Lat's take on his life

Malaysian cartoonist Lat's just-launched work gives fresh insights into his life and art

LAT: MY LIFE AND CARTOONS

By Mohammad Nor Khalid with Syed Nadzri Syed Harun

Editions Didier Millet/232 pages/ $39.90 a copy with GST from leading bookstores or on loan from the National Library Board under the call number English 741.59595 LAT-[ART]

In the 1950s and 1960s, The Straits Times was staple reading in the home of iconic Malaysian cartoonist Mohammad Nor "Lat" Khalid. His pen name Lat is the truncation of "bulat", Malay for "round".

As the rotund raconteur recalls in his just-launched autobiography Lat: My Life And Cartoons: "We always had The Straits Times in the house. The headlines were always about Singapore and there were cartoons by Ping... There was also the Gambols strip (and) the Tarzan and The Cisco Kid strips too."

At one time, I was a bit jealous because my father was always laughing at Rejabhad's cartoons... and a relative would say, 'You should draw something that is local (like Rejabhad), not your stories about boys and girls with jeans.'

CARTOONIST LAT, on growing up in the Golden Age of Malay cartoons, whose leading lights were Rejab "Rejabhad" Had, Raja Hamzah and Halim Teh

Those were, however, not Lat's only influences.

His father, army clerk Mohd Khalid Mohd Noh, would buy him second-hand British comics such as The Beano and The Dandy - by the kati or catty (one kati is about 605g) at Ipoh's weekly night market.

In an exclusive interview with The Sunday Times here on Dec 10, just before he launched his auto- biography at Books Kinokuniya, the 65-year-old mused: "The Beano and The Dandy were perfect for children because even if we didn't know how to read or know the meaning of English words, the pictures were attractive."

Lat, who was a former crime reporter with Malaysia's Berita Harian and The New Straits Times (NST), proves as adept with words as he is with line drawings. The concise, gliding narrative captures his firm, strident voice neatly and precisely.

  • FIVE QUESTIONS THIS BOOK ANSWERS

  • 1 What does it mean to be a good friend?

    2 How might you best get on with those who are different from you?

    3 How might you make the most out of lucky breaks in life?

    4 What values and standards must you uphold if you want to be consistently excellent?

    5 Why are the funniest people often also the most serious about life?

He wrote it with Syed Nadzri Syed Harun, a former group editor of The NST Group.

As a boy, Lat would also pore through by-the-kati second-hand magazines such as National Geographic, Life and Post, which his late father loved to read.

Lat said his father could not afford the Classics Illustrated graphic novel series of abridged literary classics such as Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers and Howard Pyle's The Merry Adventures Of Robin Hood.

"They cost about RM3 each. You'd have to borrow them from Chinese friends," he said.

No matter. His parents were just as supportive with money for the India ink and drawing blocks their son needed to publish his first comic strip at age 13 in 1964, when he was in Primary 6. It depicted a beggar in a corridor and the Majallah Filem (Film Magazine) published it.

  • Time for a Tiger

  • Singapore's pioneering social work educator Ann Wee celebrated her 90th birthday earlier this year with the release of her first book, A Tiger Remembers: The Way We Were In Singapore.

    Mrs Wee, who was born in 1926 - the Year of the Fire Tiger - will now celebrate the end of 2016 with The Straits Times readers at The Big Read Meet on Wednesday, Dec 28. Join her and senior writer Cheong Suk-Wai to discuss her debut book from 6.30pm in The Possibility Room, Level 5, National Library Board (NLB) headquarters at 100 Victoria Street.

    Sign up at any NLB e-Kiosk or go to www.nlb.gov.sg/golibrary2/e/the-big-read-meet-38655257

Shortly after, a Penang publisher paid him the then princely sum of RM25 for his 24-page comic book Tiga Sekawan (Three Friends).

That was no mean feat because he was growing up in the Golden Age of Malay cartoons, whose leading lights were Rejab "Rejabhad" Had, Raja Hamzah and Halim Teh.

Rejabhad, a soldier, wrote him letters of praise and later became his mentor.

In the interview, Lat said: "At one time, I was a bit jealous because my father was always laughing at Rejabhad's cartoons... and a relative would say, 'You should draw something that is local (like Rejabhad), not your stories about boys and girls with jeans'."

Lat added: "At that time, if you wore jeans, that meant you were either from Singapore or you had money."

Well, with 52 years of cartooning under his belt, an internationally acclaimed TV animation series and a movie and musical based on his life, Lat now has the last laugh.


Just a minute

THE GOOD

1. For the past 52 years, Lat has drawn from his life to tickle everyone's funnybone. His largely autobiographical graphic novels, Kampung Boy (1979), Town Boy (1981), Mat Som (1989) and his 1979 cartoon compilation Keluarga Si Mamat (Mamat's Family), have all done so with great success.

