MALAYSIA - Here's the irony. Datuk Mohammad Nor Khalid, or Lat, is probably more instantly recognisable as a cartoon in his own works than as himself in real life. Those who grew up with his regular cartoon column in newspapers and his popular books such as The Kampung Boy, Town Boy, Keluarga Si Mamat and others would attest to that. The spiky-haired chubby boy with the beady eyes and toothy grin is now a timeless Malaysian icon. Schoolchildren in the 1970s and 80s emulated Lat's style of drawing and few who grew up in those times would deny that they also tried their hand at drawing that chubby boy.
He started his career in the 60s as a cartoonist for Berita Minggu. He has a knack in capturing everyday scenes of Malaysian life, everything from the popular "bas mini" and durians, to politicians and other famous folks.
Lat was already working as a reporter when he was given the task to draw a regular cartoon column. He remembers his chief editor at the time "was a very strict fella, real conservative and he wore a suit every day and I was in my early 20s, with very long hair and very hip, and I didn't know how we could meet half way."
In a transcript provided by National Geographic Channel, Lat said: "But I had the audience, the people in mind, and how to reach out to those people who read the newspapers, people of various ethnic groups."
He started off drawing about weddings, because "you can't go wrong with weddings, everybody attends a weddings." In between, he slipped in drawings about football, eating habits and bus rides. Soon, he became popular and was like "wah, a rock star". His fans then started requesting that he draw about politics.
"But it was a subject which at that time I didn't really follow," says Lat, "and what I did was I started to draw caricatures of prominent Malaysians and politicians, and that's how I started to draw Tan Sri (Abdul) Kadir (Yusuf) who was our head of the Anti-Narcotics Bureau, and he was (Law Minister). He was easy to draw, very slim, and when the drawing came out, he told people 'I'm going to get that Lat one day', which meant he liked it."
Later he also drew then Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak, and he got an earful from his chief editor who told him, "Wah, this is our Prime Minister. Young Lat, you want to go to jail? You cannot draw the Prime Minister."
But Lat wanted to attract a larger readership, and when he eventually drew Tun Abdul Razak, his readers responded positively.
He remembers one incident when Muhammad Ali and Joe Bugner were being hosted by the Prime Minister.
He was on the late shift as a crime reporter, and he would draw his cartoons after he had done his rounds. At about 5am, his editor arrived at the office.
"I was ready with the drawing and told him, 'Here, you better use this drawing, it's going to be a hit in the papers. This is specially for you'," Lat recalls. "He used it because at that time (because the chief editor) was sleeping. So it came out at 11am. People went crazy. There were the Prime Minister, Muhammad Ali and his opponent, kicking each other under the table."
Then came the Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad era, and by that time, Lat was at the height of his popularity, and he could literally draw anything he liked. He drew about the Look East policy and the introduction of the punch-card system. But prophetically, he drew the national car when Proton had not yet been in existence. But his version had the roof of a traditional Malay house.
Then it came to drawing Tun Mahathir.
"With Dr M, the nose became bigger and bigger," says Lat. "Eventually when it became big, it looked funny to me, and it looked like him, although he's a good-looking man ... Eventually I ended up with a big nose, and a mouth that was right behind the nose, instead of underneath the nose. Some of the people close to him did tell me that he complained, 'Why does he draw my nose too big?'. I said that's my style."
Lat remembers his childhood when the country was still young, and there was the "Speak our national language" campaign everywhere.
He remembers singing the Gunakanlah Bahasa Kebangsaan song for fun or when he and his family were waiting at the railroad crossing in their car. He remembers his days growing up in Ipoh, Perak where he had friends from different ethnic backgrounds.
He advises young people today to mingle more with people of various races and to understand each other.
Asked what he thinks of Malaysia celebrating its 50th anniversary, Lat says: "My first cartoon was in 1963 ... Ya, we should celebrate. Fifty years is special, it's so special."