On Nanny Island only a transvestite can say boo to the government

Satire is rare in strait-laced Singapore
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The Independent Online
Singapore may well be the favoured location for the Asian headquarters of multinational corporations, not to mention speeches on social policy by the Labour leader, Tony Blair, but nobody has ever accused the island state of having a sense of humour.

Last week's election demonstrated just how far the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) is prepared to go to stamp out its critics. The PAP was already assured of victory, since the cowed opposition was contesting fewer than half the seats, but the Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong, still saw fit to warn that the party would go through the election results precinct by precinct to identify where voters had failed to back it. Opposition areas, he said, would be at the back of the queue for public services. And the threats worked: the number of opposition MPs fell from four to two, leaving the other 81 for the PAP.

In a nation where the leadership is more likely to issue a writ than tolerate satire, it seems necessary for a man to dress up in women's clothing to get away with making fun of Singaporean society. Singaporeans seeking a mildly risque release from the ceaseless browbeating of the authorities make their way to the Boom Boom Room in the Bugis Street district, which used to be notorious for transvestite prostitutes and drunken sailors dancing on the table tops of streetside bars. Like naughty schoolboys insinuating themselves into a peep-show, they come to see the Boom Boom's star, Kumar, a tall, outrageous drag artiste who has a licence to say things about Singapore and Singaporeans which is denied to others.

Kumar's cabaret act, delivered in an untranslatable mixure of Singlish (the distinctive Singaporean version of English), Malay and the Hokkien dialect spoken by most Singapore Chinese, allows his audience to experience a frisson of rebellion. "My jokes are really about Singaporean life," he says, "how frustrated we are, how starved we are of humour and about all the things no one dares say."

The underlying point of Kumar's humour is the repression of Singaporean society. Apart from the constant admonitions of a nannyish government - to marry only people of one's own educational level, for example - there is the pressure among one's peers to get ahead.

"People are frustrated about all sorts of things," Kumar says. So if the authorities are mounting one of their "change behaviour" campaigns, Kumar is there to poke fun at it.

He claims that people are starting to "realise they can laugh at themselves", which was not always the case. "It used to be," he says, "that if you smiled at another Singaporean, they wouldn't like it. They would ask, `Do you think I'm funny?'"

All the same, there are strict limits to Kumar's satire. He never tackles politics head-on, and is very careful not to joke about individual politicians, particularly the country's leaders. "I don't talk bad about the government," as he puts it. Indeed, he is careful to remind his audience at every performance: "We've got to be very thankful we're in such a safe country."

Kumar uses the fact that he is a man dressed as a woman as the starting point for many of his jokes, saying: "I'm like those two-in-one shampoos. If I were straight, dressed like a man, I couldn't make fun of women." Nor, perhaps, could he get away with the many jokes about Singapore's races, which he carefully balances "so as not to hit on any one group" - a wise precaution, with the government having hounded one of its main opponents to defeat with accusations that he was a "Chinese chauvinist".

There is a lot of talk about the size of the male organ (small in Singapore, if Kumar is to be believed) but a careful avoidance of four-letter words and anything "really vulgar".

This being Singapore, though, the humour cannot be spontaneous. Kumar had to lay on special performances for police officers before his act was passed for public performance, and then it was monitored for a year. "I was so nervous the first time because they didn't laugh," he recalls, before realising that they were under orders to keep a straight face. On one occasion a female officer could not stop herself, and "they all looked at her". But he knows his public, and gets many of his laughs for what is not quite said, because they can easily fill in the gaps.

"Singapore," says Kumar, "looks rigid from the outside, but it is really easing up." Despite all the evidence to the contrary, he believes the government is relaxing its grip a little, "maybe because they realise that so many Singaporeans are migrating".