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

Satire is rare in strait-laced Singapore

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".

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Nadine Gordimer died peacefully at home yesterday
people
Arts and Entertainment
Neil Young performs on stage at Hyde Park
musicAnd his Hyde Park set has rhyme and reason, writes Nick Hasted
News
Women have been desperate to possess dimples like Cheryl Cole's
people Cole has secretly married French boyfriend Jean-Bernard Fernandez-Versini after just three months.
Arts and Entertainment
AKB48 perform during one of their daily concerts at Tokyo’s Akihabara theatre
musicJapan's AKB48 are one of the world’s most-successful pop acts
News
Ian Thorpe has thanked his supporters after the athlete said in an interview that he is gay
people
News
The headstone of jazz great Miles Davis at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York
news
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll has brought out his female alter-ego Agnes Brown for Mrs Brown's Boys D'Movie
filmComedy holds its place at top of the UK box office
News
newsBear sweltering in zoo that reaches temperatures of 40 degrees
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Kathy Willis will showcase plants from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
radioPlants: From Roots to Riches has been two years in the making
Extras
indybestThe tastiest creations for children’s parties this summer
Arts and Entertainment
TV The follow-up documentary that has got locals worried
Arts and Entertainment
Paolo Nutini performs at T in the Park
music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Supply Chain Manager

Not Specified: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's most progressive and innova...

Service Desk Analyst - ITIL, Windows, Active Directory

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A world leading brokerage is looking for a...

IT Support Technician - URGENT - Graduate, Windows, MS Office

£30000 per annum: Harrington Starr: My client, a researcher of investment idea...

MQ Unix / Linux Systems Engineer - URGENT - Unix, Linux, MQ

£63000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A market leading provider of technology dr...

Day In a Page

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

Meet Japan's AKB48

Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
In pictures: Breathtaking results of this weekend's 'supermoon'

Weekend's 'supermoon' in pictures

The moon appeared bigger and brighter at the weekend
Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor