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.
The cartoonist has been recognised both locally and internationally for his contributions.
The list of titles include:
1994 Honorific title of ‘Datuk’
1998 Eisenhower Fellowship
2002 Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize
2005 Petronas Journalism Awards (Special Jury Award)
2007 Honorary Doctorate in Anthropology and Sociology
2010 Civitella Ranieri Visual Arts Fellowship
ART DIRECTION PENNY CHEW
PHOTOGRAPHY GERALD GOH / IMAGE ROM
PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANTS SAIFUL AZWAN & GEORGE CHONG
PRODUCTION SUPPORT METAL BEES