Monday, October 08, 2007

Do Malaysians Really Get Satire?

Satire ... [1] is a literary genre, chiefly literary and dramatic, in which human or individual vices, follies, abuses, or shortcomings are held up to censure by means of ridicule, derision, burlesque, irony, or other methods, sometimes with an intent to bring about improvement. [2] It is used in graphic arts and performing arts as well. ... Although satire is usually meant to be humorous, the purpose of satire is not primarily humour but criticism of an event, an individual or a group in a clever manner.
from Wikipedia.

Does satire flourish in Asia?

One of the most entertaining panel discussions of the Ubud Writer's and Readers' festival debated the question. Besides our own Kam Raslan, we met Sri Lankan author Manuka Wijesinghe who writes beautifully about the absurd in her novel Monsoons and Potholes, and Indonesian Isman Hidayat Suryaman who talked about how he hides his criticism of authority in humour since he cannot do it openly. He added a nice detail for us, Indonesia doesn't have a "censorship board" it has an "enlightenment board!" which does the same job! The session was moderated by Nury (who gets everywhere!).

Kam talked about how satire has become increasingly popular in Malaysia, and he read from Amir Muhammad's book to illustrate the fact that in Malaysia actually satirists are not needed because politicians do the job beautifully for them!:
Our job is to mock authority and our politicians make it too easy ...
he said, talking about how the politicians provide most of the material for KL's Instant Cafe Theatre for which Kam also writes skits.

When it came to question time I asked the panelists if they felt that their audiences really get their satire? As Instant Cafe founder Jo Kukathas (who was in the audience*) pointed out, of course Malaysian audiences understand satire ... otherwise why would their own company have been so successful?

I was actually thinking about satire on the page, particularly when it doesn't have a box around it saying "This is meant to be funny". And I was thinking specifically about this post on Amir Muhammad's blog on a spoof column he wrote as Ambi Mohan for the New Straits Times - the reactions from angry readers who didn't understand that their leg was being pulled actually makes funnier reading than the articles themselves!

Jo actually took me to task about the question I'd asked a couple of nights later, at the party at Blanco's house, and gave me plenty of examples of her own to support her argument. Somehow (might have been on my part the wine) we managed to entangle the question of "Do Malaysians get satire?" with "Do Malaysians get irony?" (which is a somewhat separate one, but nevertheless worth considering ... and I would say much of Kam's humour is gently ironic.)

On satire, with censorship so tight, and self-censorship added to it, there really is little tradition of making fun of authority figures here by means of the written word ... although happily the blogosphere is becoming increasingly good at using satire, much to the discomfort of politicians.

(It's worth noting too is that Kam's deliciously satirical sense of humour was shaped by TV programmes like Monty Python, as he grew up in the UK.)

My question then, is there a tradition of satire here, particularly on the printed page?

The issue is still knocking round in my own head. Would love your views.

(Incidentally, Isman has a very amusing blog calld The Fool Has Landed and wrote this session up very well himself. And Deepika writes a lovely piece on Manuka.)

*Now can you guess who the obnoxious politician was?


animah said...

I think Malaysians live satire, unconsciously sometimes. Even more than the Brits perhaps. I see satire everyday.
Monty Python would have a riot here.

Anonymous said...

Indeed, Monty Python would have altogether too much fun. Most Malaysians hop from their air conditioned houses to their air-conditioned offices, where they do nothing more strenuous than sit around on their butts and tell other people what to do. Then at the end of the day, they hop back into their air-conditioned cars to drive back to their air-conditioned homes, where they're sure to instrcut the maid to make dinner while they turn on their thousand-ringgit top-of-the-line computers so they can blog about how bad everything is here :)

River of Karma said...

Heck no,
Many don't even get sarcasm. And the some that I've come across either think I'm being trite, condescending or rude wherelse the other some for some reason seem to think being rude is the same as being sarcastic.

Take that for what its worth.

Anonymous said...

It's insulting to say "do malaysians get satire?" It's like saying, "do English people need dental plans?"

bibliobibuli said...

maybe so, anon. but can you argue with more specific examples to prove that i'm barking up the wrong tree?

(the dental plan is easier to prove of course!)

Anonymous said...

Well, if you take out people in Malaysia who can understand satire, your statement would be right.

Generalizing from the lowest common denominator (i.e. the average fool on the street - I am being affectionate, in a Mr T kind of way when I say 'fool') is such a lazy way (and some might say evil - Orientalist Evil) to draw a conclusion (or to frame a nonsensical question - and I am being affectionate in a Wittgenstenian way, when I say nonsensical).

Perhaps some people still long for the days when the natives are lazy, and stupid, I do too, but not when I might be one of the natives.

kam raslan said...

