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Imperious Imperial Impetuous Instead?

(This article was published on 18 March 2018 on ASASIkini and #Liberasi.)

By Arveent Srirangan Karthirtchelvan and Michelle Liu

Satire has always been on the cutting edge of comedy. It is unapologetic and often offensive to many people. The topics discussed are usually risqué and hit close to home, making light of recent traumatic events or looking at what would be considered painful memories in a humorous light.

This is what was attempted by the Imperial College Malaysian Night team when they wrote the lyrics to their dikir barat performance. As per tradition, they took a handful of universities and made fun of them. The common occurrence this year has sparked a huge blowback in terms of a petition started by a few Malaysian students who urged Imperial to stop including insulting and demeaning comments about other Malaysians in different universities. This sentiment is echoed by over 1000 Malaysian students throughout the UK and it seems the people really want Imperial to drop the practice.

Having read the lyrics and seen them being performed, we are inclined to agree with the petition insofar as the ‘in good humour’ perspective that Imperial tried to create was not reflected in their performance. In fact, there was nothing much funny about it at all, with the lyrics seeming rushed, oddly placed and jarring to hear. Comedy is about perfection in timing and placement, whereas Imperial’s performance was clumsy.

However, we are opposed to any idea of discontinuing satire altogether. Thankfully the petition recognises that it is not the implementation of this type of humour that is the problem, rather the gratuitous nature of its usage.

We do not think Imperial were intentionally being hurtful; we think they were just horrible at satire.

Think about it, we can easily listen to Dave Chappelle or Louis C. K. talk about really distasteful subjects like rape or masturbation and laugh at it without much judgement. Yet none of them seem to be psychopaths who truly wish harm unto others. It doesn’t matter what you are talking about, what matters is how you structure it to make it funny.
Simply making fun of people doesn’t make something funny. For example, if we say crippled people should be cooked for food, it’s horrifying. Yet if we ask ‘What’s the hardest part about cooking vegetables?’ and answering with ‘Fitting the wheelchair in the oven’, that elicits a different sort of cringe, the sort of cringe that melds horror and humour together. That’s joke writing, a nuanced art. Yet we have lines from Imperial that go “Cardiff has rain, but no water drain, All the water is in their brain, They’re so mundane, I just want them to be slain,”. Anyone finding that funny should be institutionalised, not because it is offensive, but because it’s bad.

In Malaysian culture, one cannot say there is no place for biting humour. Malay culture has deep roots in sindir-menyindir, with dalangs performing wayang kulit often taking sly shots at those governing society, the most skilful even targeting kings. Old hikayats, from Hang Tuah to Merong Mahawangsa share this trait as well, adding to the richness of the language. Indian literature, pop culture and social interactions are imbued in ribbing as well, proving its transcendental nature. In and of itself, biting humour has a right to be portrayed.

We agree that Imperial dropped the ball this year, and maybe for a few years now, as there have been similar complaints before, anecdotally brushed aside by students claiming the offensive statements to be truthful or just good banter. Does this indicate inflated egos who refuse to listen? Probably. In this sense, it is a good thing the petition came to serve as a mirror for some to examine themselves if they truly have superiority complex.

Freedom of expression includes the freedom to make satire (however distasteful).

We acknowledge that the petition did not set out to discontinue the practice altogether, rather to ‘encourage future executive committee of ICUMS to refrain from making such (insulting and demeaning) comments in their production’. Such wordings, however well-intended, must be treated with care lest it leads to over-censorship or a restriction of free speech.
Any attempt to discontinue satire as a practice altogether sets a bad precedent for other MNights as means to which students could express themselves may just be further limited. Although Malaysian students are able to hold student events without apparent obstructions here in the UK, there are still topics and areas that many students cannot delve into openly. As a result, students including student organisations often resort to self-censorship, political correctness at the expense of effective discourse and even complete avoidance towards certain topics out of fear. In such circumstances, satire remains as a powerful means to highlight issues which cannot be discussed openly.

It is certainly imperative for students to hold an open discussion on what MNights should and should not be. However, different perspectives must be taken into account when drawing the line in the future. Otherwise, we risk closing even more spaces for expression and devolve into divisions of a larger collective without individuality or diversity. Theatre is not about control, it’s about expression, and we should not legislate against it.

At the same time, this does not mean all mean-spirited and hateful ignorance should go unpunished.

The greatest hardship an MNight can face is a lack of ticket sales. If Imperial is being knowingly distasteful, if the end performance is so gratuitously bad that it negates the worth of going all the way to London, don’t go. This is said without any condescension, if one truly is put off by a performance, one should not support it. Strongly worded criticism and suggestions to do better can be included as feedback and if unheeded, just let it wither and die. This is what would be a better alternative rather than asking them to stop. Tell them they are bad at it and to improve or lose ticket sales.

But we get it, we’ve told them this a hundred times yet they still persist. Is this not grounds enough to take that privilege away? No, because it isn’t a privilege, it is a right to freedom of speech especially done as part of a performance and not a serious consideration (if we were to give them the benefit of the doubt). But we do have a right to respond, and the strength of this response, a petition with over 1500 signatures, is unprecedented. The seriousness of feedback given before has been magnified in such a manner that Imperial would have to have a second look at their tradition.

It is our hope that they evolve to make it funnier instead of killing it dead, as a bit of banter can be hilarious if done right. Let’s all be a little understanding and prudent in our approach – Imperial to listen to those who have voiced out and improve, and the signatories to be more considerate of how difficult it is to do so.


Author: Michelle Liu

Malaysian. Curious learner. Recovering night-owl & coffee-dependant. Skeptical idealist.

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