Malaysia’s favourite car­toon­ist is seen as a na­tional trea­sure, but Datuk Lat would be the first to tell you that he cares not for the ti­tle. In a rare in­ter­view, we have a chat with the fa­mously ret­i­cent man about the re­cent elec­tions, the way for­ward for Malaysia and what’s in the cards for the fu­ture.

Malaysia’s favourite car­toon­ist is seen as a na­tional trea­sure, but Datuk Lat would be the first to tell you that he cares not for the ti­tle. In a rare in­ter­view, we have a chat with the fa­mously ret­i­cent man about the re­cent elec­tions, the way for­ward for Malaysia and what’s in the cards for the fu­ture.

Datuk Mo­hamad Nor Khalid’s house in Ipoh is a source of pride, both for the revered car­toon­ist and his wife, Datin Faezah Ah­mad Zan­zali. De­signed to re­sem­ble a tra­di­tional wooden kam­pong house and lo­cated in a quiet res­i­den­tial area away from the town cen­tre, it is in fact re­plete with the com­forts of ur­ban liv­ing. There’s a com­puter ta­ble with a desk­top by the slid­ing win­dow, a large leather liv­ing room fur­ni­ture en­sem­ble, a small framed pho­to­graph of his four chil­dren when they were young on a side ta­ble, and a pi­ano by the din­ing room. “Lat’s the one who plays the pi­ano,” says Datin Faezah, a feisty, petite woman whose zingers come fast and fu­ri­ous even as she pre­pares a spread of roti jala and chicken curry for us. “He’s the mu­si­cal one. I’m the to­tal op­po­site.” It’s en­dear­ing that, even af­ter years of mar­riage, she calls him by his nick­name (trun­cated from ‘Bu­lat’, or round-faced, given to him as a child) rather than the one he was born with.

While the house harks back to a by­gone era, it is cer­tainly a far cry from Datuk Lat’s mod­est kam­pong house grow­ing up. Yet, it is no ex­ag­ger­a­tion when I say that al­most ev­ery Malaysian knows this par­tic­u­lar house as well as Datuk Lat does, hav­ing been lov­ingly recre­ated in his graphic novel, Kam­pung Boy. His pho­to­graphic mem­ory has en­sured that ev­ery square inch of the house has been recorded for pos­ter­ity, al­beit in its hum­ble wooden form.

It’s not just the house that Malaysians re­mem­ber. Datuk Lat has long been re­garded as our de facto na­tional trea­sure, en­ter­ing the rakyat’s con­scious­ness from the mo­ment he started his reg­u­lar col­umn, Kelu­arga Si Ma­mat, with Berita Minggu (the Sun­day sup­ple­ment of Berita Har­ian), and Scenes of Malaysian Life in the News Straits Times. There are very few like him, able to unify all Malaysians, re­gard­less of creed, race and re­li­gion, and even age. His is a kind of multi­gen­er­a­tional ap­peal. Men­tion his name and, al­most in­evitably, Datuk Lat elic­its won­der, a sense of fa­mil­iar­ity and in­stant ca­ma­raderie. We feel we know him even though we don’t.

“Jovial chap,” said my dad when I men­tioned I was in­ter­view­ing him. My dad has never met Datuk Lat. Friends I’d men­tioned the in­ter­view to have nu­mer­ous re­quests for au­to­graphs and burn­ing ques­tions that need an­swer­ing.

We re­call his grow­ing up years, im­mor­talised in Town Boy (the se­quel to Kam­pung Boy), where a taller, lankier Datuk Lat sits in cof­fee shops lis­ten­ing to juke boxes while hang­ing out with his Chi­nese friend, Frankie, in 1960s Ipoh. There were gen­tle nudgewinks and some loud guf­faws at pol­i­tics, politi­cians and cur­rent af­fairs from his col­umns.

We re­mem­ber the sketch of our fa­mous sport­ing per­son­al­i­ties en­dors­ing hy­po­thet­i­cal prod­ucts – a car­i­ca­ture of the late foot­baller, San­tokh Singh, for a brand of ghee, for ex­am­ple. Hands up those who re­call the car­toon de­pict­ing the com­plex­i­ties of wear­ing a name tag (when the wear­ing of name tags was im­ple­mented on gov­ern­ment ser­vants back in the 1980s) if you had a very long name. Mrs Hew, the bee­hive-haired, but­ter­fly-be­spec­ta­cled teacher bran­dish­ing the rotan is for­ever etched in our minds. The bersunat and cukur jam­bul cer­e­monies, the var­i­ous wed­dings and re­li­gious cer­e­monies that were ac­corded the same kind of speci­ficity and pin-sharp anal­y­sis as that of an an­thro­pol­o­gist or so­ci­ol­o­gist. These sketches of or­di­nary life are cast in our mem­o­ries and, just as our day-to-day has in­formed Datuk Lat’s car­toons, his works have be­come in­trin­si­cally linked with our own lives.

