Cover Story August 2020



Penning the Multiracial Beauty of Malaysia

Words by Hiranmayii Awli Mohanan

Ask any Malaysian about Datuk Mohd Nor Khalid, affectionally known as Lat, and they would probably tell you that they grow up reading his comics. His comics were relatable and revolved around the story of Malaysia’s social and political scenes, with a comedic spin. Masked behind humorous lines were Datuk Lat’s social commentary on the goings-on in Malaysia. His amazing talent of drawing inimitable cartoons, created over the span of almost a lifelong career, gives a succinct, insightful documentations of Malaysian life by a Malaysian.

The cartoonist has numerous awards and accolades under his belt, with more than 20 volumes of cartoons published since he was 13 years old. Lat’s best known work is The Kampung Boy (1979), which has been published in several countries across the worlds. In 1994, Lat received the highest honour of being conferred the title ‘Datuk’ by the Sultan of Perak, for his contributions in promoting social harmony and understanding through his cartoons. In this August issue, a Merdeka issue, we pay tribute to this legendary man who lyrically penned the beauty of multiracial Malaysia and its quirky in the form of cartoon comics.

His Childhood and Education
Born as Mohd Nor Khalid on March 5, 1951 in a kampung in Gopeng, Perak, his father worked as a clerk for the Malaysian Armed Forces while his mother, a housewife. As a young boy with a chubby face, his family would affectionally call him bulat (round), which was later shortened to ‘Lat’, the name later used as the personage in his comic books. Lat passed time by doodling with materials provided by his parents, reading comics and watching television – Perhaps it was written in the start at a young age that this would be the path he treads. Lat’s idol was local cartoonist, Raja Hamzah, venerable for his tales of swashbuckling Malay heroes.

Lat began his formal education at a local kampung school, however, this changed due to the nature of his father’s job which required him and his family to move between military bases until they finally settled in his birth place in 1960. In 1961, Lat who passed the Special Malay class Examination attended an English-medium school in Ipoh, which was considered a springboard to a good future. This inspired his father to sell their kampong estate and move to town. The young cartoonist pursued his secondary education at Anderson School – Perak’s premier non-missionary  school. This helped him establish diverse friendships and broadened his cultural perspective, which would in the future, play its part in his comics.

Lat’s talent for drawing comics shone at the tender age of nine, when he started supplementing his family’s income by selling comics to his friends. As luck would have it, in 1964, a local movie magazine published Lat’s work in Majalah Filem, in exchange for free movie tickets.That same year, his comic book entitled ‘Tiga Sekawan’ –  a band of friends who rally together to catch. a thief was published by Sinaran Brothers. Four years later, when Lat was 17, he created a comic strip, ‘Keluarga Si Mamat’ for Berita Minggu (the Sunday edition of Berita Harian) – a series which was published in the paper every week for 26 years. Despite being a school-going boy, Lat was earning RM100 salary from his cartoons on a monthly basis, which was considered a large sum back in the day. He was set.

Only achieving Third Grade in the Senior Cambridge examinations, Lat wasn’t able to advance to Form 6, completing his education at Form 5. With a high school education and armed with published comics, Lat started looking for a job and set his eyes on becoming an illustrator.

From Crime Reporter to World-Famous Cartoonist
Upon moving to the bustling federal capital of Kuala Lumpur, Lat applied for a cartoonist position at Berita Harian but to no avail. Instead, the paper’s then editor, Abdul Samad Ismail offered Lat the role of a crime reporter. While it wasn’t the cartoonist’s coveted job, he accepted it anyway, for he had to be the breadwinner of his family when his father fell ill and could no longer work. Lat’s still stuck by his passion, contributing cartoons to other publications. Then he was transferred to the paper’s parent publication, New Straits Times, yet as crime reporter. Lat didn’t complain because his coverage on crimes in this city allowed him to observe and interact with different people, which gave him to content for his cartoons and broadened his perspective of the world.

Nevertheless, he felt he lacked the persistently inquisitive nature needed to succeed as crime a reporter. Furthermore, his “breathtakingly detailed, lurid and graphically gory descriptions” of the aftermaths of crimes had to be frequently toned down by his seniors. Lat became convinced that he was a failure at his job, and his despondency led him to tender his resignation. Samad, believing Lat had a bright future with the press, furiously rejected the letter.

The next series of events would turn the wheels of Lat’s career for the better, starting from Feb 10, 1974, when Asia Magazine, based in Hong Kong, published the cartoonist’s strips about ‘bersunat’ –  a circumcision ceremony all Malaysian boys of the Islamic faith have to undergo. Seeing this, editor-in-chief of the New Straits Times, tan Sri Lee Siew Yee was impressed with Lat’s work for its humour and sensitive portrayal of this subject and immediately mentioned that the artist should be hired for the newspaper. Picture Lee’s surprise when he was told that Lat was working for the company. The cartoonist was summoned to Lee’s office for a talk and the next thing Lat knew, he became the New Straits Time’s column cartoonist.

