Lat’s iconic cartoon character.

Book lovers trekked through George Town’s rain-splashed streets last weekend to hear literary luminaries speak the third George Town Literary Festival. As always, this annual state-funded event was curated by Bernice Chauly and featured a line-up of Malaysian and international writers.

The highlight of this year’s George Town Literary Festival was undoubtedly Datuk Mohammad Nor Khalid, better known as Lat. His morning talk on Saturday 30 November filled out Sekeping Victoria with fans and those who were simply curious to see the iconic Malaysian cartoonist in the flesh.

Lat’s natural instinct for storytelling and humour shone through in person as much as in his cartoons. He regaled the audience with amusing anecdotes from his career, beginning with the first comic book he proudly drew aged 13. The 62 year old cartoonist’s stories of his childhood in Ipoh were as poignant as they were funny.

“We are just like everyone in this world, the problem we face is trying to fit into society. To be somebody,” said Lat. “It is only in later years I realised how nice it is not to be like one of those people.”

In his early career, Lat was a crime reporter for NST. When one of his cartoons was published in Asia Magazine in 1974, NST approached him to draw for their newspaper. The weekly cartoon “Scenes of Malaysian Life” was born, though occasionally some cartoons (featuring the Prime Minister) were omitted.

The playwright Huzir Sulaiman led the talk with good grace and thoughtful questions, while selected cartoons were projected onto the screen as a recap of Lat’s astonishing range and depth of work. Among other things, Huzir asked Lat about his influential travelogues, the way he depicts marriage (“the woman must always be bigger than the man”) and his sensitivity to the human impact of political decisions.

Lat also talked about how certain cartoons not intended to be funny, but instead to make the reader think about a more serious message – which he felt compelled to draw even though he knew they would not be popular. Ultimately, it is this acute skill of observing human life in all its conflict, folly and tenderness that has made Lat such a widely respected cultural voice in Malaysia.

The cartoonist revealed that he expected to publish a new book collection next year, marking the 50th year since his first comic book was published.

Ling Low