His just-launched autobiography is chock- a-block with fresh material, a lot of which shows facets of Lat's character that might surprise his fans who may have a different idea from his cartoons. For instance, he insists that he is shy and serious, the sort who bristles when friends rib him for naming his firstborn Junaidah, which is a quaint name for girls. He also has a photographic memory and a keen eye for detail, never forgetting a face or an act of kindness. For example, he is in touch with his primary school teachers, Mrs Hew Chai Kee, on which he modelled his Chinese auntie caricature with the beehive hair and butterfly spectacles, and Mrs Yeoh Chow Yung, the stepmother of Hollywood actress Michelle Yeoh. His reminiscences about them and everyone else who has encouraged him are a study in decency.

2. His writing with Syed Nadzri Syed Harun is clear and concise. This makes for a mesmerising read and, as an autobiography, is a classy example of what to say.

3. Lat has a slow-burn style of repartee, often leading up to a killer punchline. For example, check out his anecdote about how newspaper cartoonists of yore were kings of the cliff-hanger. It is side-splitting humour, the sort with which Lat has shaped the Malaysian conscience.

4. The pictures in this handsomely produced book tell their own story. These include rare glimpses of his first published comic books, Lat performing with his multicultural rock band KD Possum and The Flying Fox, and Lat drawing The Kampung Boy on the floor of his unfurnished marital home in Kuala Lumpur. Together with his compelling prose, they transport everyone back to bygone eras so well, you can feel the soot from train rides on your face.

THE BAD

1. For the most part, the reader gets only Lat's take on his life. But as this is the first opportunity for fans to understand Lat the man better, it would have rounded out the book to reflect what his family and friends think of him.

THE IFFY

1. Lat is careful in talking about sensitive issues, such as his rebellious streak or his differences of opinion with his bosses. So one cannot say after reading this book that one really knows him.


Fact file: King of killer punchlines

Malaysia's beloved cartoonist Lat almost never put pen to paper.

At the age of two, he was roaming the water's edge on a beach in mainland Penang when he was nearly pulled under by a wave. An elderly passer-by yanked him back just in time.

He recalled: "I remember it was a sunny day. Usually, when I remember things, the sun is in it, like whenever I go to the bank."

He even remembers particular days by the shirts he wears.

These days, he has them made by a tall, thin Chinese man in his 70s in Ipoh, who goes by the name Michael Alan. His tailor doubles as his karaoke partner.

He has also been quite the musician since his teens and credits The Beatles and vintage Malay and English movies as influences on his art since he was 13.

Lat, who talks in strident, swaggering cadences and is king of killer punchlines, says of his favourite tailor: "I make baju Melayu there, hoping they'd be cheaper. But I saw this karaoke thing behind his counter; he's into singing when he's alone.

"So I said to him, 'Wah, you've got all these old songs ah, Cliff Richard, Little Richard and so on.'"

The two men took to belting out hits of yesteryear on some afternoons, with Lat - who once had his own rock band - drumming his fingers on the tailor's table. "The way he was looking at me was like, 'How come all these words are coming out of this guy?...' and that's one way of getting some discount, lah!"

At this point, he broke into a few bars of the 1960 Elvis Presley song, Summer Kisses Winter Tears, and mused about another old friend, who is also Chinese, but whom he did not want to name so as not to hurt his feelings.

"My friend murders songs... he would sing it Summer Kisses Winter Tearrrr... only one tear, you know," he said, sniggering.

He was born in Kampung Lalang, Perak, and his late father was a clerk with the 15th Malay Regiment troops, which meant that his family moved from camp to camp starting when he was a year old, making their home in 10 places within nine years.

The married father of four now lives outside Ipoh, in a house he built with his earnings as a free- lancer, after he quit full-time employment with The New Straits Times (NST) in 1983, 10 years after he first drew the cartoon strips for it that soon made him famous internationally.

If Malaysia's many communities sometimes could not agree on much, they could laugh together about his depiction of their daily lives.

What does he think of his universal appeal?

He says, humbly: "We must accept the fact that the English language plays a role. I was working for NST, so I couldn't write in Malay. And I had to impress the management and readers with No. 1, my knowledge, and No. 2, my drawing.

"I had to prove that I could draw the clock tower in Bangunan Sultan Abdul Samad as it actually looked. I didn't want people to say, 'How come the clock tower looks like that?'"

He added: "You know, years and years went by before I could say, 'I don't really like to draw the tower like that, I've got my own tower, you know, which doesn't look very straight.

"I don't want to impress people with my drawing now. I draw people simply and I want them just to look at my drawings and do some thinking. What used to be difficult is now very easy - because you've already proven yourself."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 25, 2016, with the headline 'Lat's take on his life'. Print Edition | Subscribe