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Kampung Boy, all grown up

Malaysian cartoonist Mohammad Nor Khalid, better known as Lat, may be retired but he’s still one busy man

(CNA) – Lat’s conversation brims with nostalgic tales, recounting his nomadic childhood due to his father’s military postings, and his early days as a cash-strapped reporter in Kuala Lumpur.

He fondly recalls the 1960s rivalry between Ipoh New Town and Old Town, marked by the era’s tight pants fashion that drew police scrutiny. In another story, he shared about revisiting an army camp in Mentakab, Pahang, his first school, after six decades, reliving his youth.

 “I wanted to show my wife where I was, what I did when I was six or seven years old,” he mused.

“There are new buildings but not as many people as I remember. The school where I went to Standard One and Two, and where I did comics in jawi (Arabic script used to write Malay language) and the teacher pasted it on the wall, was still there.

Lat addresses guests during the presentation of the German translation of his graphic novel Kampung Boy at the Frankfurt Book Fair on October 16, 2008. PHOTO: AFP/JOHN MACDOUGALL

“All those memories have always been with me. I remember the names of friends and teachers, and I just wanted to go back and see the school, a single storey building still standing very strong.”

It’s this same nostalgia that he’s so adept at bringing to life in his comics, starting with his initial work in Tiga Sekawan Tangkap Pencuri (Three Friends Catch A Thief), which he drew when he was just 13, all the way through his popular Kampung Boy, Town Boy and Lat series, as well as comic strips he drew as the cartoonist for Malaysian English daily, New Straits Times.

Things Lat wants to tell his younger self

Lat, whose pen name is short for Bulat (Malay for “round”), is headed to Singapore at the end of the week to participate in the Singapore Writers Festival as one of the keynote speakers. His festival keynote talk takes place on Saturday.

Later that day, he will also be part of a panel speaking on what it takes to be a cartoonist or comic artist in Southeast Asia today and through history.

He was initially reticent to talk about lessons for his younger self because “if you tell your younger self this and that, that means you have some regrets, or you’re not satisfied with things that you have”.

“If I were to tell you that I should have told myself to save money in the bank – which I didn’t do – that would sound like it’s a different me,” he explained.

However, when we pick up our conversation a couple of days later, he shared, “One thing I wish I had done was learn more languages than just English and Malay”, such as Japanese, Chinese and German.

Malaysian cartoonist Lat addresses guests during the presentation of the German translation of his graphic novel Kampung Boy at the Frankfurt Book Fair on October 16, 2008. PHOTO: AFP/JOHN MACDOUGALL

“I think I’m trying to tell young people and today’s generation to learn as many (languages) as possible because it does help.”

Another thing he would tell his younger self is to make more friends. Although he says he has plenty of friends now in Malaysia and elsewhere – some of whom he’s kept in touch with over decades – he can’t help but feel that there were many missed opportunities to make meaningful connections in the past.

He admits that when he first moved to Kuala Lumpur at 19, he had “some sort of complex” about city folks because he was a just kampung (village) boy from Ipoh. “They made an effort to get to know me and I was malu-malu lah,” he said, using the Malay word for shy.

“That’s no good. If I found those people again, I would be quite embarrassed. Why did I stay away? I was worried that Kuala Lumpur folks are different and sombong (arrogant) – but no, it was just my own complex.”

Ultimately, though, he has a feeling he hasn’t changed that much over the years. He said, with a chuckle, that looking at photos from his recent past as well as older photos made him realise that “I still have a look that says I’m thinking of something”.

Stories to tell

Kampung Boy, the comic that launched his long and successful career, was released in 1979. It has been translated into multiple languages including Japanese, French and Portuguese, and has also been adapted into a TV series. He’s since released over 20 volumes of comics.

He has received numerous accolades in his illustrious career, including the Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize in 2002 and the Merdeka Award in 2014.


In July this year, he was bestowed the title of Seniman Diraja, or Royal Artist, by the Sultan of Perak, to commemorate the opening of Lat House Gallery in Batu Gajah, Perak, which displays Lat’s works and chronicles his life.

Lat still finds time to draw. At the moment, he’s finishing up a new book in the Mat Som series, a story about young people in Kuala Lumpur set in the same era as the previous book.

He’s finished the drawings and is now working on dialogue and captions, which, he shares, is tough. “When I write a sentence, I want it to be meaningful because it’s not nothing, you know.”

He also admits he takes longer to complete his drawings now. “The older you get, the slower you work.”

However, Lat isn’t quite ready to put down his pen. Does he still have a lot of stories to tell? “Maybe a lot of short stories.” – Siti Rohani