This National Day, We Just Hope Singaporeans Finally Get a Sense of Humour
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Seven years ago, during General Elections 2011, I was made aware of the blinding gap between how content Singaporeans should be (given all that we have) versus the grim reality I saw on social media.

Till today, critics constantly lambast the government, airing their dissatisfaction with ministerial paychecks and blaming the existence of ‘kiasuism’ on the education system.

As someone who once considered migrating, I empathise with the growing disillusionment. I may be far less inclined to give up my place in this country now, but there remains one lesson I gleaned from that period of my life: one of the best antidotes to cynicism is a bloody solid sense of humour.

To save ourselves, we must learn to laugh at ourselves, our sorry plight, and everything in between.

Having a sense of humour also translates into a greater appreciation for nuanced perspectives.

Surprisingly, it appears that most Singaporeans want the same thing. In the National Values Assessment survey published at the end of last month, we ranked humour and fun among our top 10 values. These two values, which did not appear in previous iterations of the survey in 2015 and 2012, were apparently important to our sense of well-being.

Even though the changing political climate might be precisely the reason for the shift towards prioritising more light-hearted values, it’s heartening nevertheless that we aspire to lead an enjoyable life.  

That said, we must not mistake having a sense of humour for being flippant about important issues. As an aspirational value, humour simply means that we seek to find levity in heavier, darker issues—a survival skill that feels necessary today.

After all, we have a tendency to take everything too personally. From the aunty who cuts in line on the MRT platform to having the wool pulled over our eyes by a clever PR stunt that raises awareness about the ivory trade in Singapore, it takes very little to piss off a Singaporean. Some of us react by passive aggressively muttering under our breath, while others write in to the Straits Times forum.

On the other hand, humour (even of the self-deprecating variety) often brings with it a marked compassion towards ourselves and empathy towards others. By laughing at our flaws or making jokes at our own expense, we are admitting to being our own worst critic. Doing so exposes us to a certain vulnerability, letting others see who we really are.

In hindsight, perhaps we deserved to have that aunty cut in line, because we were too engrossed stalking our ex on Instagram.

Having a sense of humour also translates into a greater appreciation for nuanced perspectives, which are missing from the typically black-and-white, top-down nature of the discourse surrounding serious issues.

For instance, humour allows us to poke fun at the differences between high SES and low SES lifestyles without offending anyone. We do this in order to draw attention to the various ways that social inequality manifests in this country, all while ensuring we don’t spiral into an abyss of depression, helpless at the realisation that perhaps this is how it will always be.

Humour can also serve as hope, while empowering us to keep trying to fix things.

The key to getting humour across successfully is by punching up.

Arguably, a sense of humour isn’t just necessary for ordinary Singaporeans. It’s also sorely needed in Parliament speeches, national day messages, and every other instance of public communication, although this isn’t to say that public communication should be littered with jokes for its own sake.

The key to getting humour across successfully is by punching up.

Case in point: the Ministry of Defence’s statement on Ben Davis should not contain humour, lest it come across tone-deaf. Yet it would be refreshing if a Nominated Member of Parliament made a tongue-in-cheek remark about how their motion might only get heard 10 years from now, knowing the amount of bureaucratic red tape the civil service comprises.

What makes good comedy is also empathy. Tastefully trying to lighten the mood is an exercise in humility; it requires politicians to talk to us, not at us.

On top of improving the overall well-being of the country, the most crucial thing about having a sense of humour is that it fundamentally changes our lives and how we look at the world. It shifts attention away from ourselves, teaching us to take things less personally.

There are few other values that embody social intelligence, self-confidence, and self-awareness all at once.

Still, as this year’s national day song states, “I know I’ve got to be the change I want to see. How easy we forget that everything takes time.” If we consider this to be home, truly, then our expressions of love for the country shouldn’t just happen on August 9 nor solely as a national spectacle.

Anyone who has tried motivating an entire team when individual members can’t be fucked will concur: we can’t progress as a nation when we don’t put in the effort to first improve ourselves.

This may require us to stop making things more difficult for ourselves on a daily basis, and stop taking things seriously if it is only counter-productive to helping us cope with uncertainty. Other times, it’s about realising the humour in misery, like getting stuck in an MRT breakdown when we specially leave house ahead of time.

Even after 53 years of independence, no one truly knows what it means to be Singaporean, though many can agree that our ‘complain culture’ forms an integral part of what we call our national identity. But all talk with no action can create a kind of cancerous passivity; at 53 years old, one of the most pressing diseases Singapore faces is chronic cynicism.

The only cure is to make light of dark situations, not least because any semblance of effort trumps indifference and resignation any day.

More often than not, that simply means remembering to find reasons to laugh hard and laugh often—at the world and its repeated attempts to break us, but most importantly, at all the ways we make a mess of our own lives.

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