Monday 22 July 2013

Political satire used to be better

A recent dispute between the PAP and the Workers' Party over the cleaning of two hawker centres produced not only a 22-page dossier of the events, but also videos and cartoons parodying the ministers involved. Some in the public lapped it up, while others said it was in bad taste. Robin Chan speaks to a playwright and an expert in comic art.
The Straits Times, 20 Jul 2013


MS ELEANOR Wong, 51, is a National University of Singapore associate professor of law and a playwright.

Her works include the 2006 political satire The Campaign To Confer The Public Service Star On JBJ.
What does political satire mean to you?
As a writer, political satire is a form of comedy where we take on political issues but treat them with humour, often of a sarcastic or parodying nature.

And cultures are different. Some cultures are humourless, which often comes with an inability or lack of appreciation of saying things at many different levels. After all, good humour is quintessentially about "I don't actually say what I mean, but I say something one or two levels down, and I assume that my audience will understand the layers and allusions and be able to laugh at it".

Political satire will gain an audience in two or three types of societies. One, where the welcoming of political critique is very low, and therefore your critiquers resort to an indirect way, trusting an audience capable of catching the allusions and understanding what the piece is about.

A lot of political satire - think of Russian work, even Gulliver's Travels - all that is essentially writers and artists in a low tolerance of criticism environment, engaging in expression in an indirect sort of way.

At the other end, you may have an audience that is extremely erudite and capable of seeing many layers, who would be bored with just saying something directly because language is there to be used for allegory, analogy, etc.
So what to you is good political satire?
Good satire of any sort, whether it is about politics or about love or about rich people, what it counts on is a dynamic like this. So you want to criticise rapacious bankers. Well, you don't have to be so boring as to just say "bankers are evil people and they make money off you".

Instead, you write something that is satirical. Maybe you make your banker your hero, but everyone, underneath, is laughing at the guy because it is written so well that you know he is being poked fun at.

It is very sad when, in a way, the political landscape opens up so much that we are all sort of free to just rubbish things bluntly rather than pick the right analogy, the right language, the correct second or third or fourth layer and also give credit to your audience for being so tuned in that the existence of a certain colour on stage without anything else or an allusion to some ongoing spat will make them sit up and understand exactly what is being said without you ever having to say that. There's a joy in that!
The Government has historically not been tolerant of political satire. But with more political openness these days, is there room for political satire to flourish?
Political satire actually used to be better. It has become more blunt now.

With all credit to our new generation of leaders, I think they are more open to direct criticism.

People don't actually have to write something beautiful, interesting, indirect and so powerful that everyone who watches it knows exactly what he or she is saying.

You think of (late playwright) Kuo Pao Kun's earlier work. The deep, cutting, very sarcastic commentary embedded inside what looked like fables about a little girl looking for her cat or a man trying to bury his father.

And then you look, with all due respect, to some of the more recent pieces, where you kind of take words that were actually spoken and just get actors to re-speak them verbatim, with some slapstick thrown in. Arguably, that is already blunter satire.

So sadly, I posit that from an artistic perspective, precisely because the Government actually gets more open to criticism, perhaps we correspondingly also get more lazy about how to couch critique and less sophisticated in how we want our artistic commentary fed to us.

It would be sad to me if our audience in the artistic area come to want only more direct comedy.

Slapstick - let me put some politician's face there and throw a pie at it - to me, that does not equate to political satire and certainly does not come close to satire at its best.

I really hope we do not get to the point where the humour is so blunt that it is simply rubbishing people for the sake of it.

We are still at the place where we prefer our politicians to be treated in a civilised manner and to have our discussion on that plane.

Let us keep some things sacred because it is a slippery slope. When we become very cynical about our country or our institutions, we lose something.

Icons like the flag, the pledge and the national anthem, these represent our country, and when we desecrate them, we desecrate all of ourselves.


There is a place for sense of humour

MR LIM Cheng Tju, 41, is an educator and editor of journals of comic art. His master's dissertation at the National University of Singapore was on the history of Chinese cartoons in Singapore.
After some ministers charged Workers' Party MPs with dishonesty in a hawker centre cleaning dispute, WP MP Chen Show Mao created a controversial cartoon showing Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and two ministers as Snow White's dwarves off to clean. What did you make of that?
Strictly speaking, it is not a cartoon or caricature. It is more like a collage with photographs cut out and pasted on three cartoon figures. It evokes a chuckle but if you don't know the context, you won't get the humour. I don't think it is offensive, although I understand some people feel it is disrespectful. Maybe it is because we are in Asia.
So what in your view makes a good political cartoon or caricature?
There must be a point of view. It cannot be an illustration that just accompanies an article or story. The cartoon must be able to stand on its own, and offer its own opinion.
The Government has tended to take a stern line on political cartoons, especially caricatures. What is the history behind that?
Politics is serious business in Singapore. To caricature someone is seen to be making fun of them. Therefore, for a long time, local cartoons focused on social issues and policies but not the politicians. It is different from the West where being caricatured means you are an important enough public figure for the cartoonists and the readers to recognise and pay attention to.

The lack of caricatures in our political cartoons (with few exceptions) has been so since the 1960s, if you look at the cartoons that appeared in The Straits Times. But you have gentle caricatures in books like Morgan Chua's My Singapore, his book on the late Mrs Lee Kuan Yew and his illustrations for the abridged version of ex-president S R Nathan's memoirs.
Do you think political caricatures will ever have a place in our political discourse?
I would like to see more of it but my gut feel is that we will see more political satire in different forms such as songs and performances, not necessarily cartoons. In the past, cartoons were important in conveying messages and shaping opinions because the literacy level was low. A cartoon conveys a thousand words, so to speak. The Chinese call it yi zhen jian xue (going right to the heart of the matter).

But today, people read their political satire on social media or watch it on stage. You don't need to be an artist to draw political cartoons. You could be a poet, writer, playwright, film-maker or YouTube artist.

In the past, you spent a long time practising your craft, either drawing political cartoons or writing political satire before finding a platform in newspapers or magazines to share your views.

Today, individuals do it through Facebook, YouTube or Twitter, the quality varies and the amount of thought and effort put into it might be less.

People expect a quicker response on social media. Things become more "democratic"; everyone has an opinion they want to share or a political joke they want to tell. I think there is a place for political satire whether politics is "normalising" or not. I see having a sense of humour and not being too uptight about things as rather important for all of us.

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