 years, from childhood to now? A job is something you do at a certain time. You go to work, you finish it, you retire. If this is a job, then by now I should have retired. But I am still drawing. It’s not a job to me. It is something expected of me.”

Which is true – when you think Lat, you think Malaysian cartoons. The young boys who roamed the natural surroundings in their village. Traditions and cultures make their appearances on Lat’s paper. Humorous scenes of a bit city life entertain readers nationwide, and even some from a far. An ardent storyteller, Lat tells it with very few words but it is something all Malaysians get.

“When you draw there is something you want to express inside of you. If you are a singer, you sing. When people hear you singing, you already convey what you have inside of you to the audience. This thing inside you, this is what you want to share. And when you want to share things, better make it positive. Better make it something that will make the reader feel good.”

Through Lat and his drawings, many of us, especially the city folks, are able to experience the tranquility of rural living. Kampung Boy, one of Lat’s many successful collections of cartoons, depicts the childhood times and memories the cartoonist himself experienced during his younger years. The book was published in 1979. Today, it has been translated into Japanese, French, Portugese and soon Korean. First Second Books, an American publisher of graphic novels, then published it in August 2006. The book has gone on to win several awards such Outstanding International Book for 2007 by the United States Board of Books for Young People and the Children’s Book Council and Booklist Editor’s Choice for 2006.

From the stories in Kampung Boy, it is obvious that kampung life is a big part of what Lat is all about as well.

“My family was moving from place to place and I would often find myself at different places. One year I was in Kluang and when I looked out the window, there were the mountains. In Mentakab, there was the jungle. We would run up on a little hill with a cardboard box. And slide down one by one and do it all over again. That is always the exciting thing to do. Today it is hard to imagine. You talk to little ones, tell them the story and they say, ‘Oh it is like old movies.”

Having lived in the Kuala Lumpur with his family (four children altogether), Lat moved back to Ipoh 10 years ago where he lived when he was a kid. To him, it is a cycle he had to complete. His father too moved the family back to Ipoh when Lat was a kid.

“The same things are happening all over again. I want my children to have these experiences – city life and also small town or village life. In Malaysia, we still have that opportunity. We have the jungles, villages, small towns, lakes and rivers.”

“Is it something that you miss then, seeing how far we’ve come as a society?”

“I don’t miss anything. Because this kampung life, it comes from within. It’s how you think about it. The positive things about kampung life. Sticking to traditions. Not ever being in a hurry. I don’t miss living in the kampung. I always have the kampung boy in me.”

With Malaysia turning 50 this year, it is only natural that Lat will have a few projects under his belt to commemorate this special occasion. One notable project he is working on is a book on Malaysia’s 50 years of history where Lat will contribute his popular cartoons through the years. The book is scheduled to be in bookstores by August. His own comic book, Town Boy, is scheduled to be out this year as well in the USA.

Though hugely popular in Malaysia, it took a considerable amount of time before Lat’s books were made available in other countries. While popular among visitors to Malaysia, only in recent years were other foreigners able to laugh along with Lat and his friends.

“How come it took so long?”

“Well, because there really wasn’t any effort made, particularly on my part. It is not something I feel that I have to do. It is not about promoting Lat. Like I said, the drawings will always be there. Always part of my life. Even after I am gone, I still want my books to be found at the corner somewhere and for people to still enjoy it. For me, I want to leave a legacy.”

Watching him continue with the comic he is working on, I have no doubt that Lat will always be close to our hearts. His cartoons will always make us laugh, whether you are reading it for the first time or if it is something you do whenever you want to be reminded of the good times. And with Lat and his cartoons, that is a sure guarantee.
(Published in The Hilt, August 2007 issue)

Note: He ordered a banana smoothie, I had a chai latte. He paid for the bill and collected bean points. I walked him to his cab and scored an autographed book (by him, of course). I got him to draw something for a friend. She now owes me big time. Before the interview, I was reminded time and again to keep referring to him as Datuk. I forgot when face to face with the grin and mess of curly hair.