Monday, October 5, 2009

Hossan Leong: Singapore’s latter-day court jester

Though it’s hard to believe, there are some places in Singapore where people openly mock their rulers, who retain strict controls over the media and have shown a tendency to use the libel law against those who do them down.

On Saturday, I watched Singaporean comic Hossan Leong gently poking fun at Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and his family and briefly mocking the government’s economic and racial policies and the failure to prevent terrorist Mas Selamat from escaping last year.

In the West, such ribbing would be considered tame in the extreme. But in Singapore, this was pushing the boundaries of political humour about as far as they can go or at least as far as most people are willing to push them.

The vast majority of Hossan Leong’s performance, which was set up as a spoof chat show, was decidedly non-political. But, still, he was only allowed to get away with breaking such taboos because of two reasons:

1. He was performing in a theatre – While the government censors take a very strict view of what can be shown/written about in the mass media, they are much more relaxed about a medium that plays to a limited and largely elite audience. Only 615 people can fit in to the National Library Drama Centre, where Leong’s show was playing, so at best fewer than 10,000 will be get to see it during this ten-day run. More importantly, most theatre-goers come from the upper echelons of the middle class and the government is more relaxed about allowing this narrow elite a bit more personal freedom.

2. The political humour was interspersed by copious amounts of cross-dressing, stupid songs and all-round pantomime silliness. Thus any hard message behind the political humour was diluted and deliberately deprived of any semblance of legitimacy.

To put it another way, Leong is adopting the role played by court jesters in England during the Middle Ages.

While the people were forbidden from speaking ill of the monarchy – sometimes on pain of death – the jesters were allowed free reign to mock and parody because it was accepted that anything they said was “in jest” and that they were merely the court fool.

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