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

Mustafa K. Anuar

Comedy is a minefield in Malaysia that is increasingly hard to navigate. – The Malaysian Insight file pic, May 24, 2024.

TO answer the above question, it’s 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’s what happened to comedienne Sharul Channa, whose work visa was cancelled by the powerful Communications Ministry two days before her May 18 “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, which, in turn, caused a few seemingly distraught Malaysians 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 wouldn’t touch issues of race, religion, and royalty (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 3Rs red line drawn by the authorities in recent past when many politicians, among others, weaponised these three factors, particularly race and religion, for their own ends at the expense of interethnic 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.

What we’re 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 also 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.

For, if such a modus operandi is maintained, many comedy act organisers would be too nervous of 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. – May 24, 2024.

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