An American expat who lives in and loves Malaysia pushes back against Jocelyn Chia’s comedy routine disparaging his home away from home.
When news broke about Singaporean-born lawyer-turned-comedian Jocelyn Chia’s stand-up routine in a New York City comedy club, during which she not only profanely bashed Malaysia, but appeared to indirectly mock the victims of MH370, I told my friend, “This is not going to go away anytime soon.”
And so it has been. Despite the actual event occurring in April, and the news breaking some two weeks ago, outrage and piling-on has only grown, with stories appearing in local media on a daily basis. Chia has been roundly criticised in both Malaysian and Singapore.
As the group editor for the media company which publishes this website, though my perspective undoubtedly colours what I write, I usually refrain from publishing straight opinion pieces of my own. On this point, however, as an American expat who has lived in Malaysia for over 14 years, I feel I need to not only try to provide some context to the controversy, but also to push back against Chia’s insulting comments about Malaysia, my adopted home.
Controversy ensued following a recent online posting of a stand-up performance by lawyer-turned comedian Jocelyn Chia at Manhattan’s Comedy Cellar.
During her routine, Chia delved into the complex and acrimonious history between Singapore and Malaysia, of course former components of the same union. She opened with a remark suggesting that since their separation in 1965, in which Malaysia voted to expel Singapore, the latter had flourished into a first-world country while the former had purportedly remained a “developing” nation – and that she wasn’t concerned about any bad reviews from the Malaysians because “they don’t have internet!” She says that she’s used this joke as part of her routine many times, and that it’s often appreciated by Malaysians. (I think this is a fair point, and almost certainly true, though I also believe most Americans, who surely comprised most of the New York audience, would not have the cultural knowledge or understanding to find this reference humorous.)
Subsequently, Chia inexplicably turned her attention towards Malaysian airplanes, playfully insinuating that they were unable to fly. In doing so, she made a remark referencing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, the ill-fated aircraft that vanished with 239 passengers and crew members on board shortly after departing from Kuala Lumpur on March 8, 2014.
The fate of the flight remains inconclusive, although sporadic discoveries of suspected debris have been made over time. Suffice it to say the families of the victims undoubtedly live with the pain of their grief and many unanswered questions.
“What? Malaysia Airlines going missing not funny, huh?” she quipped to laughter, before delivering her punchline: “Some jokes don’t land.”
First, I feel that whatever visa or citizenship Chia now holds, it’s important to understand that this comedic attack on Malaysia was made wholly from a Singaporean’s perspective. She was raised and educated there, not in the United States, and this is what frames her point of view. She apparently held Singaporean citizenship until well into her adult years. In her routine, she repeatedly refers to Singapore as “we” and “us” – clearly the phrasing of someone who views herself as Singaporean. These are also not likely jokes someone born and raised in the States would even make, so to my mind, staging protests outside the US Embassy is both misdirected and pointless.
Consider this: If I somehow had PR in Malaysia or managed to get citizenship here, and then went to a comedy club in Bukit Bintang and utterly trashed the UK in my routine, I don’t think any criticism would be framed as “some Malaysian guy making fun of the UK.” Whatever passport I may hold at the moment, I’m ultimately still an American by virtue of my upbringing, my culture, my perspective. It’s the same thing. Ms Chia is still culturally a Singaporean. Again, I can assure everyone reading that most Americans actually have no real knowledge of the history or rivalry (friendly or otherwise) between Singapore and Malaysia.
Americans also would be less likely to understand the Asian concept of “face” – and even though Chia’s bit was grounded in comedy and satire, it seemed more than a little harsh and vindictive (the blatant and repeated “f*** you, Malaysia” probably didn’t help), and in being so aggressive, she could have caused any Malaysians in the audience – and perhaps by extension their entire home country – to lose face. This possibility was suggested to me by someone here, but I’m not sure. I feel it’s more like she just upset Malaysians, plain and simple.
Second, Ms Chia says, in defense of her routine, and in pushback to the onslaught of criticism she’s received, that “tragedy plus time equals comedy.” That’s actually true, but not universally so. People don’t really crack jokes about the 202 people who were killed in the October 2002 bombing in Bali. I also don’t really hear comedy routines about the people who desperately jumped to their deaths from the burning World Trade Center during the September 2001 terrorist attacks. It could be that not enough time has passed… or it could be that some things just aren’t fodder for stand-up comedy bits.
So while we may be cool hearing a quip referencing the 1865 assassination of Abraham Lincoln, which took place at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C. (“Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”), joking about the tragedy of MH370 – a fairly recent event that still has no resolution or closure – was crossing the line, in my opinion.
Look, I like edgy, caustic humour, and I’m definitely not one to easily get offended. And yeah, I can see the comedy is framing the Singapore-Malaysia thing as a bad break-up, with Singapore finding that “success is the best revenge” after the split. That rings pretty true; in comedy, the basis for humour is usually surprise, and few things are as surprising as the truth. (And truth be told, I think a lot of my Malaysian friends would laugh along with that part.) But not everything is suitable for a comedic routine. Just because it’s clever (“Some jokes don’t land”) doesn’t mean it’s appropriate.
