by Elizabeth Zachariah
The Malaysian Insider
January 18, 2014
When Datuk Seri Najib Razak suggested people should appreciate that kangkung prices had fallen and praise the government for it, the poor man’s greens usually associated with belacan (shrimp paste) became an overnight sensation to deride the prime minister and his subsidy cuts programme.
In the past two weeks, the water spinach has appeared in newspaper headlines, in conversations at dinner tables, in jokes good and bad, and has gone viral in social media.
An example is the latest edition of That Effing Show, hosted and produced by Ezra Zaid. Its latest episode, “That Effing Show #99 – Let Them Eat Kangkung”, was uploaded on Thursday and has since garnered more than 21,000 views.
The six-and-a-half-minute clip took a dig at Najib’s comments as well as Malay rights group Perkasa, the MCA and MIC by featuring “representatives” from fictional organisations Persatuan KangKung Satu Malaysia (Perkasa), Malaysian Choi-sum Association (MCA), Machas Institute of Cucumber (MIC) discussing the “kangkung” remark.
“The prime minister’s sudden and unexpected announcement regarding the value of kangkung has caused all kinds of chaos across the country. Panic selling has resulted in plummeting prices and soaring tempers,” says a brief about the video, alluding to the fiery political climate in the country just eight months after the General Election 2013.
Ezra told The Malaysian Insider that comedy and satire attempt to tap into the public consciousness.
“People can find solace in comedy for a lot of things that they cannot understand,” he said in Kuala Lumpur.
The arena of comedy and satire is a wide spectrum, he added, through which to “discuss what is difficult” under normal circumstances.
“It’s more flexible than a politician’s world. When audiences relate to a content, it helps them deal with the issue at hand,” said Ezra, who belongs to the PopTeeVee collective that produced the parody show.
Actress and artistic director of The Instant Cafe Theatre Company Jo Kukathas said comedy and satire change the way audiences think and their attitudes towards politicians.
“The art does not move politicians directly but rather, it first changes the audiences who are the people who vote,” she told The Malaysian Insider.
“The audience get to see what we do and they definitely get affected.”
Most Malaysians have a feudal attitude, she said, and they find it rude or unacceptable to laugh at leaders.
“But when we make fun of those up there, we make people laugh. And when they do, the people feel more powerful.
“Only then do politicians notice the shift in attitudes of their constituents, that the people see them in a different way,” she added.
Describing it as “breaking free of bondage”, Penang Institute political analyst Wong Chin Huat concurred, noting that comedy and satire helped to “democratise society”.
“The impact is on the ordinary people. We tend to fear authority in this feudal society.
“Anger does not help to overcome fear but laughter does,” he added.
Fear is gone, Wong said, when the people start laughing at those in power and as a result, the people become more powerful.
“It is impossible to fear someone that you laugh at. But when politicians say something stupid and we laugh at them, we become emboldened,” he said.
Ezra added that art forms, such as comedy and satire, play a role in forming the people’s opinions.
“It is very important to note that this kind of discourse is actually taking place. People are now able to express themselves,” he said.
However, poking fun at the leaders and the country comes at a price.
There are those who strongly oppose this type of humour, including Perkasa which had lodged a police report in October last year over an episode of The Effing Show, which the Malay rights group claimed mocked the Appeals Court decision to bar the Catholic Church from using the word Allah in their publication.
They had said that the clip – “The Effing Show #95: Allah, Apa Lagi?” did not respect the sensitivities of Muslims in the country.
In response, Ezra said that the government’s ability to handle a joke is a “litmus test” of how strong it is.
“If the government cannot handle a joke, then it shows that it is weak. Any government which tells you that you cannot do this or that, then something is wrong.
“The more you curb, the more harm you bring,” he added.
Kukathas said: “Politicians live in a cocoon. Even with the BBC report on the kangkung… they didn’t like it.”
She was referring to Thursday’s temporary inaccessibility of a BBC article on Malaysians making fun of Najib over his “kangkung” remark.
“Politicians know the power of humour and satire. When humour is aroused, that’s when the politicians have less power over the people,” she said.
On Wednesday, PKR Machang Bubuk assemblyman Lee Khai Loon led a group of some 15 people in Alma, Bukit Mertajam, mainland Penang, in a flashmob, with an effigy of Najib and posters criticising his kangkung remark.
They also stuffed kangkung into the effigy’s mouth while singing a modified version of the popular children’s song “Lenggang-lenggang Kangkung”.
Umno politicians – who had previously remained silent over the kangkung remark – jumped at Lee’s actions, accusing him of ridiculing “the nation’s leader”.
“Do you realise that you are ridiculing the leader of this nation? This means you are ridiculing yourself,” Umno’s Pulai MP Datuk Nur Jazlan Mohamed had said.
Umno blogger Dr Novandri Hassan Basri took on a more extreme stance, choosing to lambast the Chinese members of the opposition.
“Pakatan Chinese are becoming more extreme and insolent. They openly insulted the prime minister by stuffing kangkung into the mouth of a replica of Najib,” he was quoted as saying.
Najib broke his silence last night, saying that he had only used kangkung as an example.
“I like to eat kangkung, you all like to eat kangkung. As such, I gave an example which everybody eats. If I use quail as an example, only certain people eat it.
“The example should not be ridiculed by anybody because I gave the example on the principle of supply and demand which decides the prices of some of the food commodities not subject to price controls,” he had said. – January 18, 2014.