Umar Rana onstage at his club, Comedy Masala. Wilson Wong/Flickr

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."

So how does Singapore's government respond when the ideal of racial harmony is threatened? "Any challenge or critique to the narrative—particularly if presented publicly—can be seen as destabilizing to the country's delicate social fabric," says May Leong, an arts professional in Singapore.

Rush hour in Singapore. (Edgar Su/Reuters)

In the past decade, the government has used the country's Sedition Act several times to punish those it views as having had the "tendency to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes…[through] any act, speech, words, publication, or other thing." Maximum punishment for a first offense is $4,000 or three years in prison (or both). Two Singaporean men were, for example, jailed and fined—albeit well short of the maximum sentence—in 2005 for making inflammatory remarks against Malay Muslims on the Internet.

What does all of this have to do with Comedy Masala? Founded in 2010 by banker-turned-comedian Umar Rana, the club near Boat Quay was one of the first venues for stand-up in the country. Rana, who had done improv in his native Pakistan, says that until 2009, when a colleague started a weekly open mic night in Singapore, "stand-up didn't exist here." When the colleague stopped the open mics, Rana wanted to keep going. "So I started Comedy Masala," he says. "It sparked off an entire comedy scene."

It also established a space in which Singaporeans and expats can joke about race publicly. "It's been refreshing to see local comedians come and have a laugh about it," says Rana. "They generally make fun of their own. Everyone gets in a room and cracks a few jokes, and the boundaries of race and religion are transcended."

(Wilson Wong/Flickr)
(Wilson Wong/Flickr)

Perez likens the experience at Comedy Masala to a kind of release valve for racial tension. "Stand-up is allowing Singaporeans and people who live in Singapore to talk openly about things they would normally only discuss in hushed tones," he says. And Leong, who has attended a handful of shows at Comedy Masala (all are in English), says she likes the club because it "pushes sociopolitical boundaries"—not only in regard to race, but religion, sexuality, and other taboo subjects.

Rana notes that public humor about race in Singapore didn't start just with Comedy Masala, as performers like actor Hossan Leong and drag queen Kumar had been using similar comedy in their acts for a couple of decades. Their tradition, as well as the "release-valve" role that Comedy Masala and other comedy clubs in the city-state are currently playing, complicate Singapore's international reputation as a place of all-encompassing repression.

Yet a comedian, blogger, or other public figure must still be cautious. Michael Hor, a former lecturer at the National University of Singapore's Faculty of Law and now the dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Hong Kong, says that whether Singapore's authorities choose to crack down on race-related comedy largely depends on whether the members of the community being joked about take offense.

"It seems that the authorities will let it pass unless there is a complaint," he writes via email. "Once [that occurs], they prefer to err on the side of caution and to prohibit or punish. They do not seem persuaded by the argument that racial tension is better dealt with in the open, perhaps by comedy or satire." And certain topics truly do seem to be off-limits. Rana says that hardly any performer at Comedy Masala will take on the ruling party in his or her act.

So far, Comedy Masala has enjoyed a space free from government interference, perhaps thanks to both the appreciative audience seeking out a venue for laughter about race and other sensitive topics—Rana says he's had nary a complaint in four years—as well as the comedians who make sure they don't take things too far.

"I talk about common stereotypes that are accepted even by the groups who are labeled, and I avoid extremely offensive references," Perez explains. "I stick purely to lighthearted ones."

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