Lat recalls life as crime reporter

KUALA LUMPUR: The year 1974 was an adventurous one for him. January was a sad month as he had lost his father, but his career as a cartoonist took off not long after.

Datuk Mohammad Nor Mohammad Khalid, popularly known as “Lat”, had been drawing cartoons since he was a little boy, but he started sending his work to Berita Harian only in 1968, two years before he was hired as a journalist at the Malay daily.

Datuk Mohammad Nor Mohammad Khalid receiving a Doctorate in Arts at Taylor’s University’s convocation in October last year.
Datuk Mohammad Nor Mohammad Khalid receiving a Doctorate in Arts at Taylor’s University’s convocation in October last year.

“I had money from my contributions to BH at the time, so in 1970, I took a train to KL (from Perak), stayed at a relative’s house in Kampung Baru and went to Balai Berita in Jalan Riong every day. 

“I was first hired as a cub reporter, then I was transferred to the crime desk, and thus began my life as a crime reporter. 

“My first impression of the editorial (floor) was that it was busy, noisy and there were papers everywhere on the floor!” he told the New Sunday Times on Friday. 

Pupils from SK Tun Fatimah in Kampung Bentong, Pahang, meeting cartoonist Datuk Mohammad Nor Mohammad Khalid (right) during a visit to ‘Berita Harian’ at Balai Berita in Kuala Lumpur on April 13, 1978.    FILE PIX
Pupils from SK Tun Fatimah in Kampung Bentong, Pahang, meeting cartoonist Datuk Mohammad Nor Mohammad Khalid (right) during a visit to ‘Berita Harian’ at Balai Berita in Kuala Lumpur on April 13, 1978. FILE PIX

In 1973, Lat’s editors told him that he would now work as a crime reporter under an integrated crime desk, with all crime reporters from the New Straits TimesBerita Harian and Malay Mailworking together. 

Being a crime reporter was not an easy task and Lat found himself working the graveyard shift most of the time.

Despite that, Lat says it was among his best years. 

“I was a young, single guy living in KL in the 1970s. It was great!”

Lat says his time as a crime reporter was thrilling — sometimes filled with laughter, sometimes sadness. 

He remembers an assignment about a convict who fled the police, but was eventually captured. 

“My editor asked, ‘how did the police catch the convict? Was it by grabbing his collar or a flying tackle or something else?’ I answered, ‘with a flying tackle’. 

“Listen to me, don’t do this. Reporters shouldn’t do this. I was scolded by the KL police chief at the time who asked me how I knew it was a flying tackle. 

“Actually, I had a feeling that the convict simply surrendered. I mean, how was he going to run away when he was surrounded?” he says, laughing. 

But it wasn’t all good times and laughter for Lat during his time as a crime reporter. 

One day, he was assigned to cover a devastating incident, not too far away from Balai Berita. 

“Two teen girls were found drowned in Sungai Klang, not too far from the office. They had this rope tied to each other. 

“I didn’t feel good about writing the article because I felt very sad to witness that.”

Being a crime reporter had helped him find new ideas for cartoon characters and one trip to the General Hospital (now Kuala Lumpur Hospital) gave him the idea to sketch “Bersunat”, about a circumcision ceremony Malay boys have to undergo.

 Lat’s cartoon titled ‘Bersunat’ was published by ‘Asia Magazine’ in 1974. The text on the first cartoon reads: ‘Well, it starts with a ‘Khenduri’ (feast). Kampong folks come in flocks to our house.’ The text on the second cartoon reads: ‘We are in our room, all dressed up in new colourful bajus and sarongs and there’s plenty of good food to eat. We feel like some kings. However, we just don’t feel like eating.’
Lat’s cartoon titled ‘Bersunat’ was published by ‘Asia Magazine’ in 1974. The text on the first cartoon reads: ‘Well, it starts with a ‘Khenduri’ (feast). Kampong folks come in flocks to our house.’ The text on the second cartoon reads: ‘We are in our room, all dressed up in new colourful bajus and sarongs and there’s plenty of good food to eat. We feel like some kings. However, we just don’t feel like eating.’

Lat says he saw some boys going into the hospital for the procedure in the morning and leaving in the afternoon. 

“And I thought, that was so quick! Back in the early days, we had to stay in bed for two weeks and no boy could escape it,” he says, chuckling.

The Asia Magazine published his “Bersunat” cartoon in 1974 and this caught the attention of NST’s former editor-in-chief, Tan Sri Lee Siew Yee, and his deputy, Tan Sri Abdul Samad Ismail, also fondly known as Pak Samad.

“One day, Pak Samad said to me, ‘your reporting hasn’t improved. Apa kau buat? (What have you been doing?) But your drawing has improved a lot’. 

“Drawing cartoons is my passion. I love drawing characters with pleasant facial expressions, always smiling, because I want the readers to smile when they see it, too,” he says.

That year, Lat was given the position of “column cartoonist” at the NST where he would send in three to four cartoon columns a week. The column was later known as “Scenes of Malaysian Life” in the NST. 

In December that year, a young Lat, with his bag in one hand and his dear old guitar in another, arrived in London. The NST had sent him there to study at the St Martin’s School of Art for four months. 

“It was the 70s in London. I went to all the classes and I used any extra time I could find to go to the theatres, musicals and stage plays,” he says.

A cartoon dated Nov 28, 1989 on a mass circumcision during the school holidays. The man in the middle is saying: ‘Mana dia orang? Tadi ada!’ (Where is everyone? They were just here!)
A cartoon dated Nov 28, 1989 on a mass circumcision during the school holidays. The man in the middle is saying: ‘Mana dia orang? Tadi ada!’ (Where is everyone? They were just here!)

When his famous Kampung Boy comic-book came out in 1979, Lat was on top of the world. He was still with the NST, but decided to leave the company in 1984. 

“When I drew for NST, I drew in a way that everyone of all ages and races could enjoy. 

“In 1984, I said goodbye to journalism, but I continued drawing my cartoons until 2014. 

“By that time, I felt old and it wasn’t easy to come up with new cartoon ideas.” 

During his many years as a crime reporter, Lat says, he made some “friends for life”. 

Although some have passed away, Lat is still in touch with former NST journalists like Najib Rahman and James Ritchie. 

“The easiest to reach is Najib. James loves singing Tom Jones songs because he thinks he sounds like Tom Jones. We all support him anyway,” he says, bursting into laughter. 

“My fondest memories of NST is a combination of several things — the support I received from my former colleagues, the feeling that we all belonged in Balai Berita, getting my teh tarik in between the gate cracks late at night and going out to eat at Benteng (across the river from Masjid Jamek) at 1am while looking at the clock tower of the Sultan Abdul Samad building. 

“I will smile, sometimes even laugh, when I think about all the things I did as a young man working as a reporter for NST in KL.”

By : Arfa Yunus – NST

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