I will also throw in my opinion that in some quarters here, the performative outrage may be getting taken too far. Calling for Chia to be banned from ever entering Malaysia? Asking Interpol for help in getting full identification and detailed information on a stand-up comedian because she said something two months ago in a comedy club on the other side of the world that ruffled some feathers here? Come on.
Ironically, Chia could probably have made all this go away by issuing a sincere apology for causing any offense, but she has refused to do so. She has tried to explain her intent, and said that the clips had been taken out of context, but she has not apologised. In fact, she seems well aware that the more attention that is paid to this issue, the more well-known she will become. There’s some truth to this, of course; as the old saying goes, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” She also responded to the reports of Malaysian police contacting Interpol over the matter.
“I just wish I could have seen the face of the Interpol officer who received this request,” Chia told the BBC in an interview.
“Honestly, if Interpol does do something about this request and things escalate, can you imagine how famous it is going to make me?” she was quoted as saying.
IN APPRECIATION OF MALAYSIA
As for the bit about Malaysia being a third-world country, we get this here a lot from the folks down in Singapore. Sure, they’re “just kidding,” but anytime someone tells you that after saying something potentially offensive, you instinctively know there’s at least a little truth hiding behind the “joke.”
Frankly speaking, it’s beyond question that Singapore really is a modern marvel, and what they’ve accomplished since 1965 is genuinely impressive, all the more so given their relative scarcity of natural resources. But before they get too comfortable in their three-bedroom ivory tower that costs them $8,000 a month to rent, I could argue that Malaysia is plenty impressive, too, though perhaps in some different ways – and that Singapore isn’t totally free from all things negative, either. It’s also fair to say that governing a tiny country (about the size of San Francisco) is totally different, and likely much easier, than governing a country that’s as relatively large, spread-out, and diverse as Malaysia.
I moved here in 2008, thinking it would be just for a couple of years. But like so many other long-term expats here, I found a lot to love in Malaysia and made the choice to stay. Suddenly, nearly 15 years have gone by, and though I’m a bit more cynical about some things here (like any long-term resident anywhere), my love and appreciation for Malaysia has only grown.
No country is without its flaws, of course, but I feel like Malaysia is tantalizingly close to getting things really right. I enjoy the beauty of the country on both land and sea, here on the Peninsula and over in East Malaysia, too. This is one of the world’s only 17 “mega-diverse” countries, speaking to the extraordinary variety of flora and fauna. That wild diversity alone gives us a lot more to see, do, and experience than your average Singaporean enjoys, eh?
I love the people here, I love the ease of travel both in Malaysia and from it to all points around the region, and I feel that Kuala Lumpur in particular offers all the comforts and amenities and quality of life that most major cities in Asia provide. And of course, I enjoy all the fantastic culinary opportunities here. And not just for the local foods… that’s always been awesome, but the international dining scene in KL has improved stunningly in the last decade, accompanied by the growing appreciation for wine and craft cocktails, too. Shopping is outstanding, and in so many ways, KL really is world-class. (For what it’s worth, we also have the second-tallest building in world here now!)
If KL were some backward capital in a third-world country, I doubt so many expats would love living here. But the truth is, Malaysia offers a lot. No, it’s not perfect, but it’s still pretty amazing despite those imperfections, and I’m so grateful that I’ve had the chance to live here for such a big part of my adult life.
A friendly rivalry doesn’t include slagging off your neighbour or disparaging their living conditions. All too often, Singaporeans seem to hold this view that Malaysia is a pit of despair, with people locked in poverty and crime sweeping the land. I’m not sure why that is. In actual fact, Malaysia provides a lot of opportunity, there’s loads to see and do, it’s a pretty safe country in which to live, and personally, I prefer the laid-back attitude of the people here.
I used to work for a Singaporean company (a dozen years ago or so), and though I was based in KL, I was down in Singapore very regularly. The company provided a place for me to stay, and the trips down there were so frequent I felt like a part-time resident. At one point, the company asked me if I wanted to fully relocate to Singapore, and it wasn’t even a hard decision for me to make. Thanks, but no thanks. I had only lived in KL for about two years at that point, and already I felt my life was here. I liked Singapore well enough, but it’s awfully polished and sterile, and I think after living there for a few months, I’d have grown restless and bored. I don’t know… maybe that’s wrong. Maybe I would have really liked it.
But what I did know at the time was that I was very much enjoying my life in Malaysia and wasn’t ready to bring it to a close. Now, many years and a global pandemic later, the same is still true. I’m glad that I’m here. I’m still discovering new places, meeting new people, and enjoying new experiences. For this American, Malaysia is a genuinely great place to call home, and no comedian’s routine can undo that.
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