It happened 50 years ago when Mohammad Nor Khalid was just 13 years old but the Malaysian cartoonist can still recall the sense of excitement he felt as he held his first published comic book in his hands. Setiga Kawan: Menangkap Penchuri (Three Friends Capture a Thief), inspired by The Dandy and The Beano, didn’t make him famous but did set him off on a career that has made him one of Malaysia’s most loved figures.
“All this kind of praise is temporary,” Lat – as the young Mohammad Nor was nicknamed by his family – says during a break between book signings at the George Town Literary Festival in Penang. “The one moment that I can never get back is the feeling as I held my first comic book in 1964, [knowing that] this is what I want to do. Adults who saw the book would say it was the work of a child. But it was me and it was my work.”
Lat was born in 1951 into an ethnic Malay family in the central state of Perak in what was then the British colony of Malaya. His nickname was inspired by his cherubic features: Lat is short for bulat, which means round. His father was a clerk in the army and his mother looked after the children and the home, a wooden house built on stilts and surrounded by coconut trees. Life in the village revolved around long-established traditions of family, religion and the land.
Young Lat had an idyllic childhood. Like most other village kids he played in the jungle and rivers around their home but his parents also encouraged his talent for drawing. Cartoons became a way for him to stand out at school and boost his family’s income. As well as contributing work to newspapers and magazines – sometimes earning as much as myr120 (€27), the same as a government clerk – he would draw his own comic books to sell to classmates. Each publication would trail the next one, with a small order form on the back cover so friends could sign up for the next edition.
“Everyone seemed to be able to do something,” Lat says with a chuckle. “There was the guy who was good at sport, the one who was good at science and maths, the guy who was good with language and, of course, the one who was good looking and got lots of girlfriends. I wanted to prove I was somebody, too.”
After finishing school Lat joined the New Straits Times, then the country’s leading English-language daily, as a crime reporter. He continued to draw, refining his style and submitting cartoons to Malay-language publications, but it was only after the Hong Kong-based English-language Asia Magazine published his work that the New Straits Times gave him the chance he’d been waiting for. It’s a relationship that has endured: one of Lat’s cartoon still appears in the paper every Monday.
For all the newspaper entries it is the book Kampung Boy, based on Lat’s own childhood, that has defined his career. It was published in 1979 and central character Mat, with his wild tufts of hair, cheeky grin and distinctive nose, won the hearts of millions of Malaysians and made his creator famous throughout the country. Readers warmed to the gentle humour and affectionate depiction of rural life that was, even then, under pressure from modernisation.
Sequel Town Boy, following Mat’s exploits in the tin-mining town of Ipoh in the 1960s, only deepened the affection. Appealing across Malaysia’s ethnic groups – the country’s population is 67 per cent Malay, 25 per cent Chinese, 7 per cent Indian and 1 per cent other ethnicities – the books are also credited with furthering understanding in a country where relations have often been fraught.
While Lat is often described as an astute social commentator, he is more modest. “[My work is] all about the simple things in life and how we live in this world,” he says. “In those days you had to go out and meet people; to play games you needed to have friends. There are no institutions to teach friendship. It’s something that develops.”
For Lat the catalyst for friendship was a shared passion for music (Elvis, The Beatles and even country songs) as well as books – and girls. He believes that meeting people from other ethnicities made life far more interesting. “I do worry when people keep to themselves,” he says of modern Malaysia. “There’s not enough mixing going on.”
Now living in “semi-retirement”, Lat is preparing a collection of his favourite cartoons to mark the five decades since the publication of Setiga Kawan. His public appearances are rare but hugely popular. At the literary festival in Penang, Malaysians in their thirties and forties clutching yellowing copies of Kampung Boy and Town Boy queue patiently. One woman even brings along a scrapbook of cartoons she’s compiled over the years.
Many have brought their children, a generation of Malaysians who mostly know Lat from the animated cartoon that was first broadcast on local television in 1997 or from the cartoons painted on the sides of some Malaysia-based AirAsia jets. They are more likely to spend time on their computers than playing traditional games with coconut palms and spinning tops but as Lat brings the Kampung Boy to life on a clipboard, the children watch entranced.
First the thatch of black hair, then the pudgy nose, the eyes and the mouth; he’s riding a bicycle but after much excited chatter on what he should be holding in his hand, a smartphone begins to take shape. The cartoonist may be 62 but his zest for life and drawing – which at 13 he felt so strongly as he held his first comic book – remains undimmed.
Mohammad Nor Khalid’s CV
1951 Born in Perak, Malaysia. His family nicknames him “Lat”
1964 Publishes his first book of cartoons
1970 Joins the New Straits Times as a crime reporter
1974 First English language cartoon is published in Asia Magazine. Becomes the NST’s full-time cartoonist
1977 Makes his first visit to the US
1979 Kampung Boy is published and becomes an instant success
1980 Town Boy is published
1994 Awarded traditional Malaysian title of “Datuk” in recognition of his work
1997 Kampung Boy is broadcast as an animated cartoon on local TV, later sold to 60 countries
1998 Awarded Eisenhower Fellowship to the US to investigate how to promote multiculturalism in schools
2002 Wins Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize
2011 Awarded Civitella Ranieri Foundation fellowship in Italy
2013 Themed restaurant Lat’s Place opens in Johor