When joking about tragedies, how soon is too soon?
Singapore-born comedienne Jocelyn Chia joked about the missing Malaysia Airlines plane MH370 during a recent stand-up comedy show in the US, sparking discussions about whether certain topics are off limits as comedic material.
An 89-second video clip of her set posted to Instagram showed the New York-based Chia poking fun at the ongoing rivalry between Singapore and Malaysia, and making several expletive-laden snipes at Malaysians in the audience.
“When my prime minister went on TV to announce that you guys had dumped us, he cried because he thought we were not gonna survive without you,” Chia said, referring to Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who announced the island state’s separation from Malaysia in 1965.
“But 40 years later, we became a first world country. And you guys, Malaysia, what are you now? Still a developing country,” she said to laughs at the Comedy Cellar in New York City.
“Now, Malaysia you all are trying to come around, like, ‘Hey Singapore, you’re looking good lah.’ And we’re like, ‘I know, but why haven’t you visited me in 40 years?’,” she added.
“And (Malaysia’s) like, ‘Yeah I tried, but you know, my airplanes cannot fly,’ ” Chia said to more laughter but also some audible gasps from the crowd.
“Why, Malaysian airlines going missing not funny huh? Some jokes don’t land,” she said, referring to the MH370 plane that left Kuala Lumpur for Beijing in March 2014 but never arrived. To date, the aircraft has not been located.
The clip drew the ire of many Malaysians shortly after it was posted.
Radio broadcaster Kudsia Kahar was one Malaysian who took offence, writing on Twitter that she drew the line at turning MH370 into a joke.
“Not acceptable. A good stand-up never turns tragedy and deaths into a joke,” she said.
Renowned Malaysian stand-up comedian and actor Harith Iskander also weighed in on Wednesday, remarking that Chia’s joke displayed “insensitivity” towards the MH370 tragedy.
“I respect the freedom of expression that we comedians require to do our job, he said in a video he posted on Twitter.
“But it is equally important to exercise some level of sensitivity and empathy when doing certain material, especially topics that are deeply personal or tragic.
My response to Jocelyn Chia's clip which has riled up Malaysians pic.twitter.com/dbP1GBz1As
— Harith Iskander (@HarithIskander) June 7, 2023
Harith added that while Malaysia is still a developing nation, the country was “definitely first world” when it comes to “kindness and thoughtfulness”.
Others said Chia’s set would upset the family members of the 227 passengers and 12 crew members who were aboard the missing plane.
Responding to a critic on her Instagram page, Chia, an alumnus of St Nicholas Girls’ School and National Junior College, wrote: “Tragedy plus time = comedy. It’s been long enough man.”
The naturalised American added that the criteria for comedy is whether a topic or material can be made funny.
Some netizens tagged Malaysian comedian Nigel Ng, known for his fried rice critic Uncle Roger character, urging him to respond to Chia’s jokes at the expense of his country.
Ng had recently faced censure in China for his own stand-up comedy show.
But Chia’s set, which she dedicated to Singapore’s founding premier Lee, did earn the approval of at least one Malaysian, with comedian Jason Leong commenting that he “liked this bit”.
She had previously performed comedy sets with similar jokes comparing the varying states of development of Singapore and Malaysia.
New York City is no stranger to plane tragedies and comedy controversies itself. In 2001, a few weeks after the Sept 11 terrorist attacks at the World Trade Centre, US comedian Gilbert Gottfried made a joke about planes “having to stop” at the Empire State Building, to which a man in the audience heckled that it was “too soon”.