Straits Times - 12 Dec 2001

Why the PAP could benefit from Dilbert

While satire and laughter help to sharpen the mind, they also act as a spur to policy-makers to improve

By Chua Lee Hoong

I WAS in Kuala Lumpur over the weekend and what did I come across? A stage play that included the most stinging criticism of the so-called yes-men in Singapore's ruling People's Action Party I have ever encountered.

Correction. It might have been - except that it was the only play containing stinging criticism of such yes-men in the PAP I have ever encountered.

I have been to many plays in Singapore and elsewhere. Indeed, there was a time when I attended every play in town. Age has slowed the momentum; I'm hardly at the theatre these days, but I still keep track of developments in the theatre realm.

And I don't recall any theatre production that has taken on this fascinating subject in such a full-frontal fashion. Trust Providence that when it came about, it came about in Malaysia - that neighbouring country Singaporeans so love to squabble with.

Yes, there have been plays here satirising this and that political development. The Marxist arrests in the 1980s, the graduate mother policy, upgrading. These and other local issues have been the butt of political satire.

The ruling party, however, never has been - certainly not in any clearly identifiable way.

Why not?

Before I tackle that question, let me draw here a fuller background picture.

No, I did not 'go to Kuala Lumpur to watch a play criticising the PAP'. Conspiracy theorists, forget it. I was there to visit friends.

One works for the United Nations, and it was she who bought us tickets for a matinee performance by the Instant Cafe Theatre Company, reputedly one of the best-known drama companies in town.

It proved a very entertaining way of whiling away a Sunday afternoon in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur's most 'happening' suburb, before dusk fell and the pasar malam, or night market, came to life.

I nearly split my sides laughing at the richly satirical vignettes on life and politics in Malaysia. Then came those few minutes on Singapore, and while I laughed, I also squirmed.

The skit goes like this:

As part of the effort to remake Singapore, a 'senior minister' in the PAP government sets up a 'PAP Opposition' and hires a private-sector consultant to teach those selected to be part of it how to conduct themselves.

Consultant: 'As part of the training, the first thing I want you to do is say, 'No'.'

MP (cringing): 'That's very difficult. Don't make me do it!'

Protracted attempts and many wails of distress later, the consultant hits on a new strategy for getting his charge to utter that dreaded word.

Consultant: 'Okay, just think of this scenario: Malaysia has just decided to cut off water supply to Singapore...'

MP (spontaneously and at full throttle): 'No!'

And so on.

Back in Singapore, I looked up the Instant Cafe Theatre Company on the Internet. Company director Jo Kukathas is on record as saying:

'Laughter is a very interesting thing... comedy should provoke difficult laughter and if, 10 years down the line, we've finally got people to laugh and be upset at laughing, then I think we've finally achieved something. 'For, if over the years, people were laughing and enjoying laughing, then we weren't quite hitting the mark.'

I don't know about other people in the audience that Sunday afternoon, but I laughed, and I was upset at laughing.

Why was I upset?

As much as we can ever know ourselves, I think it was partly because the skit hit home, and partly because it took a neighbour to make that hit.

Which brings me to the question posed above: Why has there never been a publicly staged play satirising the ruling party?

Elementary, you say. The censorship laws here are strict. The political leaders are even stricter. They believe that ridiculing those in authority is the first step down the slippery slope of social decline.

Poke fun at the PAP, and more will be poked at you than sharp words. So 'don't pray pray', as Phua Chu Kang would say.

Why, even www.talkingcock.com, Singapore's closest claim to political satire, has to post this loud disclaimer: 'We are not a political site.'

'For all the kaypohs and muckrakers out there, we have completely no political agenda whatsoever. Our main aim is to celebrate all the nonsensical parts of Singaporean life. We make fun of people in every sector, strata and profession in a completely democratic way.

'(If you feel that you or people you know have not been made fun of, please let us know so that we can address the oversight.)

'Anyway, the good people in Parliament have already deemed us to be a non-political site. So there!'

Urging those who do not believe in freedom of expression to stay away from the site, it goes on: 'There are some among us who do not comprehend the value of satire or freedom of expression, or even that other people are entitled to different opinions. There may even be some who do not even understand what satire is...'

Do you laugh, squirm or frown in disapproval? I wish I could know the proportions of Singaporeans doing each, but alas, I don't.

What I do believe is that the higher the proportion of laughers, and the lower the proportion of frowners, the better it is for Singapore.

Even some stuffy bureaucrats are beginning to laugh at themselves, thanks to Dilbert, the satirical cartoon that lampoons the bureaucracy of modern-day office life.

Learning to laugh at ourselves is a necessary step towards growth and development. In the graphic words of physician Norman Cousins:

'Laughter is a form of internal jogging. It moves your internal organs around. It enhances respiration. It is an igniter of great expectations.'

To bitch playfully and in public about public policies and the political leadership acts not only as a safety valve, but also as a spur to improvement.

So here's one ingredient in my recipe for remaking Singapore: Laugh, and allow Singaporeans more room to laugh.

'Laughter is wine for the soul. Laughter soft, or loud and deep, tinged through with seriousness, is the hilarious declaration made by man that life is worth living,' said Irish dramatist Sean O'Casey.

Who knows, we might even end up having the last laugh! E-mail: leehoong@sph.com.sg