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Articles, Commentaries, The Edge

The More Satire We Accept, the More Mature We Are

By Ooi Kee Beng
For THE EDGE, Malaysia. Feb 24 – Mar 2, 2014The Edge logo

Regimentation is elemental to Nation building. The issue is about “How”. How are the processes of social regulation, legal control, central education and negotiated buy-ins arranged?; how is national pride and identity, not to mention national knowledge and aspirations, developed and propagated?; and how are these balanced?

Needless to say, such undertakings cannot please everyone; and amendments and alterations are perpetually required. This is why communication between all levels and all segments of society is so essential to social stability and harmony. As soon as those in power refuse to listen to chosen segments or levels in society, we face a confrontational situation and an unhealthy policy of exclusion.

This happens more often than we wish to know; and communication breakdowns in modern societies are as common as traffic jams in Kuala Lumpur. Society as a whole is however much more than the sum of all its officially recognized parts, and the individual’s sense of being sidelined, ignored or misunderstood by political processes is part and parcel of modern life.

That is why every political system that knows what’s best for it—and that knows its own limitations where social regimentation is concerned—will allow for safety valves, individual refuge, and comic relief. The consequences of national policies and other politically relevant events occur at more levels than is foreseeable even to the wisest of statesmen, not to mention the narrow-minded and unimaginative politicians that now populate the field.

The present problem with opposition MP Teresa Kok’s Chinese New Year video—which seems to have offended the government so deeply—is that it was released by a politician; and as we readily intuit, politicians are not supposed to deal with comedy. That is best left to the citizenry—although even there, freedom is quite limited.

The language of policy, statistics and law, are after all always assumed to be plain, non-poetic and non-paradoxical. [“Statistics”, by the way, stems from a German term approximating “knowledge relevant for state policy”].

At the same time, comic relief—as a psychological need and a communicative device—is vital to the stability of any society. It is a channel for exposing and resisting the irrationality, excessiveness, hypocrisy, contradictions, incompetence and arrogance of any system.

We thus see why the ire of the establishment often comes down so disproportionately hard on political humour. And the more irrationality, hypocrisy and incompetence there is in a system, the more uncompromising will be its chastisement of jokers, jesters and comedians.

The more humourless a system, the more comical it tends to become. In fact, one could decide the degree of fascism in a country through its intolerance of jocularity and wittiness and through the absence of a sense of irony.

There are profound reasons why clever video series like the Youtube-based The Effing Show are so closely monitored and so often harassed by the government.

And most humour deals with words, by the way. So the more a system tries to ban books, block websites, scare satirists, propagate slogans and forbid words; the more we know that it feels insecure. And that insecurity comes from an imbalance in the processes of regimentation.

To go back to the idea of social regimentation, let us consider the extreme position taken by the French philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865), who famously said, (and allow me to quote thoroughly here): “To be governed is to be kept in sight, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right, nor the wisdom, nor the virtue to do so…. To be governed is to be at every operation, at every transaction, noted, registered, enrolled, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under the pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be placed under contribution, trained, ransomed, exploited, monopolized, extorted, squeezed, mystified, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, despised, harassed, tracked, abused, clubbed, disarmed, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and, to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, outraged, dishonored.”

As I said, this is an extreme position, and should perhaps be studied with more twinkle in our eye than the philosopher intended. But there is an important point here to ponder, and that is the agency of the individual citizen. He or she is not passive throughout a process that though necessary, is nevertheless never unilateral. On the contrary, the interplay between “regulator” and “regulatee” is what, in the final analysis, is the deciding activity.

We know how countries in Asia try to mimic the West in all sorts of ways. But one striking thing we try very hard to avoid absorbing is political humour. This is partly because most leaders are without humour—humour usually requires exceptional intelligence—and partly because our societies refuse to grow up. The infantilisation of our society, whether excusable or not in the early years of nation building, has not only gone too far, it has become the backbone of our culture. Funny, isn’t it?

In the end, a society’s maturity is seen in how well it handles humour and how happily it embraces the insights that satire and irony potentially carry.

Long Live Humour!

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About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.

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