Lat’s very first assignment was to document Malaysian culture in a series of cartoons titled Scenes of Malaysian Life. He was also sent to the prestigious St Martin’s School of Art in London for four months, where he was introduced to English editorial cartoons and newspapers. The cartoonist returned to Malaysia packed with intrigue, experience and knowledge and translated onto Scenes of Malaysian Life, a series of editorial cartoons. His approach proved popular, and at the end of 1975, he was appointed full-time cartoonist with total freedom in his work.

Brimming with creativity, Lat produced a fluid flow of editorial cartoons that entertained. By 1978, two collections of his works (Lots of Lat and Lat’s Lot) had been compiled and sold to the public. While the cartoonist was mostly known for his Scenes of Malaysian Life, the subsequent work that he birthed catapulted him to international standards and captured everyone’s hearts. The tear was 1979 when Berita Publishing Sdn Bhd published Lat’s The Kampung Boy, an autobiographical cartoon about his youth. It was a hit — 60,000 to 70,000 copies were sold out within four months of the book’s release, due to the heartwarming portrayal of the Malaysian rural life that captivated many. By 2009, the book was in popular demand, reprinted 16 times and published internationally, in various languages, including Portuguese, French, and Japanese. The success of The Kampung Boy had Lat crowned as the most renowned cartoonist in Malaysia.

Lat’s other works include Lots of Lat (1977), Keluarga Si Mamat (1979), Town Boy, (1981), Lots More Lat (1982), Lat and Gang (1987), Mat Som (1989), Better Lat Than Never (1989), Lat 30 Years Later (1994) and Lat Was Here (1995).

Illustrating with Style
Lat’s style has been described as reflective of his early influences, The Beano and The Dandy — classic British comics from 1937 to 1988. After his time at St. Martin’s in London in 1975, Lat’s style grew, exhibiting the influences of editorial cartoonists such as Frank Dickens, Ralph Steadman and Gerald Scarfe. Lat’s subjects of family life and children were due to his admiration for Raja Hamzah, a senior cartoonist who was popular in the 1960’s with his comics about swashbuckling characters. Rejabhad, a well-respected cartoonist, was Lat’s mentor, and imbued the junior cartoonist with a preference to be sensitive to the subjects of his works.This led Lat to pay great attention to his subjects which garnered him immense popularity among the masses who regarded his works as endearing, believable and unbiased.

As with any artist, Lat took his experiences and influences and birthed his own style of illustration, drawing the common man on the streets with bold strokes in pen and ink. Despite his Western influences, the cartoonist kept a local flavour to his comics, true to life and authentic. A trademark of his Malay characters are their three-loop noses. Besides writing and publishing cartoons, Lat has forayed into the realm of animation, merchandising and theme parks with his creations. In 1986, Lat became the first cartoonist to exhibit his works at the National Museum in Kuala Lumpur, an event that attracted a record number of 600,000 visitors in two months.

Lat’s works have not only been read leisurely, but have been used for academic purposes — spanning law, urban planning and diets. Besides that, foreign embassy officials had sought Lat for his insight into cultures and had even invited him to tour their countries, in the hopes that he would record his experiences in cartoons to share with the world. The first country to employ this method was the United States, followed by others such as Australia, Germany and Japan. In 1998, Lat became the first cartoonist to be made an Eisenhower Fellow and revisited the United States, where his research programme highlighted the study of relationships among the many races in the United States. After 27 years of living and working in Kuala Lumpur, Lat moved back to the quieter and serene lifestyle in Ipoh.

Promoting National Harmony
At a time when racial relationships were strained, especially during the racial riots of 1969 and years after, Lat soothed the nation’s wounds through his works. Drawing members of various races in his crowd scenes and showing their interactions with one another, Lat portrayed Malaysians in a gentle and unbiased comic manner. Lat’s fans recognised the cartoonist’s oeuvre as one that is safe and light humour that made everyone feel good and nostalgic by appealing through the character’s benevolent sides. Lat’s comics proved an escape and agent promoting harmony.

From left to right: Hadi Mohd Nor, Junaidah Mohd Nor, Datuk Mohd Nor Khalid, Datin Faezah Zanzali, Nur’Ain Mohd Nor, Haris Mohd Nor

Remember the commonly depicted kampung house scene in Lat’s comic, The Kampung Boy? This house is being reconstructed and will be unveiled to the public in Batu Gajah, Perak, not far from the village Lat grew up in, towards the year-end. Named Rumah Lat dan Galeri, this kampung house will allow his fans a peek into his life. Furnished with pre-World War II stuff such as dressing table, a sturdy set of table and chairs, a framed mirror, a rack and cupboard which ended up as storage space for his vinyl will be on full display. Visitors can also expect Lat’s selection of artworks spanning four decades, going back to 1964.

Rumah Lat is the cartoonist’s personal project, supported by the Perak government. It brings people back before the time of electricity, water and house on wooden stilts. These are fond memories for him. Lat hopes that Rumah Lat will stand tall and proud for years to come, capturing a sense of history and nostalgia for the current generation, and beyond, to appreciate.


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