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GE 2011 – the Noise and Humour of Rallies

Dr Wong Wee Nam/

“Humour is therapeutic and a lack of it could be a sign of mental illness.” - Sigmund Freud

A friend, who stays in US for nearly 40 years, came back recently and observed that there is some change in the political climate of fear after the General Election 2011.

Another friend who had just come back from Australia also keeps hearing people telling him that things have change.

One friend suggested that the change has something to do with the internet. Before that people were angry about certain things but kept quiet because of fear and they also thought that they were in the minority. Through the internet people suddenly realised they were not alone and could speak openly about their concerns. There is security in numbers.

This collective awakening was what drove thousands of citizens to turn up at the numerous rallies held during the GE 2011 every night. It also emboldened people to openly declare who they were going to vote, something that they would not dare to do even one year before that.

The massive crowd that had turned up at the rallies night after night were not a rabid group. Nor were the speakers fiery demagogues out to incite riots. They came from all walks of life. People turned up at rallies for various reasons. Some were genuinely angry. Some wanted to be entertained. Others sought to be politically educated.

For eight nights, the various stadia that were used by political parties for their rallies were turned into huge open air theatres for their citizens. For many of the listeners the eloquent expression of their concerns by the various speakers opened both their eyes and their minds. They laughed, clapped and cheered uninhibitedly at every hyperbole, pun and wit. Every time a punchline was delivered, the crowd roared.

Why did our people enjoy going to election rallies? In our daily life, we face many stresses and frustrations from family, work and financial problems. We feel unhappy, angry and powerless in face of the intrusions of the authority into our lives. The various government policies that affected us also made us disgruntled. Furthermore, as demonstrations are banned, there is no avenue that a citizen can vent his pent-up emotions.

Thus, we went to the rallies to laugh, cheered and clapped and used humour as a form of emotional catharsis to help us vent our hostility in a non-physical way.

In the past, our political climate had discouraged the citizens to express themselves freely and such a therapy was only available to the limited number of our affluent theatre-goers attending some of our local plays.

This time round, the whole nation went through nine days of therapeutic emotional release.

This is not to say rallies are just theatres where frivolous speeches are made. Apart from helping to sharpen the mind, satire, humour and punchlines can benefit the society in a number of ways.

Jokes at rallies actually deliver serious messages. Isaac Asimov, the famous science fiction writer who had one of the most repertoire of jokes, said that when jokes of the proper kind are properly told, they actually do more to enlighten questions of politics, philosophy and literature than any number of dull arguments.

Indeed, most jokes are crafted on the basis of some bitter truth. It is a polite, non-confrontational and non-aggressive way of making a social criticism and so is an acceptable tool for bringing up issues of social concern. Perhaps this is why the crowd at the rallies did not turn rabid after eight nights of light-hearted polemics.

However making rally speeches is like licking the food off a sharp knife. A slip of the tongue and you could cut yourself. Each butt of a joke has various degrees of tolerance and sensitivity. It is, therefore, difficult to tell how someone would react. George Bernard Shaw once told us, "If you want to tell a person the truth, make him laugh or he'll kill you."

Thus, if you make fun of a person and he happens to be the humourless type, you risk getting sued. Since no defamation suits had been brought against anyone in General Election 2011, it can be assumed that the jokes must be made in good taste or that our politicians have become more tolerant and less sensitive. If this is so, then my friends’ observations may be right. There is, indeed, an atmosphere of change.

Still it is too early to tell. However, even if there is no great leap forward, there is at least some progress. In past elections, people were afraid to have their photographs taken at rallies. Now even celebrities and others have no issue seeing their pictures posted all over the internet.

Yakov Smirnoff, a comedian from Russia and also a professor at Missouri State University and Drury University where he teaches "The Business of Laughter", once complained that when a comedian in his country tells a joke, people look around to see who was watching them before they laugh.

In our case, in the GE 2011, the response was spontaneous and uninhibited. This is change.

This article is also published at sgpolitics.net