Crime, sex, politics and how reporter Lat became the all-Malaysian icon you love
• Kampung boy Lat’s start at Berita Harian
• Becoming one of Rudy’s ruffians at the crime desk
• Breaking into the big time and giving Mr Lee a start
• Also starring Miss Leong and bulldog Kennard
By Gobind Rudra
A truncated version of a Balai Berita newsroom legend received an airing last week, leaving out essential details of how crime reporter Mohd Nor Khalid (“Lat”) and his cartoons burst his way on to the leader page of the New Straits Times in 1974 — and into the hearts of Malaysians.
Wan A Hulaimi (“Awang Goneng”), columnist, author and former London correspondent, wrote about having lunch in London with Lat and other Balai Berita colleagues. Hulaimi says Lat was asked about how he was “discovered” and wrote:
Tired of sitting down at the reporter’s desk shaping out mundane stories for the following day’s fill, Lat sent his “circumcision” cartoons to the weekly Asia Magazine in Hong Kong.
It appeared two months later, much to the delight of the then New Straits Times group editor who was even more delighted (and not a little shocked) to find that the boy Lat was there hacking out crime stories for his own newspaper. And Lat’s lot, as they say, began from there.
The ex-crime reporter we all know as ‘Lat’
But Hulaimi’s account leaves out how Lat got started, perhaps for reasons of space, or because when Hulaimi joined the Balai Berita newsroom Lat had already been “glass-caged” and was no longer a shopfloor reporter.
He was already known as Lat, and many in the newsroom also knew that the scruffy, pudgy roundface in the blue denim jacket, with the rowdy hair and a big grin, liked cartoons and drew a weekly strip for Berita Harian, where he had got his first job, as a reporter.
A Samad Ismail, editor of BH, had hired the boy from small-town Perak, and learned of his cartoon craze and his schooldays production of comic books.
The weekly BH comic strip
Pak Samad gave Lat his break in newspapers by commissioning him to draw the weekly strip, and encouraging him, in his usual gruff, blunt manner, offhand and seemingly uncaring, when not breaking out into a bawdy tale or string of expletives.
The strip allowed Lat to carry on with his lifelong passion and earned him a few extra bucks over his D-grade salary.
But Berita Harian was a poor cousin to the Straits Times, the money-spinning establishment heavyweight.
What went on at BH seemed a little beneath the notice of the senior English-language side, even though the BH crew sat just a corridor apart in the middle bank of desks between the press-side NST rows and the window-side Malay Mail.
A year after Pak Samad became managing editor of the Times, he reorganised and beefed up the crime desk to be an integrated desk serving all three papers.Rudy Beltran and his assistant John Fernandez found themselves moved from the bottom of the general pool and given their own patch of real estate, and Rudy made master of his own gang.
John (later Johan) was joined by James Ritchie, Lat, and Ali Hamdan for a few months, taking turns to work the night shift: Berita Harian’s crime reporter Harith Hashim was to have been there, but had been assigned to another beat and didn’t join the new desk. Later, Najib Rahman, Terence Netto, Lam Seng Fatt, Lee Pang Seng, Lee Ah Chye, K Vijayan and Vijayan Menon were in turn also members of Rudy’s gang before moving on to other beats. (The latter Vijayan’s arrival led to the former Vijayan becoming known by his clan name Nambiar).
The creation of the crime desk caused a little spluttering about “empire-building”. Until then there had been only the News, Subs and Sports desks, with leader writers in their own pool. But the disgruntled and less than gruntled were not so much concerned with implications on office politics — no, the resentment was a little more basic, if not base.
To make room for Rudy’s gang, the Sunday Mail was turfed out from the space between the managing editor’s office and the sanctum of the formidable and redoubtable Allington Kennard — an Edwardian version of John Bull with an earthy vocabulary, wont to leave mile-long entrails of wire service teleprinter printouts littering the nearest reporters’ desks (in earlier days, often mine).
Miss Leong is moved — the men, too
The Sunday Mail was now placed by the blank wall of the editor-in-chief’s office on the opposite side of the hall.
Alas, along with the desks went the Sunday Mail’s writer, the young and lovely Miss Leong Thong Ping and her shapely legs (for whose sake the office carpenters had been hastily summoned to put up a modesty board at her desk).
It put her safely out of reach of the longing, lustful gazes of the single men, and not a few married ones, casually ogling her while meandering past on their way to the toilets, the teleprinter room, or to the back stairs that led down to the production caseroom or up three floors to the canteen.
Dylan diehard among crime desk coolies
Now there was now only the unedifying sight of Rudy’s ruffians cowering under his bemused gaze while muttering insults under their breath at their chief. All were in their early 20s, earning the newsroom coolie reporter’s wage of M$200 basic for cadets or M$360 upwards for D Grade (the lowest salary grade for confirmed journos), plus a pedestrian M$75 transport allowance for those without a car — almost everyone except Rudy.
Lat would have been on about M$400. Friendly, unassuming and ever-ready to share anecdotes about Bob Dylan at the drop of a tune, with mischief hovering beneath his toothy grin, he would yarn about his schoolboy days, his comic book publishing ventures, and the excitement of receiving M$5 or M$10 postal orders from magazines for his cartoons or comic strips.
Kampung boy in the bright lights dazzles the chief
One Sunday the Asia Magazine dropped on everyone’s laps with a bang: inside was a series of cartoons depicting kampung life, drawn in a style and with characters familiar to those who had occasionally glanced at the Berita Harian comics page. Lat had decided to try his luck at the big time by sending the Asiamag a set of cartoons “on spec” two months earlier. (They paid better.)
Come Monday morning, the usually imperturbable Mr Lee Siew Yee, editor-in-chief of the now New Straits Times, was to be found slightly flustered and in a state of mild excitement. “Samad, we must find this boy and hire him, he’s good,” he said after calling over the managing editor.
At which Samad bursts into his raucous, rasping bark and tells an amazed Mr Lee, “He works for us lah, Siew Yee. Nah – over there” pointing to Rudy’s gang across the hall, next to his own office.
Siew Yee: “What? You mean he’s a crime reporter?”
Lat was appointed Editorial Cartoonist, bumped up to Special Grade, given a regular spot on the Leader Page and his own little glass cage.
And the rest you know.
But who “discovered” Lat?
“Movie News” magazine? Samad Ismail? Asia Magazine? Lee Siew Yee?
No one did and everyone did.
Samad gave him his break in newspapers. Publication in the Asia Magazine brought his work to the English-language world, and especially to the attention of Mr Lee Siew Yee. And Mr Lee, an “Englishman of Chinese descent” turned him into an icon of the New Straits Times, and of Malaysian life.
But no one really “discovered” him. Lat made himself.
(Conversation between Mr Lee and Pak Samad recreated from an account related later that afternoon by leader writer K Mohanan about what Pak Samad told him. The descriptive phrase about Siew Yee is Mohan’s.)
Lee Siew Yee was made a Tan Sri a few years later. He died in the 1990s. Samad Ismail was also made a Tan Sri after his retirement from newspapers, his career interrupted by four years’ detention under the Internal Security Act. He died in 2008.