Singlish, Subversion and the Singaporean Sitcom
For a country as small as Singapore, they sure like their humor broad, at least when it comes to their sitcoms. Although much of Singapore’s comedy programming has achieved great success (not a Borat reference, for the record), some critics of the Singaporean sitcom complain about the lowbrow humor, over-the-top acting and reinforcement of cultural stereotypes. We here in America can’t really cast any stones on this matter, as we still live in a glass house with Two and a Half Men in it.
But just as many of us here do not feel Big Bang Theory is an accurate cultural litmus test, so too should the same skepticism be applied when watching Singaporean sitcoms.
As this clip from the Talking Cock movie points out, it’s important to remember the British were around since the beginning of Singapore — but we’ll get more into Talking Cock in a minute. Talking Cock. Technically founded by the British in the early 1800’s, though I’m certain people lived in the area long before the British Empire decided to squat there, Singapore gained independence from the UK in 1963. After a brief marriage with Malaysia, Singapore struck out on its own in 1965. Currently, a little over five million people live on the 268 square miles that make up the nation-state. Of those folks, 74.2% are of Chinese heritage, 13.4% Malay and 9.2% are of Indian descent. There are four official languages: English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil (spoken in parts of southern India and Sri Lanka). Buddhism is the most common religion.
When I visited Singapore in 2006, I was surprised to see so many public signs in at least three different languages. Malay is the “national language,” but since English was technically the first language spoken there it pretty much trumps Malay in everyday usage. The Constitution is in English and school is taught in English, so for all intents and purposes it is the unifying language. But with such a large Chinese population, Mandarin is sort of an unofficial national language, at least at home for many Chinese-Singaporeans.
Point is, the broad diversity of this small, prosperous nation might partially explain the broad nature of their sitcoms. They don’t quite have the luxury of 150 Singaporean cable networks to appeal to the niche interests of different groups. In fact, when it comes to television there’s not a battery of viewing options, there’s basically one company that runs everything. Naturally, this company is called MediaCorp and it runs seven television stations and 14 radio stations. Somewhere, Rupert Murdoch just had a boner-induced heart attack. But MediaCorp isn’t run by a right wing octogenarian, it’s actually run by the state. Dun-dun-duuuuuuuun.
I promise you guys this is not just a repurposed essay from my 10th grade world history class, we will get to the funny stuff soon. Just a few more minutes of MediaCorp, a super quick power point presentation, financial statements and a dramatic interpretation of the Singaporean Constitution and we are so there. Fine, only the MediaCorp part.
As it is a fairly influential arm of the government, MediaCorp tries to ensure all of its content serves two main purposes: commercial success and reinforcing national values. Who’s defining these national values? Why Big Brother, of course. With no real “freedom of the press” to speak of, the government keeps a pretty tight lockdown on media. In fact, the Media Development Authority was created simply to monitor and protect Singaporeans. Or, you know, protect governmental interests. This isn’t necessarily new, not even for America with our government-run FCCs and the “citizen”-run MPAAs, but when it comes to the proliferation of a censor-bender like comedy in media, there’s a significant impact.
“Singlish” plays a major role in Singaporean humor, despite the formal disapproval of the government. It is a pidgin, Singapore colloquial English, comprised of words from English, Malay, Hokkien, Punjabi, Cantonese and other local languages. It is regarded as a lower class slang, and the government has been so vigilant in trying to eradicate it from everyday speech that they created an annual event called Speak Good English Movement. Despite bureaucratic protestations, Singlish has proliferated in Singaporean pop culture and particularly television comedy. Some say the broad humor of sitcoms has normalized Singlish in a detrimental way, while others, including popular comedian Gurmit Singh, say Singlish is the very backbone of Singaporean humor. If the government is so opposed to the slang, it could be argued that language is one of the few weapons of subversion Singaporean comedy has in the media.
It is through the good old World Wide Web, that more openly subversive humor has prospered. For a decade, the website TalkingCock was Singapore’s self-described “most powerful satirical humor website.” The Singaporean government does not practice the same censorship of the Internet as it does of all other media, but that does not mean the Talking Cock was not heavily debated in the confines of Parliament. In spite of any controversy, from the years 2000-2010, the website released a comedy CD, two films and “the bestselling Coxford Singlish Dictionary.” Available pretty much in full here, the Coxford Singlish Dictionary was an effective humorous effort to combat the government’s censorship of the “low language.” Though a joke, it’s actually quite useful as a reference, especially when trying to understand Singlish for the purposes of understanding hokes.
Still with me? Let’s look at a few key sitcoms, shall we?
Under One Roof (1995-2000, 2003)
The first English-language Singaporean Sitcom, Under One Roof highlighted the multiculturalism of Singapore. The plot centered on the Tan family, a Chinese family, and their crazy neighbors living in an HDB high-rise building. According to an article in the Media Culture Journal, almost 90% of all Singaporeans live in this kind of housing development today. In its setting, UOR spoke to the larger mass of Singaporean citizens, and its multicultural cast at least superficially represented a cross-section of the population. The show was both a critical and popular success, it made MediaCorp money and, aside from the strong current of Singlish in the dialogue, painted a government-approved picture of society. Depending on who you ask, this was either the best or the worst thing to happen to comedy in Singapore. On one hand, it convinced MediaCorp to invest in more comedy, on the other hand it set a successful comic model from which MediaCorp would be hesitant to stray.
