Political humour on the Internet has blossomed in puritanical Singapore

Geert de Clercq

Geert de Clercq

SINGAPORE - Chewing gum, homosexuality, public protests - the list of things frowned on in Singapore is long. But satire? Yes, that too. Seriously.

Political humour is playing a bigger role than ever in the city-state and, despite the 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 four million hits a month in a country of 4,4million people, and the popular blog mrbrown.com receives about 20000 downloads a day for its droll podcasts about life in Singapore, up tenfold from a year ago.

"The websites touch a popular vein. They deal with issues of everyday life in a language that can be understood in the kopitiam [coffee shop]. They're like the parables of Jesus," said researcher Gillian Koh, of the Institute of Policy Studies.

Others said government disapproval of the cheeky websites has added to their appeal.

Colin Goh is the only public face of the large collective that puts together TalkingCock.com, a website name based on 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 from New York's Columbia University.

Goh and friends set up Talking Cock 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 humour, not politics.

"All humour 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 Talking Cock.

In his national day speech on August 20, Lee showed a slide of TalkingCock.com.

"If you want humour, you go there. Some of the jokes are not bad," 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 him for alternative serious political commentary. We'd be very happy to go back to our court jester status," he said.

Singapore's 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 was 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's," said Lim, who has angered the government with her criticisms.

Australian academic Garry Rodan, who has written extensively about Singapore politics, said the Singaporean government was not comfortable with political jokes because "humour challenges the notion of afoolproof 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 they 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 the state-owned newspaper Todaywas axed after he had poked fun at a series of price hikes introduced 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 200000 times and spread like wildfire in the blogosphere.

Like others on Singapore's lively Internet scene, both mrbrown and Goh are worried about an imminent revision of the penal code that might take into account "new technological developments" such as the Internet.

"At any time, the government could drop the guillotine on us. Not very funny times [ahead], I'm afraid," Goh said. - Reuters