Finding the Funny in a Conservative Nation

Comedy is an expressive platform that has been used for centuries to entertain people. From the Greeks performing plays and reciting poetry out in the public to our own famed Malaysian cartoonist Datuk Lat drawing Tun Mahathir Mohammad with a freakishly big nose, going about his day being a leader of the nation. Nowadays, the role of comedy has done more than to simply entertain and get a quick laugh out of the audience. In the Western countries, satirists and comedians like Jon Stewart, Trevor Noah, John Oliver and Stephen Colbert have paved the way in the presentation of news and packaged it into something that some would consider rival certain major news organizations like CNN. These satirists have become a somewhat respected opinion leader when it comes to the presentation of news, backed up by research that has shown that these late night talk show satirists are steadily gaining a popular audience, compared to traditional news organizations.

Satire has been used for centuries, mostly to raise awareness about critical issues, whether it is aimed at government administrations or current affairs (Crittenden, Hopkins and Simmons 2011, p. 174). Coletta (2009) meanwhile, is of the opinion that satire is “one of the most capacious and most misunderstood literary terms”, because satirical elements can be applied broadly to a number of artistic forms, in various media publications.

Now if we look at the way the western satirists present and satirize the news, they do not hold back on their commentary and critique, especially when it comes to commenting or criticizing their US president Donald J. Trump. The leader of the US nation has also fired back at these comedians and satirists with his own opinions and commentary, but without any policing law being enforced. Let’s take the same method and platform of satire, may it be in TV, cartoon drawings or video being practiced in Malaysia and you will see a different story altogether, as we are not even being placed in the same book.

When activist Fahmi Reza drew a cartoon caricature of our former Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak with the words ‘Kita Semua Penghasut’ written across his face in February 2018 (BBC, 2018), he was fined RM30,000 and jailed for a month. He was charged under the Communications and Multimedia Act Section 233(1)(a) with posting a poster depicting the former Prime Minister in clown face, along with the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) logo.

Compare this hefty fine and jail term charges with US actress Melissa McCarthy who won the ‘Best Guest Actress on a Comedy Series” at the Creative Arts Emmy in September 2017 for her portrayal of former white house press secretary Sean Spicer (Andrews-Dryer, 2017) on the popular show Saturday Night Live on NBC, which garnered over 35 million views on Youtube for that scene alone. This shows that even though the US and Malaysia share a common value of democracy, but the way we exercise that same value is vastly different.

Humor has the ability to suspend counter-argumentation in a way that regular discourse is not able to. When things are presented in a humorous way, less resistance is shown and only if the audience is willing to take the subject matter in the realm of play to begin with. Political satire is not just about telling jokes and making people laugh. It is a tool that we can use to have a conversation about bigger national issues like politics, racism and inequality.

I grew up reading Datuk Lat’s comics and when I was a child, the humor was all that it seemed like at that time. Looking back now, I began to realize that Lat’s cartoons were providing social commentary in those times of the 70s and 80s era. Just like how the print media was important during those times, his cartoons provided a valuable record of the Malaysian society. Sometimes he would draw political satire cartoons of Tun Mahathir and his funny nose, going about his day battling government policies and commenting on the civil government workforce. During those times, this type of comedy and humor was acceptable, as Lat did not get into any trouble with the law, even with his method, that some might argue did pose a new way of cross-cultural communication using cartoons other than words, advertisement and political campaign slogans. But with the advent of the internet and social media, it provides a wide space for critiques and unfortunately, law enforcement.   

So jokes aside, if anything, I believe we all should learn to laugh more and most importantly, we should learn to laugh at ourselves and learn how to take a joke. Seriously, our state of democracy depends on it. Just don’t do it in Malaysia. Or Brunei. Or Qatar. Even Singapore. As we can see, satire in Malaysia is based on the sentiment of the current ruling government. We can see that from the comments made my former Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Zahid Hamidi in April 2017 where he said that “Satirism is not a Malaysian culture and those who are knowledgeable should not use their intelligence to belittle others” (Lokman, 2017). He said this in reference to a cartoon published by Chinese newspaper Nanyang Siang Pau earlier that month that depicted a Dewan Rakyat Speaker and a PAS president as two monkeys sitting on a tree named “Act 355” with a group of monkeys fighting underneath them. The term ‘intellectual egoism’ was thrown around by the former minister and warned that cartoons like this will not be tolerated by the ruling government and the society. Which begs the question: since when did cartoons become a threat and a weapon against a ruling government and who decides what is tolerated and what can end a satirist in jail? As Swiss Editorial Cartoonist Chris Chapette puts it in a TedTalks in September 2019, “Political cartoons were born with democracy, and they are challenged when freedom is”.

References

Andrews-Dryer, H, 2017, ‘Melissa McCatrhy wins Emmy for her SNL Sean Spicer Parody,’ Viewed 10th July 2020, <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/reliable-source/wp/2017/09/11/melissa-mccarthy-wins-emmy-for-her-snl-sean-spicer-parody/>

BBC 2015, ‘Malaysian artist jailed for micking Prime Minister Najib Razak,’ BBC, viewed 11th July 2020, <https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-43127199/>.

Crittenden,VL, Hopkins, ML & Simmons, JM 2011, ‘Satirists as opinion leaders: Is social media redefining roles?’, Journal of Public Affairs, vol. 11, no. 3, pp.174-180.

Lokman, T, 2017, ‘Ahmad Zahid: Satirism Is Not A Malaysian Culture,’ NST, viewed 11th July 2020, <https://www.nst.com.my/news/nation/2017/04/230506/ahmad-zahid-satirism-not-malaysian-culture>



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