Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab covering education, youth, and aging. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
In a city-state that's wary of talk about race and religion, a burgeoning stand-up scene offers a welcome respite.
Orion Perez hails from the Philippines, but you wouldn't know it from his stand-up routine at the Comedy Masala club in Singapore.
Perez, an IT consultant in the city-state who moonlights as a comedian, has been called the "Master of Accents" and can skillfully present as Malaysian, Chinese, Singaporean, and other nationalities—so much so that audience members from those countries are unable to guess his real background.
"I specialize in joking about languages, accents, and ethnic or racial stereotypes," he explains. "My aim is to show that people tend to subconsciously judge others based on the accent they use."
To Americans, it may sound like typical stand-up—even tame. But in Singapore, Comedy Masala and acts like Perez's are bold.
Singapore keeps a tight lid on public discourse about race. The small island nation's population of 5.4 million is mainly divided between the majority Chinese (74%), Malays (13%), and Indians (9%). The Singaporean government, led by the People's Action Party since 1959, has been careful to promote a narrative of racial harmony and equality.
Race riots in the 1960s between Chinese and Malays set the stage for this preoccupation with ethnic goodwill. Indeed, writes Jaclyn Ling-Chien Neo, a law professor at the National University of Singapore, mediating racial and religious relations "was and remains one of the main obsessions of the government."