Malaysian activists use humour to call out intolerance

By: Julian CH Lee - Posted on: August 26, 2016 | Malaysia

Comedy has become a vehicle to denounce public figures and institutions that promote sexism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia in Malaysia

Najib Razak
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak gestures during an event at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 21 July 2016.

High-profile Malaysians, including Prime Minister Najib Razak, could end up red faced this weekend as the 2016 Aiyoh Wat Lah! Awards take aim at public figures who have said or done egregiously sexist, homophobic or transphobic things.

According to the feminist activist beng hui (who spells her name in lower case letters), the awards were created in 2012 following a meeting of the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality, an active coalition of women’s NGOs from across Malaysia.

“We were sitting in a meeting one day lamenting how all you would read in the papers was rubbish about women and about how terrible LGBTs were,” she said.

“So we said, wouldn’t it be great if we could just take over the news and say what we think about people who are constantly spewing out this rubbish.”

On the surface these awards are much like traditional ones. There are nominations, voting categories, and finally an awards ceremony.

But these are not the kind anyone would want to win.

There are six categories of undesirable awards. For example, this year Najib is a nominee in the category of “Insulting Intelligence” for his “irrational” comment that “If our wives start acting up, our heads are frayed and we cannot become good leaders or elected representatives.”

While a number of the nominees are high-profile politicians, beng hui, from the All Women’s Action Society, said the aim was not to attack them for their words but to get people speaking about the issues.

“It’s been easy for people to get confused and think that we are out to penalise a certain individual but we have actually been quite careful to say that ‘no’, actually it’s the issue that they talk about or act on that we are highlighting,” she said.

The awards are intended as a comical yet serious means of making people accountable for their comments and actions.

With members of the government up for nomination along with their leaders, Yasmin Masidi, from the NGO Empower, explained that comedy is used in the Aiyo What Lah! Awards because “the state hates being laughed at”.

“Ministers don’t care if you get angry at them, but they care very much if you laugh and make fun of them,” she said.

To find out more about the awards – which will be held on Sunday in Petaling Jaya – and this year’s nominees, visit: https://aiyohwatlah.wordpress.com/

Julian CH Lee is the author of Second Thoughts: On Malaysia, Globalisation, Society, and Self, and lectures in Global Studies at RMIT University. Interviews with beng hui and Yasmin Masidi were conducted with his colleague Ceridwen Spark.