What happens when you’re ‘Just Joking!’ in Malaysia

We should strive to be a mature and confident nation that is not afraid to laugh at itself

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To answer the above question, it is quite likely that your stand-up comedy show would be cancelled at the eleventh hour, much to the disappointment of the comedian and fans.

You could say that this is Malaysia’s version of cancel culture.

That is what happened to comedienne Sharul Channa, whose work visa was cancelled by the powerful communications ministry two days before her 18 May “Just Joking!” performance in Petaling Jaya.

The cancellation came about following a video clip of the Singaporean’s 2018 show in Malaysia that had re-emerged and gone viral. This, in turn, prompted a few seemingly distraught people in Malaysia to lodge police reports.

This was despite the 37-year-old stand-up comic assuring the Malaysian authorities when she applied for approval that she would not touch issues of race, religion and royalty (the “three 3Rs”). It appears the ministry is a tough act to follow.

It is believed that, in the 2018 show, which was part of Comedy Central Asia’s Stand-up, Asia! #2, Channa made a joke that she was a halal-certified comedian. In short, “halal” turned out to be the funny bone of contention.

While such a “halal” joke was approved by the Malaysian authorities then, it is now forbidden given the three Rs red line drawn by the authorities in the recent past. Many politicians, among others, had weaponised these three factors, particularly race and religion, for their own ends at the expense of inter-ethnic unity.

On that note, one wonders whether another comedian could make an observation in jest that Channa or another personality in a similar situation is a “haram-certified” comedian without incurring the wrath of the powers that be. After all, “haram” is the Malay equivalent of illegal or prohibited.

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What we are alluding to here is that sometimes a comedy act may resort to a play on words as a way of trying to be funny. This is exemplified by such acts as Palestinian-American comedian Sammy Obeid, who also raises, in jest, issues pertaining to Palestine and Israel.

Comedy acts can give rise to many-layered meanings, which should make one version of interpretation problematic as far as law enforcement is concerned. Here, the context in which jokes are cracked is also important to consider.

A well-crafted joke can make an otherwise taboo subject palatable and worthy of public attention and civilised discussion.

While some jokes can be provocative, it does not necessarily mean that all things should be fair game to comedians.

That is why Channa’s show organiser, Laugh Lab Entertainment, has insisted on guidelines for comedy acts so that the red line is not crossed.

The decision to revoke the permit should not be based entirely on a few police reports lodged by individuals, some of whom may not even like to watch live comedies.

If such a modus operandi is maintained, many comedy act organisers would be too nervous about holding shows in Malaysia, where a mere police report could give rise to a tragicomedy.

We should strive to be a mature and confident nation that is not afraid to laugh at itself.

More importantly, we should not be the laughing stock of the world. – The Malaysian Insight

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
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Mustafa K Anuar
Dr Mustafa K Anuar, a longtime executive committee member and former honorary secretary of Aliran, is, co-editor of our newsletter. He obtained his PhD from City, University of London and is particularly interested in press freedom and freedom of expression issues. These days, he is a a senior journalist with an online media portal
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