Man at His Best

What I've Learned: Lat

The legendary Malaysian cartoonist on Ipoh, racism and meeting (other) cartoonists.

BY Lennard Gui | Apr 9, 2016 | Culture

Self portrait by Lat

Lat a.k.a. Datuk Mohammad Nor Khalid, Cartoonist, 60, Ipoh.

I don’t miss the way things were. My Ipoh is just like my Kuala Lumpur—it’s very personal. I don’t look for things that are no longer around. There are certain areas that make me feel like I belong, like my alma mater, Anderson School. But once you have memories that are meaningful to you, it’s a very personal pleasure.

The big city is the place to cari makan [make a living]. You can’t sell cartoons in Medan Gopeng—not even for three ringgit. Kuala Lumpur is the place for young people to go and find work. You cannot operate from a place far away if you want to establish yourself.

When The Kampung Boy came out, I thought I was representing the kampung [village] folk. I draw from what I know. If I was from Kuching, my work would be very different, and you would be looking at “Lat from the Long House.”

I never mention names. You don’t want to make it personal. You don’t want to look like you’re boasting. That’s why I never use names for the kampung as well, because every kampung is the same. My kampung is just from my personal memory.

I was very surprised by the reaction when The Kampung Boy came out. I would be in public places, and I would hear people talking about the book, and they were also talking about where they came from, and finding similarities—not that I was going out to the pubs to look for reactions.

When you’re a beginner, you have to prove two things. One, you have to prove that you can draw; that’s why the drawings in the early days were detailed, beautiful, and everybody looked so nice. And two, you have to prove that you can write; that’s why you have all those long words. Today, it’s the other way around. People don’t mind if you can’t actually draw, and there are very few words, and people only speak when it’s necessary.

I met Sergio Aragones in 1988. It was in his studio. That was the only time. I was on holiday in the U.S. and the State Department helped me to meet him. It’s not uncommon to find artists, cartoonists and illustrators studying each other’s work. Matt Groening is another one. Once in a while, we would get in touch personally, but I don’t really receive letters from them. We communicate through our work.

Cartoonists are the last people I want to meet. It’s not because I have no interest, but I can read about them from their work. What’s important is my appreciation of their work. I don’t have to bother them.

I was about eight years old when I went to see Sleeping Beauty at the Odeon in Kuala Lumpur. I went with my dad, and he also bought me a Sleeping Beauty booklet. At the time, I couldn’t read English, so he explained it to me: To make this film, they had to use enough paint that could paint three hundred houses. I went gaga!

When I was a kid, once you are given a present, you better be nice! And you better show appreciation—ooh, ahh! That’s the difference between children then and now. Even when you’re given a coin box, you have to show you’re thankful and say, “This is what I always wanted.” Kids today are happy about things but only for a little while, because they can always get something else.

My father never praised me. I never heard the word pandai [clever]. But he played an important part in encouraging me to draw. He would always give me paper, and money to buy ink. I was told to draw whenever relatives came to visit. I knew he was happy and proud of my drawings, and behind my back, he was telling them about me, that I’m sure.

If the world has lost its sense of humour, it’s because the medium of communication has changed. Everything is so big. Our identities, our personal stories, are lost because we’re just like everyone else. The sense of togetherness is becoming a global thing but that’s not so funny. If everyone is the same, there are no more stories to tell.

Racism makes me angry, and it can appear in so many ways. Personal jokes can be hate related. When you’re a kid, you grow up surrounded by it, like what you call other people. And you grow up learning how to cope with it and how to avoid it. If you receive unfair treatment because of your race, of course you feel angry—you’re only human.

People will come together naturally. You don’t have to force them. I don’t use the word muhibbah. If you say muhibbah and try to make people get together, they will stay apart.

My time with work is very limited. The moment I leave the drawing table, I’m done with my characters. Real life is more important.

When I think of orang putih [caucasians], I think of durian.

First published in April 2011, The Premiere Issue.