Which brings us to…
Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd (1997 – 2007)
Running for an unprecedented ten years, PCK was a mega-smash for Singaporean sitcoms. Though a mention of PCK may induce groans and eye-rolling from the more urbane Singaporeans, it’s difficult to refute the success of Phua Chu Kang which spawned a movie version and made a superstar out of Gurmit Singh, who played the eponymous character. The Phua family displays unusual wealth for Singapore in that they live in a stand-alone house, as opposed to an HDB.
Phua Chu Kang is a self-deluded (think David Brent) contractor who has a mop of curly brown hair on his head and is always seen trudging around in signature yellow galoshes. His famous catch phrases are “Don’t play, play” (Pronounced Don’t pray, pray — hello, Singlish) and “Use your brain” (pronounced “Use your blain!”). Part of the joke of the character is not just how over-the-top he is, but that he is playing into a particular over-the-top stereotype of an Ah Beng. According to the Wikipedia page on the show, the “Ah Beng” is Singlish slang for a “stereotypical, uneducated Chinese gangster.” It’s a bit of a departure from UOR, in that a Chinese character is not portrayed as white collar. In fact, Gurmit Singh is actually of Indian/Chinese-Japanese descent.
See the dysfunctional Phua family for yourself in three parts:
Living With Lydia (2001 – 2005)
Lydia Shum, a plump, bespectacled Chinese comedienne, starred in this popular sitcom about a Hong Kong businesswoman who moves to a house she inherited Singapore after a fall from grace at her restaurant in HK. Much like the English-language sitcoms that came before, the show centers around one main character but is very much an ensemble of wacky characters. Sadly, Shum passed away in 2008 at age 62, but re-runs of her show were aired in Singapore and on international Asian Television Networks posthumously. Her character didn’t really have any catch phrases but there was a running joke about an unwanted houseguest she found living in her house when she arrived in Singapore. His name is Billy B. Bong, but she always calls him “Billy Bong.”
Watch her the character of “Lydia Lum” deal in this bootleg version of an episode entitled “Potions and Superstitions.”
First Class (2008 -2009)
First Class did not stray far from the formula set forth by its predecessors, and was rewarded with ratings accordingly. The show starts with an idealistic young teacher coming to impress on the young minds of Secondary School students and gets more than he bargained for. While this could be looked at an opportunity to really take the Singaporean education system to task, First Class is more about entertainment value than social change. Which is fine, depending on who you ask; it’s only a sitcom after all. That said, it’s still a pretty funny send up of the whole “idealistic, change-the-world teacher” trope — with a Dead Poets Society reference and all.
Here’s a clip from the first episode:
Police and Thief (2004 – 2010)
A police chief lives next door to a former criminal — six seasons of hilarity ensue. The show still very much lives in the broad arm gestures and extreme facial expression territory, but much like its MediaCorp brethren returned some tasty ratings for its parent company.
Calefare are background actors. Basically, this show is Ricky Gervais’ Extras if it were an ensemble cast and dipped in slapstick. Though it only ran for one season, this show was significant if only because it was a bit of a departure from the typical filial comedies that preceded it. Instead of one central character, it was a cast of characters equal and yet unique in their wackiness. And instead of multi-camera set-up, this show was single-cam sans laugh tracks. Much like some of the earlier American single-cam sitcoms, the show did not earn great ratings and is likely done for the forseeable future.
I was only able to find promos for the show, but they’re pretty hilarious. If anyone knows where I can get my paws on full episodes, please share with the class!
One other “less conventional” television show that has made it to the airwaves in the last few years is the show The Noose — a play on the pronunciation of “The News.” Yes, it could be considered The Daily Show of Singapore, as much as any news parody show can be — although this feels more like a local news show parody.
Just to close the circle — here’s a Noose report about the ban on Singlish. See what I just did there? (You’re all asleep, aren’t you?)
Don’t consider this a comprehensive survey on Singaporean humor or sitcoms, but more a primer. A whetter for your comedy tourist appetites. To me, many of these shows the video and sound quality feels rough, the humor is over the top and maybe even too silly to be watchable. There are actually many Singaporeans who would agree with you. In fact, stand-up comedy is only now really finding a home in Singapore and many young comedians hope to break the comedic mold that seems to have been cast in bronze by shows like Phua Chu Kang. Ironically, the regulatory organization of the Programme Advisory Committee for English-Programmes complained about the over-saturation of lowbrow humor in Singaporean sitcoms. Though it seems like a veiled attack on Singlish, it could be argued that even the government is ready for more diverse offerings in the humor marketplace.
I recently started watching the 80’s sitcom Cheers from the beginning, and was struck by how low-budget it feels at times and yet how funny it still is. Singaporean sitcoms are as much a reflection of Singaporean people as Friends is of Americans. Perhaps the more interesting thing to look for is how the humor and format is slowly evolving as a medium. Or, you know, watch them to appreciate a good pratfall. Slapstick may be the closest thing to universal humor out there.
Laura Turner Garrison sometimes writes commercials, she sometimes writes comedy, but she always rights wrongs.