It is small won­der then that, dur­ing the re­cent elec­tions, his car­toons sur­faced again on so­cial me­dia as a re­minder of how unique our mul­ti­cul­tural fab­ric of so­ci­ety is and how im­por­tant it is to pre­serve it. One par­tic­u­lar car­toon, a group of chil­dren from var­i­ous eth­nic­i­ties hold­ing up an um­brella fash­ioned from the Malaysian flag field­ing off a tor­rent of neg­a­tive words like racism and di­vi­sive­ness, was es­pe­cially pop­u­lar and has now found new­found fame in light of Pakatan Hara­pan’s his­toric win over the 61-year rul­ing Barisan Na­sional coali­tion party.

“I’m glad they’ve come out again,” he says dif­fi­dently about his car­toons. “It means they haven’t been for­got­ten. Even I’ve for­got­ten some of them! They’ve come in a good light and I did en­joy a time when I had the free­dom to draw politi­cians.”

While much of Datuk Lat’s in­dex fin­ger on his left hand has cleared out, its tip still bears a dark ink stain, a re­minder of the re­cent elec­tions. We are sit­ting in his liv­ing room, with the win­dows flung open to wel­come a gen­tle breeze. He is dressed quite sim­ply, a turquoise batik short-sleeved shirt and slacks. His trade­mark mop­top has been tamed by a close crop and his ami­able grin is what has had peo­ple like my fa­ther come to feel they know him per­son­ally.

Did he feel a sense of eu­pho­ria in this round of elec­tions? “I think we’re now look­ing to­wards a new Malaysia. We felt it way be­fore elec­tions,” he says. “Some could see re­sults way be­fore with the way things were! I kept play­ing some protest songs – John Len­non. I think there was that mes­sage about change and there was a lot of re­ac­tion from the song – it was a di­rect ref­er­ence, Give Me Some Truth.” He throws in a nugget: “You have to hear John Len­non singing it be­cause it was in 1973-74 when Richard Nixon per­son­ally wanted him out of the United States. He was an­gry and the words he wrote about politi­cians at the time were funny.

“I’m in my late 60s and I feel like an old man sit­ting on the front porch, with ev­ery day pass­ing by and he’s just ob­serv­ing and ac­cept­ing things,” laughs Datuk Lat. “I think many of us ac­cepted things, es­pe­cially the me­dia peo­ple. Ev­ery­thing hap­pens but they’re there to watch from be­gin­ning to end. They can ask ques­tions but that’s about it.”

A young Datuk Lat knew well the chal­lenges faced by the press, not least be­cause he started as a crime re­porter at Berita Har­ian un­der then ed­i­tor Tan Sri Ab­dul Sa­mad Is­mail. “Those days, there were a lot of strikes, and you go with the cam­era­man and get a juicy story, but, then, you had to go see the man­age­ment and see what they had to say… you have to con­vey to the read­ers in a fair man­ner and I use that as a guide to my job as a car­toon­ist.”

Datuk Lat was trans­ferred to the crime desk at the New Straits Times and it wasn’t un­til his de­tailed car­toon on bersunat, or cir­cum­ci­sion rit­ual for Mus­lim Malay boys, was fea­tured in Asia Mag­a­zine in 1974 that his tal­ents were no­ticed by Tan Sri Lee Siew Yee, then Ed­i­tor-in-Chief of New Straits Times. Lit­tle know­ing that Datuk Lat was al­ready work­ing for the pa­per he was head­ing, al­beit in the crime desk, Tan Sri Lim had fa­mously grum­bled about why no one had sought out and hired the young car­toon­ist to draw. That led to Scenes of Malaysian Life and, even­tu­ally, the graphic novel that would pro­pel him to fame, Kam­pung Boy.

Datuk Lat’s draw­ings have drawn the admiration not just of Malaysians, but also in­ter­na­tion­ally. His ad­mir­ers in­clude Ser­gio Aragones ( Groo and MAD Mag­a­zine) and Matt Groen­ing ( The Simp­sons). Cer­tainly, in Malaysia, Datuk Lat has sin­gle­hand­edly el­e­vated the comic and car­toon scene, with his works turned into tele­vi­sion shows, a mu­si­cal and even mer­chan­dise.

When I ask him, how­ever, if he knows just how much his draw­ings have im­pacted Malaysians, he is dis­mis­sive. “I never think about those sorts of things,” he shrugs, pre­fer­ring to amuse me, in­stead, with sto­ries of his child­hood and how he had joined a brass band in his sec­ondary school years at An­der­son School (as it was known then), Ipoh, where he played the flute.

