Unity through Lat cartoons

I recently received a message from reader, Yuvitra Jeyaraman, which said, "I stumbled across your blog as I was hunting for Lat books. I noticed that you have several Lat books and would like to know if you are interested in selling them?"

Lat cartoons typically reflect a local way of life!
I replied asking for more information because I wanted to know more about this reader who claims to be obsessed with Lat cartoons!

Then I learnt she was 17 when her parents sent her to Canada to further her studies and now she’s an under-graduate at the University of Toronto, majoring in Political Science and History.

When she left Malaysia, Yuvitra foolishly believed that her new home was Canada. On hindsight, she realised that it was anything but. In fact, she missed everything about Malaysia, even the things she didn’t think she would miss.

One day, quite by accident, she picked up a Lat book and as she turned its pages, she discovered a sense of renewed pride in her identity as a Malaysian. Suddenly the terrible things like the infamous Malaysian traffic and political culture, didn’t seem so terrible.

She told me how she enjoyed the way Lat comics reflected the little nuances that shape our Malaysian culture: Our willingness to go above and beyond for a complete stranger, the simultaneous obsession with politics and hope, and an unwavering faith in racial harmony. In short, the Lat books meant the world to her.

Yuvitra was back in Kuala Lumpur for her summer break before she returns to Toronto for her second year of university. Then she asked me to tell her how and when I started reading Lat comics.

My love affair with Lat started in the 1970s when Lat cartoons were published regularly in the New Straits Times. Even then, I could relate to the nostalgia and humour that Lat captured so vividly in his crazy illustrations and colourful characters.

We were living in the government quarters while our parents were working with the Government Health Cub-centre in Masai. It was common then to keep newspapers clips and when my dad started us on collecting Lat cartoons, it was a regular ritual to cut out the cartoon strip and paste it in a large F4 size hardcover scrap book. 

In our family, it was often a race to be the first to read the Lat cartoon and tell the others about it. Sometimes when I turned the newspaper pages for the Lat cartoon, I was greeted by a gaping hole because someone had already cut it out!

A night out in JB is no longer like this...
A picture truly tells a thousand words and Lat used his drawings to tell his stories effectively with his brand of humour, even in historical events. His comics were also a source of cross-cultural education because I learnt a great deal about the Malay, Indian and Punjabi cultures here.

Yuvitra’s message prompted me to take another look at our collection of yellowed newspaper clips and it was not long before I was laughing along with the wit of Datuk Mohammad Nor Khalid or Datuk Lat and his ability to make us laugh at ourselves and our Malaysian ways.  
                                                             
In a collection themed, Scenes of Malaysian Life, Lat covered a wide range of topics and showed no mercy, poking fun at politicians, actors, sports personalities, city or kampung folks and even tourists and foreigners. No one was spared as Lat aptly portrayed them and their typical ways.

I was fascinated by Lat’s astute take on ‘A Night Out in JB’ because the sites he highlighted in this comic strip back then, no longer exists now.
                                                                                                             
In it, he clearly made a mockery of the romantic ambience of the Golden Mile, a former seafront promenade at the Johor Straits which was lit up by electric bulbs on tacky artificial trees.

While fishing was popular at the Johor Straits at one time, the water has since turned toxic and any surviving sea creatures may not be the healthiest choice of a fresh catch now!

In the final frame, Lat’s cool illustration of the first Chinese food court in JB, fondly called pasak-kia, depicted a group enjoying a hearty meal despite their proximity to the filth and stench from the open sewer, familiar to locals as the infamous Sungai Segget!

Lat's astute observation of what usually happens at the
JB checkpoint when visitors return from Singapore!
In another comic strip which Lat entitled, ‘One afternoon in JB’ I realised that this practice is a thing of the past.

Back then, locals would try to smuggle back items they shopped in Singapore. But now with their favourable exchange rate, the opposite is true because Singaporeans are shopping lavishly in JB and trying to smuggle back everything they bought cheaply!

Lat’s collection of popular poses for photographs is so funny because it’s true! Just look into your family albums to find shots with similar poses, whether they are formal photos snapped in the photo studio or in the park!

Lat cartoons are often presented in a single frame while his standard cartoon strip format are a series of small frames with the punch-line delivered in the final frame. With accuracy in his words and illustrations, it would take a few witty and well-chosen words inside a tiny dialogue bubble, to crack me up!

A collection of popular poses for photographs!
Nobody takes offence when his Chinese characters have awful buck teeth and slits for eyes while his Indian men usually sported thick waists or the extreme opposite, drawn with skinny (hairy!) legs and wearing a dhoti!

I find it interesting that comic books, older than Yuvitra by several decades, made her reconnect with her country in the 21st century. It must be Lat’s unique brand of humour that binds us together. His wit and humour, artfully drawn into cartoons, are indeed an eye-opener for us to look for ways to unite ourselves with humility and mutual respect.

Thanks Yuvitra, for reminding me that Lat cartoons are a viable record of our Malaysian heritage and a humorous complement to dry history books. On whether or not I would part with my Lat books – regretfully it’s not likely to happen.

A version of this was published in the July 2017 issue of The Iskandarian

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