The Spirit of Malaysian Design


In a fast paced world, where things change in a blink of the eye, sometimes we lose sight of what is truly important. Things scream out for our attention, demanding our time. There is simply so much to take in, that at times I do suffer information overload. In Malaysia, things are developing fast, and competition is very stiff at times, especially in the design industry. Every year, new graduates come out, some entering existing companies, others establishing their own little startups, powered by enthusiasm and led by their dreams. In this big field, how do we really differentiate ourselves, yet be able to deliver designs that will suit our clients’ needs?

At times like these, I often question the whole situation and yearn for a simpler time. There is a Malay proverb which goes like this “Sesat di hujung jalan, baik balik ke pangkal jalan”. It literally means, When lost at the end of the road, it’s best to go back to root. Its true meaning, of course, means that whenever we’ve diverted away from our original path, it’s best to return to the root of the matter. So whenever I feel that I’ve forgotten what Malaysian design is all about, I turn to the works of Mohammad Nor Khalid, more commonly known as Lat. And who, you may ask, exactly is Lat?

Lat: Examination of a Nation

Lat1Lat is a well known cartoonist in Malaysia. He has been drawing ever since he was a child in primary school. In fact, his first published cartoon was published when he was merely 12, a book called “Tiga Sekawan” (3 Friends). He went into journalism, first as a reporter, but his artistic ability, his keen sense of observation and his taste for satire led him to his true calling, that of a cartoonist. His most defining work would be The Kampung Boy, a cartoon autobiography of his childhood (Kampung means village in Malay). Details of Malaysian life and culture are beautifully captured and stereotypes of Malaysian life and attitudes spring to life inside the pages of his cartoons.

Lat houseLat’s style of drawing is minimalistic, often line drawings on a white background. His rendition of Malaysian scenery is stunning, often very accurate, showing his attention to detail. Observe the details on this drawing of a traditional malay house, in a rural setting. On the far left, by the staircase leading up to the house, you can notice a contraption made to divert water that falls down from the rooftop down to the ceramic container at the bottom. An overturned tin can which serves as a bucket is kept on top of a stick just by the container.

A Eyeful of Malaysia, Lat-style

Stall 1stall 3stall 2
In these 3 pictures, Lat focuses on Malaysian racial diversity, showcasing 3 different eateries, a Malay nasi lemak (rice) stall, a Chinese coffeeshop (hole-in-the-wall for those across the Atlantic) and an Indian rice shop (note the two western tourists at the right hand corner, underneath the staircase). These 3 pictures on their own are not meant to be funny, rather they’re a graphic rendition of Malaysian life, snapshots of Malaysia so to speak. It is in this that Lat excels in, and his cartoons are a collection of snapshots of Malaysia throughout the years, marking the changes.

KampungboyHis career has spanned at least 4 decades, in which he has published numerous cartoon books, editorial and satirical cartoons lampooning politics in Malaysia and other lighthearted ways of highlighting social and cultural issues in Malaysia. In the last 10 years, he has slowed down, and it is a shame that most Malaysian youth nowadays are not even familiar with his name, nor with his works.

Why do I hold Lat in such high esteem? It is perhaps that in his work he shows Malaysia as it truly is, the simple beauty and the stark ugliness, the mix of old fashioned values at odds with the fast-changing development of times, a society trying to make sense of its surroundings, and trying to find its place in this world. By taking a break and laughing over his cartoons, I remind myself of what is simple in this world, and perhaps in that, I am able to find myself again.

Closing Thoughts

To me, this simple man embodies the spirit of Malaysian design. I just wish that most of us are able to remain true to ourselves and still be able to meet the challenges of the design industry. It is possible to be a success and still be ourselves. Lat did it. So can we.

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