In fact, the car­toon­ist is fa­mously shy, pre­fer­ring to stay out of the lime­light as much as pos­si­ble. Up un­til the 11th hour, we still hadn’t known if the pho­to­shoot shoot and in­ter­view with him was still on. “I’ve said ev­ery­thing al­ready,” came a ret­i­cent voice on the other end of the line. “I don’t think your read­ers would find me in­ter­est­ing at all.”

Like us, Datuk Lat is nos­tal­gic for his grow­ing up years, what he deems as hal­cyon days – “1969 and ‘70 were par­tic­u­larly mo­men­tous” – not least be­cause his won­der years were, like ours, colour blind. “You see this ‘mak­ing friends’ thing – we learn when we are young. What you be­come later is all about how you were as a kid,” he ex­plains. “We liked mu­sic and read­ing and movies, so we built this cir­cle of friends. And, as a young adult in KL it’s the same thing. Town Boy is all based on that kind of friend­ship, peo­ple get­ting to­gether.”

The for­mula for unity, for Datuk Lat, is a fairly sim­ple one and he thinks we’ve had an in­nate sense of unity all along. “We’ve al­ways been very care­ful about our friend­ships and our re­la­tion­ships with neigh­bours. The re­spect was al­ways there,” he says. “There was no writ­ten rule – you didn’t learn about it, but it was al­ways there. Things we have in our head we can only keep there: there are things you can say as an opin­ion; some things we kept in­side.”

He segues to an anec­dote about his grand­mother. “She was a mid­wife and she was strong,” he says. “With me, she must’ve had a

lot of things she kept in­side! Once, we were walk­ing – I think I was in Stan­dard Four and this was in the kam­pong – I was walk­ing in front and she was at the back. When­ever she was go­ing for a job, she would walk. If there was a car, she would ride it, but she won’t ride a bike. When some­one’s wife was ex­pect­ing and in labour, he would come to my grand­mother’s house and say, To­long pergi sekarang. She’d say, Jalan dulu, and she would fol­low with her bag. We were head­ing to a small vil­lage near Batu Ga­jah and she was test­ing me on the mul­ti­pli­ca­tion ta­bles. I for­got my ‘nine times’ and I kept on walk­ing ahead. I prob­a­bly gave her a look say­ing, ‘I’ll tell you to­mor­row’ but I felt her dis­ap­point­ment. This boy was Stan­dard Four and didn’t know his mul­ti­pli­ca­tion ta­bles! I’m sure at the time she could’ve said some­thing, but she kept it to her­self.

“Imag­ine we are care­ful about what we say with fam­ily, let alone a whole na­tion. It’s so easy to say things, so we must be care­ful.” Per­haps care­ful is not quite the word so much as re­spect­ful is. What does he think of more sub­ver­sive car­toon­ists, such as Zu­nar and Fahmi Reza, then, whose an­gry, con­tro­ver­sial draw­ings have drawn both ire and admiration, and were equally in­stru­men­tal in cre­at­ing a re­ac­tion amongst the rakyat, al­beit elic­it­ing quite dif­fer­ent emo­tions?

“They say what’s in front of them. Ev­ery gen­er­a­tion has its own style,” says Datuk Lat. “Look­ing back at the 1960s, it was more un­der­ground. The adults, the ula­mas couldn’t stand it. But the draw­ings were so at­trac­tive. It was more us. It was sar­cas­tic. We were teens or in our early 20s, and we were into that. In the 70s, I think MAD Mag­a­zine was play­ing a role with the posters and comics and po­etry, ridi­cul­ing any­thing.

“I was in the news­pa­per; I couldn’t draw like Zu­nar for the New Strait Times,” he says mat­ter-of-factly. “But I’ve al­ways had free­dom with­out peo­ple know­ing. My bosses were care­ful with me – they never im­posed. There was no cen­sor­ship but I knew if I drew this, they wouldn’t use it. If it was some­thing re­li­gious, it wouldn’t be used.

“Why would I do it – I’d waste pa­per and time. My time at the of­fice was very short. I’d just make sure that I’d come back with the best draw­ing I could do. I’ve had some re­jec­tions per­tain­ing to con­fu­sion with pro­nun­ci­a­tion like names or a par­tic­u­lar race. We learn.”

As the el­dest son in the fam­ily, Lat was thrust into the work­ing world straight out of sec­ondary school in 1969. “My dad was a clerk in the army and at the end of his ca­reer. He wasn’t well for many years, so he had a med­i­cal form where he could re­tire a bit ear­lier. Of course, I had to (work).” He first joined Berita Har­ian be­fore mov­ing on to the New Straits Times work­ing the crime desk. “Leav­ing Ipoh in 1970 for KL, for some peo­ple, would be con­sid­ered hard – a young man try­ing to make it. I stayed in Kam­pung Bahru with a small salary. When your pay is MYR200, you have to spend it like some­one earn­ing MYR200. Of course, MYR200 was a lot com­pared with any­one who was earn­ing MYR140 as a clerk. You had to be care­ful with ex­penses but I wasn’t,” he laughs.

