There is place for satire in society

"Lebai Malang" or The Unlucky Lebai is a well-known Malay folktale.

It tells the story of a local "lebai" or religious man in a kampung who was asked to perform rites for three different occasions on the same day.

The lebai accepted all three invitations as he calculated that he would be remunerated for each of them and that he would be able to maximise his returns. However, he was late for all three occasions and came away empty handed for the first two.

At the last place, he was given some Malay pancakes for his troubles.

On the way back to his house, his pancakes were taken away by a wild dog. The lebai chased the dog and thought he had the dog cornered when it entered a hollow tree.

To trap the dog, the lebai took of all his clothes and used them to cover the hole on the tree that the dog entered into. The dog managed to escape through another hole.

The lebai made his way back home hungry, without his clothes and pancakes. To top it off, the unlucky lebai was scolded by his wife when he reached home.

The tale of "Lebai Malang" is a satire of some local religious men. Greed got the better of the lebai and as a result, he was left worse off than when he started.

Satire is the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticise stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.

Malay literary and artistic works are steeped with satire. From wayang kulit, to folktales of Sang Kancil, Wak Jenin, Pak Pandir to more modern works such as magazines Ujang and Gila-gila, Malay authors and artists have always used their works as a form of social commentary.

Even works considered to be more serious, such as Sulalatus Salatin can be said to contain subtle elements of satire.

The caricature published by Chinese language daily Nanyang Siang Pau is also satire.

It lampoons the farce on the last day of Parliament with the tabling of the private member’s bill to amend Act 355.

In this case, the cartoonist is not literally expressing that anyone is a monkey, but using animal caricatures to comment on the issue.

Not unlike George Orwell’s "Animal Farm" or the Malay peribahasa such as katak di bawah tempurung (the frog under the coconut shell) or kera mendapat bunga (the monkey gifted with a flower).

Of course, some people, especially PAS members, would be offended by the depiction of PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang in the cartoon.

They have the right to be offended, even outraged. They have the right to protest against the image and to criticise Nanyang Siang Pau for publishing it.

But they must also realise that Nanyang and the cartoonist also have the right to freedom of speech and expression, which includes the right to criticise politicians and comment on political issues.

The call for Nanyang’s permit to be revoked must be opposed as it is an attempt at censoring political criticism.

By doing so, those who make the call are trying to set a low threshold for the limits on freedom of speech and expression. No political leader should be beyond criticism, reproach and satire  - even if he wears the cloak of religious righteousness.

The argument that any artistic or literary work must not cause offence or hurt the feelings of others misses the whole point of satire. Satirical works that do not offend are not satire.

While we may not agree with the work itself, we must recognise that satirical expressions have long been a part of our society and we must resist any attempt to censor them.

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