I think it's safe to say that Malaysians get satire just as much as anybody else. There are several examples: Instant Cafe, Jit Murad, Indi and Allan, Amir's writings and, dare I say, my own column in The Edge (to name but a few). Malaysians have responded to these forms of satire because, surprise, surprise, Malaysians are not stupid. These satirists all happen to operate in English and the issue is the audience's facility with the language, and their general knowledge. There's no point satirizing Marx's theory of dialectical materialism but the Anwar trial is fair game. All I have to say is "mattress" and I should get a wry smile.

The issue is not do Malaysians get satire but do Malaysians do satire and also are we allowed to do satire. Very few do satire because it's hard to make a living out of it. And there are very few avenues open to be exploited. Most newspapers are out of bounds, TV is impossible, the potentially wonderful medium of radio is absolutely dead and film is too expensive (although film-makers like Amir have shown that documentaries can work). Which leaves theatre. There has been quite a lot of satire in Malaysian theatre but if you didn't see it then you don't know about it.

There are two other mediums which are coming to the fore. Books offer a great chance for satire/comedy/comment. And also the internet. There are so many Malaysian bloggers and many try their hand at satire and news commentary.

Malaysians are not stupid. Some might be ignorant, not exposed or too vested in the governing paradigm. There has been a concerted effort to persuade us that democracy is purely about the majority so that if the majority don't "get it" then it's not valid and those in the minority are wrong for thinking it. We should stop feeling the need to speak to everybody in order to gain a sense of validity. If enough people get it then it's enough. And enough people do, because we're not stupid.

We're all satirists when we're reading the papers in this country because we're always having to read between the lines. Satire is about reading between the lines.

bibliobibuli said...

that would probably be the same everywhere.

i think it has more to do with what people expect to meet on the page.

in some countries there has been a long tradition of lampooning society in general and specific politicians, and a history of satirical publication. (the U.K. for example had "private eye", the french "le canard enchainee")

and satire of course on TV and in films ... i think the brits are more satirical (spitting image, the pythons) than the americans ... (shoot me down, do)

malaysia has a culture of deference. who would dare to make fun of public figures? lat of course has done. but gently, in his cartoons. and never anything that actually hurt.

tv and film humour tends to be more slapstick

but the bloggers are satirising with full steam ahead! (look at the mock-up movie poster of the p.m. with the future mrs jeanne abdullah! and who more scandalously satirical than amir hafizi (whose blog has now been taken down))

and now with kam's book, there is i think a new-found delight in this kind of humour (must be, he's selling so well)

kam's brand is also gentle, but there is a lot of necessary social comment among the humour. read it at the right speed to savour the humour in the turn of a phrase

now please someone, tell me i'm talking nonsense but do it by throwing some more examples at me!

bibliobibuli said...

hi kam - just saw your comment after i'd posted mine so i think you answered the question very well indeed and did indeed throw out some very good examples

We're all satirists when we're reading the papers in this country because we're always having to read between the lines. Satire is about reading between the lines.

exactly so.

gnute said...

Anyone in Malaysia who exclaims sardonically "Malaysia Boleh lah" gets satire.

bibliobibuli said...

good point!

Anonymous said...

And then there's a difference between satire and cynicism. The "Malysian Boleh" thing is more cynicism than satire. There are a few things I think people should think about. Firstly, satire knows no bounds. People laugh when you make fun of politicians, but they don't when you make fun of, say, poor or disabled people. I don't know why that is, it just seems like a double standard to me.

And the culture of deference is correct. Sometimes I almost don't feel like saying anything because no one really talks any more. I only really get two reactions : (1) People follow it slavishly (2) They get mad and accuse you of all sorts of things.

Malaysians have never really understood satire, they regard it as lying and cheating. One newspaper tried to print an obviously satirical story during April Fool's day (it was a good one about how we lionize children who are just a little more intelligent than the norm) and they got crucified for it, had to print a retraction and apology and everything. The firestorm that provoked almost got to serious levels :)

And censorship is not tight, self-censorship is. People are just afraid of speaking out, and using censorship as a sort of bogeyman.

So in summary, I think Malaysians do get satire, but I also think people are too quick to follow those they regard as authority figures.

The question we have to ask ourselves is, why authority figures ? why not the poor, elderly or disabled ? why do we always want to satirize authority figures ? it is because we're afraid of authority, and thus use it as a sort of mechanism to reduce our fear ?

Greenbottle said...

oh blimey anon, people don't make fun or satirize the disabled...

why do we want always want to satirize authority figures?

because some of them at least are god dammed crooked bastards and we csn't seem to be able to do anything about it...

the irony is, we keep on voting them in year in year i guess i had to disagree with who ever says malaysians are not stupid...i think most malaysians are retarded...