Learning to laugh at ourselves

There must be room for political satire in a developed society. 

EVERY year, members of the press who cover the US president holds a White House Correspondents’ Dinner where a famous comic gets to tell jokes about the president to his face and where the president also gets a chance to get in a few jokes of his own sometimes at his own expense. 

It’s largely a friendly affair though no one is left out of the firing line of jokes – the president, the vice-president, members of his cabinet, senators or representatives who have said or done something silly which made the headlines, even members of the press core.

For a more regular diet of jabs against the president and politicians, one can turn to the many nightly talk shows including the venerable institution that is the Tonight Show where its long-time host, Jay Leno, recently retired, or to the Late Night with David Letterman, as well as newer and more ‘red blooded’ fare such as The Daily Show with John Stewart and The Colbert Report with Stephen Colbert.

These shows are part and parcel of the entertainment landscape in the United States. It’s readily acceptable for comics to make jokes about silly things, which politicians and other celebrities have said and done. Indeed, it would be comically irresponsible for them not to do so.

I would not be going out on a limb to when I say that this is also standard fare in other developed democracies. Indeed, Yes Prime Minister, a British satirical sitcom still resonates with those who can remember this popular series. It was in fact, or so Wikipedia tells me, Margaret Thatcher’s favourite television programme.

In Egypt, hardly a bastion of democracy and free speech, one of the most popular personalities is Bassem Youssef, the host of a satirical news programme called The Program (yes, you read me right), which has been compared to Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show.

Closer to home, political satire was a relatively ‘safe’ outlet during the times when the ISA was much more widely used and the political climate was not as lively as it is now. The Instant Café Theatre (ICT) used to perform hilarious sketches and songs, which poked fun at various political figures in the country. Since these performances were done in private venues and in English, it ‘escaped’ the attention of the authorities. Urban legend has it that even Dr Mahathir himself would secretly pop by and enjoy a chuckle or two when songs referring to him were performed.

This is not to say that the issues which comics and sometimes politicians joke about – price rises, corruption and wastage, abuse of power, crime – are not serious issues. But having the freedom to joke about these things, to see issues from a ‘lighter’ perspective is a good outlet for releasing our frustration in a less damaging manner.

In the bigger picture, having the freedom to make political satire, is also part of our development towards a mature democracy as we seek to strengthen our constitutional right to the freedom of speech. 

Testing the boundaries of the freedom of speech using political satire seems to me to be a ‘safer’ option especially compared to the inflammatory statements issued and actions taken by certain individuals and organisations in this country recently. Plus political satire and comedy does not require the killing and sacrifice of innocent animals nor threaten bodily harm against anyone.

To end, I would paraphrase Whitney Houston's classic by saying that ‘Learning to laugh at ourselves, it is the greatest laugh of all’.

> Dr Ong Kian Ming is the Member of Parliament for Serdang. He can be reached at im.ok.man@gmail.com 

The views expressed are entirely the writer's own

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