RACE is sensitive and rarely discussed in polite conversation. But Singapore comedians have managed to sprint past the OB markers by following the simple precept: "It isn't racist if you're making fun of everyone."
Arguably, it is Singapore's drag queen of comedy Kumar who perfected the age-old formula. He took racial slurs to such vertiginous heights of raunchiness and irreverence, it's inspired younger entertainers to tackle racial stereotypes by making everyone - especially themselves and their demographic groups - fair game.
Race is set to be front and centre in the bold new stage comedy Meenah and Cheenah. It stars two of the country's most gifted stage actresses, Siti Khalijah Zainal and Judee Tan, as they parody and pay tribute to many stereotypes of Malays and Chinese.
Directed by Selena Tan and written by Alfian Sa'at, the idea for the comedy began when the two actresses shared a dressing room for the stand-up comics showcase Happy Ever Laughter (2012).
Judee Tan recalls: "We were just singing to ourselves and we ended changing the lyrics of the National Day song One People, One Nation, One Singapore to: 'One meenah, one cheenah, one Singapore...' "
Meenah - or minah, as it's more commonly spelled - is a derogatory term describing ill-bred Malay women. Similarly dismissive, cheenah is used to describe someone or something stereotypically Chinese.
When director Selena Tan heard the girls sing, she immediately thought of creating a show around them. Tan, a member of the comic trio Dim Sum Dollies, had previously created shows for Kumar, Hossan Leong and Sebastian Tan (aka Broadway Beng). She roped in Alfian, a seasoned playwright who's explored race and religion in several plays, to write the stage show.
Between them, the four created skits involving Malay and Chinese characters, such as a Makcik and her Ah Soh best friend; a Chinese ghostbuster and a Malay pontianak (vampire) who appears immune to the former's amulets; and the 15th century Malaccan Princess Hang Li Po learning how to be "more Malay" from her handmaiden. The actresses even cross-dress to play a Malay and Chinese NS boy discussing how to look macho and score girls.
Siti says: "Humour is the best way to explore stereotypes and reclaim them. For instance, this whole thing of being called minah, which is supposed to be derogatory. Well, I'm a loud and proud minah."
"To me, every Malay woman out there is a minah, whether she knows it or not. If she works in Paris and eats baguettes, she's a minahhigh-class. If she hangs out in a gang, then she's a minah gangster. If she's religious and goes to the mosque often, she's a minah tudong. But we are all minahs and we should just embrace it."
Judee Tan, on the other hand, doesn't consider herself an ah lian (the Chinese equivalent of a minah): "When I went to Ahmad Ibrahim Secondary School, I found myself neither here nor there. I was neither one of the studious girls, nor one of the ah lians. But being surrounded by ah lians gave me the perfect opportunity to observe their habits - from their rebonded combed-down hair and high-waisted skirts, to their Sonia Rykiel bags and Guess paper bags."
The actresses believe that humour releases tensions and anxieties about racial differences and creates bridges. Tan says: "Theatre is a great place for open dialogue. It's where race can be talked about safely and with sensitivity and humour. We want to celebrate the good and bad about being Chinese and Malay - and we especially don't want to discount the bad. We are not one-dimensional as a people but we don't talk about our complex identities honestly enough. So this is as a good a chance as any to do it."
- Meenah and Cheenah plays at Victoria Theatre, 9 Empress Place, from May 11 to 22, 8pm (Tue to Fri), 4 and 8pm (Sat), 4pm (Sun). Tickets from S$46 to S$130 from Sistic.