SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Chewing gum, homosexuality, public protests... the list of things frowned upon is long in Singapore. But satire? Yes, that too. Seriously.
Political humor is playing a bigger role than ever in the city-state, and despite government’s insistence that politics is no laughing matter, satirical websites are blossoming.
TalkingCock.com, an irreverent website that relentlessly pokes fun at the Singapore “gahmen” (government), gets 4 million hits per month in a country of 4.4 million, while popular blog mrbrown.com receives some 20,000 downloads per day for its droll podcasts about life in Singapore, up 10-fold from a year ago.
“These websites touch a popular vein. They deal with issues of everyday life in a language that can be understood in the kopitiam (coffee shop). It’s like the parables of Jesus,” said researcher Gillian Koh of the Institute of Policy Studies.
Others say government disapproval of these websites has added to their appeal.
Colin Goh is the only public face of the large collective that puts together TalkingCock.com, a website named after the term for “talking nonsense” in “Singlish” — the local patois of English laced with Hokkien Chinese and Malay words.
“The others do not want to reveal their identities, they are too scared,” said Goh, a former lawyer with degrees from University College London and New York’s Columbia University.
Goh and friends set up TalkingCock in 2000 in New York, where he lives. The project has since grown into a huge, rambling site with dozens of anonymous contributors.
Goh insists the site’s focus is on humor, not on politics.
“All humor is about daily life. It just so happens that in Singapore, the government occupies such a large part of our lives,” said Goh, who is also an award-winning film director.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is well aware of TalkingCock.
In his national day speech on August 20, Lee actually showed a slide of TalkingCock.com.
“If you want humor, you go there. Some of the jokes are not bad. Not all of them,” he said.
In another speech on April 1 — April Fool’s day — Lee said there was space for political debate in Singapore, but stressed that discussions on politics must be taken seriously.
“Countries can become unstable if political figures are not given basic respect and acceptance,” Lee was quoted as saying by state broadcaster Channel NewsAsia.
Goh said he vaguely agrees with the government that jokes are no substitute for real political discourse.
“It is bad for the satirist when people look to the satirist for alternative serious political commentary. We’d be very happy to go back to our court jester status,” he said.
Singapore print and broadcast media are government-owned or controlled, but on the Internet anti-government views abound.
Catherine Lim, Singapore’s best-known fiction writer, said the government’s allergy to satire is not surprising.
“It’s a very Asian, Confucian thing, especially if you take it to the point where you make them lose face. That is absolutely intolerable, even in a society as modern as Singapore,” said Lim, who has angered the government before with her criticisms.
Australian academic Garry Rodan, who has written extensively about Singapore politics, said the Singapore government is not comfortable with political jokes because “humor challenges the notion of a foolproof meritocracy”.
Lee has said repeatedly that the government tolerates dissent but would respond to criticism that it disagreed with.
“Because if we don’t respond, untruths will be repeated and will be believed, and eventually will be treated as facts and the Government and the leaders will lose the respect of the population and the moral authority to govern,” Lee said.
mrbrown — the Internet moniker for blogger Lee Kin Mun — was the first satirist to find out what that response could be.
In July, his weekly column in state-owned newspaper Today was axed after he had poked fun at a series of price hikes that followed soon after the May 6 general election.
“It is not the role of journalists or newspapers in Singapore to champion issues, or campaign for or against the Government,” the information ministry wrote in a blistering reply.
In his National Day speech, Lee said the satirical column had “hit out wildly at the Government and in a very mocking and dismissive sort of tone”.
One of mrbrown’s podcasts had a starring role in the run-up to the elections when it mocked the way the government harped on for days about an opposition candidate’s bungled attempt to submit an election form.
mrbrown’s podcast parody of the affair as a food stall vendor hounding a customer over an order of a bowl of minced pork noodles was downloaded 200,000 times and spread like wildfire in the blogoshpere.
Like others in Singapore’s lively Internet scene, both mrbrown and Goh are worried about an upcoming revision of the penal code, which could take into account “new technological developments” such as the Internet.
“At any time, the government could drop the guillotine on us. So, not very funny times, I’m afraid,” Goh said.