Being curious about others and eager to befriend them would make the world gentler and more inclusive than it is now, said iconic Malaysian cartoonist Mohammad Nor "Lat" Khalid yesterday .
In an exclusive interview with The Sunday Times, the 65-year-old mused about how the diverse communities in his country got on much better during his boyhood days in the 1950s and 1960s than they do today.
He was in town yesterday for the launch of his autobiography, Lat: My Life And Cartoons, at Books Kinokuniya in Ngee Ann City.
For almost 50 years, his inimitable and endearing cartoons have tickled his countrymen about their various foibles, and have done much to foster harmony among them.
Stressing that friendship underscored all his cartoons, he said of his schoolmates from all races:
THANKS, DR MAHATHIR
With Dr M's face, I managed to raise my family, buy a home and send my mother to Mecca... Dr M never said anything to me. But he did ask his friends why I drew his nose so big.
CARTOONIST LAT WATCH THE VIDEO
"We couldn't wait to meet on Saturdays, and were always thinking of things to say to one another... and you wanted to know more about them: How come they used that oil? "How come they dressed like that? How come their house had a telephone and you had to go to the phone booth?
"If you were a little jealous of them in the beginning, you would feel the friendship and end up saying, 'I'm not that great; there are no differences among us'."
Asked what he thought of the upcoming general election in his country, the Malay-Muslim cartoonist parried and said: "I'm not very religious but in our religion, the guru always says that if you meet someone and turn your face away, that is one of the worst things... (Whether) you don't want to be friendly or you hate the guy... we should always go towards (each other) and shake hands."
He added: "Never mind what political party you're from, just greet others... because if you turn your face away and go home, you will feel guilty."
Regarding his fellow cartoonist, Zulkiflee Anwar "Zunar" Ulhaque, 54, who was arrested on Nov 26 for sedition, among other charges, Lat said: "Zunar didn't like any of the prime ministers in Malaysia. But why? There must be one or two that were good."
Datuk Lat, who dons a special shirt for special days, wore a black-and-white checked number at the book launch. It was tailor-made in Ipoh by his old Chinese friend and karaoke partner who goes by the name Michael Alan.
The book was co-written by Datuk Syed Nadzri Syed Harun, a former group editor of The New Straits Times, where Lat was a crime reporter and then cartoonist in the 1970s and 1980s. Mr Syed Nadzri was not at the launch.
Lat proved as good a raconteur as he is a cartoonist, telling the 70 or so readers at his book-signing that his autobiography was "me talking about my life. But is my life funny? I don't think so".
The father of four grown-up children added: "At home, since my kids were young, there has been no Lat (the funny persona) in the house. Otherwise, life would be strange!"
His father had been an army clerk, which led to his family living in 10 places within nine years since Lat was two years old.
"My mother told me that kids of uniformed personnel moved about so much that the children were not very smart. I don't know if she was trying to give me a hint," he said, adding that he had to repeat Primary 1.
Then again, few can say that they have had their books translated into Arabic, French, Japanese, Korean and Portuguese, helmed a TV talk show, shaped a hit TV cartoon series and had a movie and hit musical about them.
He and his wife, Datin Faezah Ahmad Zanzali, almost did not make it to the book launch.
First, they forgot to take their passports along to Subang airport, but a friend got them to them on time. Then, their Firefly flight had to turn back because of technical problems. They finally headed for Singapore at 10pm on Friday.
Their two daughters, Junaidah and Nur'ain, flew in early yesterday morning and were at the launch.
Lat then treated the crowd in the bookstore to a rare demonstration of how he drew former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, also known as Dr M.
He said: "Dr M is good-looking and anyone good-looking is hard to turn into a caricature."
Still, the cartoonist pulled it off such that "with Dr M's face, I managed to raise my family, buy a home and send my mother to Mecca".
Lat now lives just outside Ipoh, and said he is "no longer working".
He added: "Dr M never said anything to me. But he did ask his friends why I drew his nose so big."
He then noted that current Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has "such a pleasant face", he could draw the man "blindfolded".
Afterwards, Ms Khoo Sim Eng, 46, the head of film studies at SIM University, recalled: "I was an urban kid whose parents never told me about Chinese customs.
"But from Lat's cartoons, I learnt about not sweeping the floor on the first day of Chinese New Year and Hakka wedding customs. His cartoons make you feel so warm, happy and very aware of political issues."
National para-swimmer Toh Wei Soong, 18, and his Lat-mad brother Toh Kei Soong, 12, had first stumbled upon their father's old copy of Lat's Town Boy during a springcleaning four years ago.
Mr Toh, who uses a wheelchair, said: "He draws a wide range of characters across generations, so my brother and I can relate to his work. Lat's work is a treasure, and it's so good that he's recorded genuine kampung life for generations to come."
Lat: My Life And Cartoons is available at Books Kinokuniya at $39.90 a copy with GST.