Freedom to laugh

I have great respect for the press in India. Shashi Tharoor once wrote that it has no sacred cows-  free to tackle any topic in any sphere. Just look at the recent reports of the Commonwealth Games preparations. The most strident criticisms have come from Delhi itself. The Times of India website carries acerbic columns chastising the games organizers and the government for their handling of the event, and I have no doubt that the newspapers have even more in-depth and analytical coverage of the issue. The freedom of the press is a very important aspect of democracy. It keeps citizens fully informed so that they can make rational decisions. And I have often felt a little depressed about the constipated coverage of events and issues in the Singapore papers. Years ago, when I was considering journalism as a career, I decided against it eventually because I didn’t think it offered much scope for thinking. (It’s a different issue, of course, that I may not have been any good at it!)

But there are a couple of ways of looking at this idea of press freedom. Where do a journalist’s responsibilities lie?   It’s good that so many of them in India are criticising their government. There must be some accountability. But maybe jumping on  the bandwagon now is the easy thing to do. Why not write a diatribe against corruption? Who is going to disagree with you? My question, though, is this: how come the press didn’t come in earlier, before everything fell apart? Perhaps they could have supported the event much earlier. I don’t mean they should have colluded with the organizers. What they could have done was shone the spotlight on the organizing committee right from the beginning. After all, if you grew up in India you know that corruption exists. Why would you think the Commonwealth Games organizers would be above this?  If they had known they were being watched and held accountable by the local media, perhaps they would not have had quite such a free run. At the same time, earlier involvement would have built up more national awareness of and support for the event.

The beautiful thing about being in India is  that everyone has an opinion, and is not afraid to voice it. I don’t just mean journalists who are professionally vested with rights and obligations. I am talking about the vegetable seller at the market, the maid who cleans houses, the women collecting water at the communal taps. It may not be a discussion about national level politics- every state, every minute political division has its own issues, and everyone seems to engage with them in some form or other.I realise I might be accused of naive romanticism here. Yes, people speak up, but there are places in India where certain groups of people have no voice. In this sort of situation responsible journalists are even more important, and there is no shortage of them in India. At the same time, general political dialogue among the people is alive and kicking.

Cut to Singapore, where we sometimes wonder if we have a voice. We are told we don’t. We even believe it most of the time. Yet we are declaiming our lack of voice in public. And what can be more public than the Internet? Introducing our very own form of political engagement: humour.

In today’s Straits Times, there is an article on online parodies of the Mas Selamat issue. Entitled “Mas Selamat, the joke’s on you”, the article describes the satirical portrayals of the terrorist’s escape and the prolonged hunt to recapture him. According to terror expert Kumar Ramakrishna of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, the use of humour is a sign of society’s resilience. Psychiatrist Brian Yeo posits that it could be a sign of confidence in the government. The authorities, we are told, are willing to put up with the mockery because, after all, the event did happen, and in an undoubtedly ridiculous way (who can blame the toilet humour that resulted?).

My take, however, is that the satire is not a one-off thing. The writers of the article are being a little shortsighted here. The Mas Selamat satire has to be seen in the context of the form of political engagement that Singaporeans seem to react most enthusiastically to- humour.

Steven Mcdermott’s paper on the political blogosphere in Singapore (I got it here) talks about the double-edged sword of truth-speaking in a country like Singapore. I don’t agree that we are as authoritarian a regime as he posits, but there is some credibility in his argument that the very act of positioning as an unofficial political adversary, while advancing the cause of democracy, also legitimizes the authority of the ruling power. If I challenge you as the ‘little’ man, then I am admitting that I see you as the ‘big’ man. In this sort of context, humour becomes a safe way to engage in political comment. It diminishes both the target as well as the satirist, softening the blow. This is akin to the saying that if I point one finger at you, four fingers are pointing back at me. I am a part of the system that allows you to be, and my poking fun at you shows that I accept my powerlessness, even while it might be viewed as a way of taking you to task.

Humour as a form of political engagement in Singapore is not new. Even before the internet came about the old uncles in the kopitiams would sit in their boxers and singlets, one leg hitched up on the chair, smoking languorously, poking fun at politicians and government policy. Taxi drivers were famous for their pithy comments that masked real pain with a veneer of laughter. For example: “The gahmen say have only two children. So I ask my wife go operation after number two come out. Then they say have more chewren. Where I get the chewren from now? Close shop already mah!”

The Internet made this humour available to everyone on a larger scale. It also allowed everyone to have his say. is a very well developed website that has numerous sections which convey opinions in different voices. ‘Lim Peh Ka Li Kong’ is a column written in the voice of an old Chinese uncle along the lines of the kopitiam veterans described above. ‘Annals of the Dragon King’ carries the voice of a member of the well-educated and socially invested elite.

Blogs are certainly popular platforms for this sort of political engagement. Mr Brown’s blog makes use of multimedia tools to enrich the traditional text mode of the blog. His recent video on ‘Net Happiness’ pokes gentle fun at a speech by one of our elder statesmen. I think this video represents a higher level of sophistication in the use of media to get the message across. No extra words are added- only the actual words used in the speech appear. Yet the juxtaposition of the words with almost monochromatic HDB blocks set to artfully segmented and repeated sentences in the context of a catchy but mundane tune underscores the message of the speech that there is no such thing as total happiness. This leads the viewer to ask why this is the case. The overt humour of the video appeals while the subtle message teases.

In a context of perceived threat of retribution for speaking out, as well as one in which not many people have the time, inclination or aptitude for sophisticated media production exercises, political engagement appears in the form of comments people make on blog posts and media products. Increasingly, that champion of the one-liner, Twitter, has been mobilized to carry the Singaporean voice of humour. There is an entity who calls him/herself/themselves “Fake_PMLee”. Deftly circumventing legal issues by using the epithet ‘fake’, this entity now has 4142 followers on the microblogging site. At the same time, though, this cannot be seen as a uniquely Singaporean phenomenon. I also follow on Twitter an entity who calls him/herself/themselves “Queen_UK” and has more than 30000 followers. And there are many more fake versions of celebrities, which is why the real ones sometimes get their profiles verified so that bona fide followers know they are the real thing.

Our press may not be as free as their counterparts in other countries, but they work within a different paradigm of responsibility which I fully admit I am not qualified to speak of with any great authority. As citizens, we have the freedom to laugh at ourselves, at our government and our perceived lack of freedom. Somewhere within the irony are the seeds of democracy.

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