Datuk Mohd Nor Khalid, more commonly known as Lat, was born in March 1951 in Kota Bahru, Perak. A Malaysian cartoonist, social commentator and cultural icon Lat was raised in a close-knit kampung or village community. Always keen on drawing, Lat’s interest in cartoons began early on during his school days. As he says, “School days were when we discovered a lot of things about ourselves. The first thing I discovered was how I could have fun with drawing. Although I was drawing even before I started school, this was different. Art class was fun.
The turning point in his primary school life was in Standard Four when he passed the Special Malay Class examination and went to an English school in Pasir Putih, Ipoh. It was here where he not only discovered new friends but, where he was encouraged to draw by his teachers. “In school back then if they knew you could draw, they would ask you to draw everything.” His family, particularly his father, also played a significant role in nurturing his talent – proudly encouraging him to draw for friends and relatives alike. “My father encouraged me a lot.”
Lat’s first cartoon was printed in Majallah Filem, published by Shaw Brothers in Singapore in 1964. His big break, however, came with a comic strip called Tiga Sekawan which he sent to Sinaran Brothers in Penang. Sinaran Brothers bought the comic book for 25 Ringgit. From 1964 to 1966 Lat continued to contribute to Majallah Filem and by the end of 1965 he had a regular strip called Tua Keladi. In 1967 he began drawing for Utusan Malaysia and the following year he started drawing for Berita Minggu. In 1968 he started Keluarga Si Mamat which was also picked up by Berita Minggu. He completed his Senior Cambridge in 1970 and began work in Kuala Lumpur as a crime reporter. His primary interest remained with illustrations and drawings, however, and he eventually became a full time cartoonist at the New Straits Times beginning with a series called Scenes of Malaysian Life. In 1975 the New Straits Times sent him for a course at the St Martin’s School of Art in London. Upon his return later that same year he was made a full time cartoonist. Lat left the New Straits Times in 1984 and began work as a freelance cartoonist.
Lat’s cartoons have become a vital part of Malaysian life. The late Malaysian artist Redza Piyadasa describes Lat’s body of work as being firmly stamped within the cultural consciousness of this nation. He has published more than 20 volumes of cartoons that illustrate Malaysia’s social and political scenes. His works have been published in newspapers, magazines, graphic novels and anything Malaysian from postage stamps to buses. Two Air Asia aircraft 737 and an Airbus with his cartoon characters were used to promote Malaysia to the world. Lat’s best known work, The Kampung Boy, was translated into 14 languages and recognised internationally by North American cartoonist Matt Groening (creator of The Simpsons), as "one of the all-time great cartoon books." The translations are an indication of the international recognition accorded to Lat and his widely popular cartoons. Additionally, the animated series of this work was broadcast in other countries such as Germany and Canada.
Lat is among the best known and best loved cultural personality in the country, admired by old and young alike. His phenomenal popularity and acceptance by the Malaysian public may be explained by the fact that people of all races in this country can readily identify with his positive messages and values which are spiced with humour. Lat has celebrated his 50th year in cartoon this year, an indication of his sustainability and lasting impact on the nation and its people.
Recently, he has released Lat’s Special: Forever Malaysia, which was published by 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) as an exclusive corporate gift for its local and international partners. It is a compilation of Lat’s humour in capturing scenes of Malaysian life. The book includes some rare cartoons from Lat’s early days when he published his first English book, Lots of Lat in 1977, as well as five brand new sketches specially made for the Forever Malaysia project.
His due international recognition came when he was awarded the Arts and Culture Prize of the Fukuoka Asian Culture Prizes in 2002. He was a worthy recipient based on the penetrating yet warm perspective of his works, which focus on the community, highlights many spiritual and traditional themes and provides many insights into the development of Malaysia and the region. Although retired he continues to draw and still produces a weekly cartoon for the New Straits Times. He is also working on “Rumah Lat,” a replica of the Kampung home he grew up in which he is currently developing on a plot of land in Perak.
What is remarkable about Lat is that for over five decades he has reached out to Malaysians of all backgrounds by using a popular, easily accessible and non-threatening medium of communication - cartoons. First, it was through his newspaper cartoon column, and later through his book publications, animation, theatre and more.
In this regard, Lat’s significance within the Malaysia context lies in his ability to project an all-encompassing picture of the total Malaysian reality. His ability to draw his themes and ideas for the wide spectrum of the nation’s complex and colorful multiracial milieu marks him out as an extraordinary individual and creative personality. His phenomenal popularity and acceptance by the Malaysian public may be explained by the fact that people of all races in this country can readily identify with Lat’s cartoons and comic books and laugh with him. Lat’s cartoons best represent Malaysia’s unity in diversity through his humour, which all of us can relate to.
Lat is a pioneer in Malaysia, not just in cartoons which is his choice of platform, but in paving the way for social commentary within a conservative social and political context. When self-criticism and criticism of subjects like religion, politics and ethnicity are generally discouraged from being discussed in public, Lat, through courage and creativity has been successful in pioneering the discussion of such issues of national importance through his cartoons in the mainstream media such as the New Straits Times for five decades. Lat’s cartoons tend not to confront or to challenge but to reinforce and build on a set of beliefs and values. His messages tend to encourage Malaysians to focus on their similarities rather than their differences. In doing so, he has successfully managed to bring together Malaysians of different gender, ages, races, religions and politics. His unique take on racial harmony and local culture personifies the Spirit of Merdeka which is about independence of thought, ability and nation building in a globalised environment.