Was he busy buy­ing LPs (mu­sic re­mains one of Datuk Lat’s fond­est pas­sions)? “Well, you know, I’d have to make sure that money was sent home. The New Straits Times paid us twice a month, be­cause they knew that these peo­ple would not have any money in the mid­dle of the month. As a mat­ter of fact, we were broke on the third day of the month,” he laughs. “At night, I ate at my aunt’s place in Kam­pung Bahru next door and paid her MYR15 a month. In the day, I’d eat at a place called Imam, sell­ing roti canai and all. It’s no longer there and look how so­phis­ti­cated the area looks now. Those days, we were friend­lier, life was eas­ier and there was no jam – now you can hardly park even if you live there.”

For some­one so nos­tal­gic, Datuk Lat has a sur­pris­ingly re­fresh­ing view of youth and the young. His face lights up as he says: “To talk to the young, I have to think about be­ing young, to get their sense of feel­ing. But not as an old man, giv­ing ad­vice to the young – that would be very dull.

“Right be­fore us, we see new ideas. We are faced with them. I take the LRT from KLCC to Masjid Jamek, and look around – there’s no one my age. If I were a young artist, I could draw all this.” Has the younger gen­er­a­tion lost some­thing in the wake of tech­nol­ogy and mo­bile phones? Datuk Lat doesn’t think so. “Well, if we had hand­phones then, we’d be on it and we’d be look­ing to meet af­ter school,” he says. “The thing about be­ing young – teenagers al­ways want to know and they’re al­ways in­quis­i­tive.”

He also doesn’t think that age has mel­lowed him. “I never talk about age,” he says. “It’s so dull. Peo­ple al­ways re­mind Tun M about his age – dull! Why say it? We want to see what you can do and your daily rou­tine, how he can be a non-stop worker.”

Datuk Lat him­self is con­stantly work­ing. Ideas come to his head any­where he goes. “I came back here (Ipoh) in 1997, and stayed away from the medan and telang­gang. I sit qui­etly and ob­serve.” Next on his to-do list is a se­quel to Mat Som but – “I’m lazy,” he claims. “It’s in progress but I need to have an as­sis­tant to col­late it be­cause it’s all in pan­els and they’re all around the house.”

There’s also Rumah Lat, an on­go­ing tra­di­tional kam­pong house project on two hectares of land at the Sim­pang Pu­lai-Batu Ga­jah in­ter­sec­tion that pays homage not just to Datuk Lat’s ar­chives, but also to the var­i­ous car­toon­ists whose works he has col­lected. Rumah Lat, due in early 2019, is clearly a pas­sion project for him. “It will be a house where you can learn about Malay tra­di­tion with Lat, and next to it will be a gallery where the car­toons are,” he said, ad­mit­ting that he de­pends on the lo­cal coun­cil to take it for­ward. “They’ve given me a piece of land but I still need help. If you give me a piece of pa­per, I can (work with it). But this sort of thing, I need help with. The con­trac­tor work­ing with the lo­cal coun­cil is slow. I only need to worry about what to put in the house, but I’m not in­volved with (the con­struc­tion) so that’s tak­ing a bit of time.”

He tells me he needs to leave for the mosque soon and we get around to set­ting up the photo shoot. Some shots have him hold­ing up a copy of Town Boy and grin­ning cheek­ily into the cam­era, be­ly­ing his true age. The pho­tog­ra­pher’s as­sis­tant, a young man in his early 20s, bash­fully asks him to sign a copy of his Kam­pung Boy comic, which Datuk Lat obliges with, “Ah­mad!” and a quick sketch of Ma­mat, his al­ter ego on the page. Later, he sits down on his din­ing ta­ble and inks out some let­ter­ing for our spe­cial Merdeka edi­tion. There is an air of rev­er­ence as we watch the master dip his brush into In­dian ink and mark the piece of pa­per with his trade­mark hand­writ­ing and sig­na­ture.

I ask Datin Faezah, who is ob­serv­ing from a cor­ner, what she thinks of her hus­band be­ing a na­tional trea­sure. To my amuse­ment, she just rolls her eyes in­cred­u­lously. Datuk Lat catches her ex­pres­sion and chuck­les be­fore head­ing out the door in his Baju Me­layu, songkok and sarong. “More roti jala?” is Datin Faezah’s only an­swer.

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