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Things I would tell my younger self: Malaysian cartoonist Lat

Malaysian cartoonist Mohammad Nor Khalid, better known as Lat, may be retired but he’s still one busy man. Our hour-long chat had to be split up into several phone calls after a couple of interruptions, including the time he tells us that he’ll have to call us back because he’s at a record store in Ipoh New Town and his phone battery is running low.

During the next chat, we ask what he bought at the record store. “I got the new Rolling Stones album, Hackney Diamonds,” he replied. “I heard the new song, Angry. It’s good. I’ve been listening to The Rolling Stones since 1965.”

While on the topic of music from legendary bands, what does he think of the new Beatles song, Here And Now? “To me it’s an unfinished song,” he said. “Personally, I didn’t like it at all.”

“If something is good, you’d want to listen to it again and again,” he added, referencing the Beatles song, Hey Jude. “Like when you watch a new movie and you’re only halfway through but you tell yourself, ‘I want to watch this again’.”

The prolific 72-year-old award-winning cartoonist is clearly a music fan. He has a vinyl record collection, which he says is more for collecting nice album covers. He listens to CDs in his car and when he uses his daughter’s treadmill, he plugs in to music on his phone.

“I still listen to music the way I like – old performers from my time. I still listen to The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard.”

He also used to play guitar and a bit of bass in a band with some friends in the late 70s and early 80s. He no longer plays; he doesn’t even know where his guitar is now, although he says he sometimes still picks up the instrument when he visits his son in Kuala Lumpur.

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 (Nov 25).

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.

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

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.”

Lat is a keynote speaker at the Singapore Writers Festival. He will appear in two programmes on Saturday (Nov 25). Check the SWF website for more information.

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