KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 29 — Ask any Malaysian about Lat — chances are they would know who he is. The beloved cartoonist is an icon of interracial harmony, which he often depicts through his Malaysian -themed drawings.
Datuk Mohammad Nor Khalid was born six years before the country’s independence. He grew up witnessing how the country progressed and developed following its independence, and told his story through the eyes of a kampung boy.
His passion for drawing started while still in school. He came up with the cartoon series ‘Keluarga Si Mamat’ for the paper Berita Harian while he was in Form Four. At the same time, he also contributed to Berita Minggu and the magazines Pemimpin and Dewan Pelajar.
Every strip of cartoon created by Lat draws on the ‘Malaysiana’ element. He has captured the often funny, heart-warming and bittersweet scenes of Malaysian life, from the daily routines of multiracial kampung communities to the way things are in the big cities.
It is little wonder that Malaysians love and relate to his work so much. Even after he started slowing down several years ago, the characters he created such as Mat, Mrs Hew, Opah, Ana, Yap and Yah can still seen on posters today, particularly during the New Year and festive seasons.
To Lat, it was really important to include the element of the racial diversity in Malaysia in his works. This, to him, was a way to casually educate the masses about the beauty of the differences in race and religion.
“When I drew, I drew everybody. “Everybody” meant all the races in Malaysia. All Malaysians and all ages from kids to the senior citizens because they all read the newspapers. Those were the glorious days of newspapers,” he recounted.
During an event at the National Art Gallery earlier this month, Lat shared his story of working with The Straits Times and the creative freedom given to him to draw on anything based on the Malaysian culture. The paper had given him six columns after seeing his work on the Asia Magazine.
Six columns were actually quite a large space to fill every single day. His task was to come up with ideas and submit his drawings by 7pm every day so that it could be vetted by the editors and printed for the next day’s edition.
“Sometimes, even at six o’clock I will still have nothing (to draw). I would not even be in the office. I would be in the car, in Lucky Garden, Bangsar. There would be some editor waiting for my drawings and I would be in my Pajero in Lucky Garden, not knowing what to draw. That has happened many times, but you do not panic (in these situations),” he said.
While it might have sounded like it had been difficult for him coming up with something, the truth was, Lat never ran out of ideas. He always had some material to work with, especially when it came to the idiosyncrasies, habits and tendencies of Malaysians.
Lat believed that having a deep and healthy curiosity about the different cultures in Malaysia was essential towards fostering interracial harmony.
“You see, because of the varied and different backgrounds of people in this country, we are from different tribes, different clans and different races — but that is actually what makes us very attractive. The more we understand about each other, the more we will be interested in each other. All my work in The Straits Times were about understanding each other,” he said.
He said that if someone expected a friend of another race or religion to be interested in their culture, they should first be interested in their friend’s cultural background. He believed that it should not be one-sided. A party that promotes their culture should also, in return, strive to learn the culture of others.
Lat also insisted that the cross-cultural learning process should start from a young age.
“When do we (usually) realise that our differences are attractive? It is during our teenage days. That is the age when we become interested in each other because of our differences. That is the time to mingle; when you are young, when you are good-looking, full of energy. That is the time to mix around. My book Kampung Boy was about the Malays in a little kampung but when I did my next book Town Boy, it was about Ipoh and how people mingled in that town,” he said.
The first time he drew a cartoon on the wedding rituals of another culture was in 1974, with a heart-warming depiction of a Sikh wedding.
The idea stemmed from the deep curiosity he felt after seeing a wedding photo of the owner of a restaurant he patronised. He then inquired where he could witness a Sikh wedding ceremony himself so that he could draw it out.
His request was initially denied because of fears that he might portray the ceremony in a way that offends the community. Lat, however, did not give up. He talked about his job and of his intention to draw it in such a way that would educate other communities about it.
At the time, he was yet to be known for his work and as such, many were still unacquainted with the themes he worked with.
The restaurant owner eventually agreed and informed him about a wedding ceremony that would take place that weekend at the Gurdwara Sahib in Kampung Pandan.
“I was glad that I did that because the series went on for many days and the response was very good,” he said, adding that the paper was inundated with calls praising his work and asking for more of such themes.
A National Day icon
Datuk Lat has received many accolades for his work and was recently given another form of recognition when renowned stationery manufacturer Faber-Castell appointed him as the company’s National Day and Malaysia Day icon.
He worked with Faber-Castell to produce three drawings on the theme of the major celebrations in Malaysia which are Hari Raya Aidilfitri, the Chinese New Year and Deepavali, using the ballpoint pen ‘Grip X’.
Unlike other pens produced by the company, ‘Grip X’ was designed and manufactured in Malaysia. It was then exported to 170 other countries worldwide. Some 150 million units of the pen have been sold over the past 10 years.
“In conjunction with the National Day and Malaysia Day celebrations, we would like to remind ourselves of the diversity in Malaysia that also made the success of Grip X possible. It is made in Malaysia, owned by most Malaysians and is a favourite among Malaysians.
“Lat is an ideal partner for the 10th anniversary of Grip X because he is a cartoonist beloved to Malaysians,” said Andrew Woon, the managing director of Faber-Castell Malaysia. — Bernama