International Humor — So You Think You Can Make a Singaporean Laugh!

This is a  post by my funny friend Eric Feng from Singapore.  As a speaker he has spoken internationally, so I asked his advice on speaking outside of your own borders.  He wrote a terrific article that applies not just to speaking in Singapore, but which is filled with tips anytime you speak to an audience which has a culture or language different from your own.  Take it away Eric!

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So You Think You Can Make A Singaporean Laugh! 

By Eric Feng

It takes a lot to make a Singaporean laugh these days. With the rising taxes, erratic weather and high cost of living, there isn’t really much to laugh about.  This is also the same country that made an uproar about Gotcha, a local TV program which is similar to Candid Camera or Just For Laughs, simply because we don’t like to be made fun of.
 
So when I received an email from a friend of mine, John Kinde, to give his USA readers some perspective on how to deliver a humorous speech in Singapore, my initial reply was, “I think it’ll be easier for me to write an article on why Singaporeans have lost their sense of humor.”  And then I recalled the recent National Achievers Congress that I attended in May. Almost all the speakers were from US and Europe, yet they were amazingly successful in making us laugh. That’s when I realized that Singaporeans are like normal people, or at least we hope to be.  We do enjoy humor, in fact more so in difficult times like this, where terrorism and natural disasters are looming at our doorsteps. I figure that if I can help you find our F-spot, then perhaps you can help revive our sense of humor.
 
I think the number one rule to making us laugh is to first know our culture. It’s analogous to knowing the audience, more so if you want to be successful in delivering a humorous speech. Knowing our culture includes knowing how we think, knowing what gives us pain and pleasure, knowing what makes us tick.
 
In Singapore, our society believes in meritocracy. As a result, parents know the importance of giving their children a good start. Often that means sending them to the best schools at all cost, even if it means traveling longer distances or offering their time to volunteer at the school. There is this unsaid perception that if you don’t come from a good school, you won’t amount to anything when you grow up. The whole idea of classifying schools according to their merits inevitably leads to elitism. Students from the better schools think they are smarter than the rest, as a result, they become arrogant. One famous example is the Raffles Institution, also recognized as the top school in Singapore for many years.
 
So when one of the speakers at the National Achievers Congress, Andrew Matthews, brought up Raffles Institution in his speech, the entire audience roared in laughter. It was in the context of why we are not happy. And one of the reasons is because we aren’t studying at the Raffles Institution. Not only was his speech personalized, it was true! He brought up a truth that most Singaporeans do not admit. And the only way for us to hide it is to laugh!
 
I also noticed that when foreign speakers attempt to speak our language (Mandarin) or attempt to use Singlish (Singapore English), it almost guarantees laughter from us. Perhaps because you sound really silly trying to speak our language. I suspect that the laughter is also a form of relief that people, like you, care enough about us, to try to speak our language. There is a certain degree of affirmation. So when one of the speakers spoke Mandarin for about a minute, we were both amazed and amused. It was clear that he memorized it but still, it was impressive. The accent was apparent but we love it.
 
In fact, just three days ago, I did the same thing. I was giving a presentation to the managers of Seylan Bank (in Sri Lanka) and I decided to introduce myself in their national language, Sinhala. And as expected, they roared with laughter because I sounded funny, as one of them said.  Rapport was built immediately and the rest of the presentation became easier to deliver. Interestingly, they volunteer to teach me new words everyday. I suppose they are aching for another good laugh the next time I give my presentation. (grins)
 
Since we are talking about language, here’s another tip.  When you attempt to speak in Singlish, it can be very funny too.  The vocabulary of Singlish consists of words originating from English, Malay and dialects of Chinese. Though the Singaporean government discourages the use of Singlish in favour of Standard English, we are very proud of speaking in Singlish since we can call it our own. Let me give you some examples.
 
WHEN RETURNING A PAGE…..
INSTEAD OF “Hello, this is Joe, did anyone page for me?
SINGAPOREANS simply call up and demand “hello, who page?!”
 
WHEN DOUBTING SOMEONE…..
INSTEAD OF “I really don’t recall you giving me the money.”
SINGAPOREANS simply spread their hands and say “Where got?”
 
WHEN DECLINING AN OFFER…..
INSTEAD OF “I’d prefer not to do that if you don’t mind.”
SINGAPOREANS simply frown and say “Doe waaan la” (don’t want)
 
WHEN DECIDING ON A PLAN OF ACTION…..
INSTEAD OF “What do you propose we do now that the movies are sold out?”
SINGAPOREANS simply look blurred and say “So how?”
 
WHEN ENTERTAINING…..
INSTEAD OF “Please make yourselves at home.”
SINGAPOREANS simply steer people towards the food and say “Mai keh ki leh.”
 
WHEN ASKING FOR PERMISSION…..
INSTEAD OF “Excuse me, but would it be possible for me to take this chair?”
SINGAPOREANS simply point at the chair and say “Can or not?!”
 
WHEN SOMEONE OFFERS TO PAY…..
INSTEAD OF “Hey, put your wallet away, the drinks’s on me.”
SINGAPOREANS simply give a frowned smile and say “Nonid.” (no need)
 
So during your presentation, if you can pepper your statements with some famous Singlish lines, you are going to be very well liked by us. 
 
In Singapore, popular jokes are created in the form of acronyms. And that’s because we use A LOT of acronyms. Too many in fact! Our highways have acronyms. Our government agencies have acronyms. Even our mentor ministor is called by his acronym! Here are some examples:
 
LKY – Lee Kwan Yew (our much revered and feared mentor minister)
HDB – Housing Development Board (the high rise flats we live in are also call HDB)
PUB – Public Utilities Board (where you pay your utilities bill)
GST – Goods and Services Tax (a hot topic these days because of the raise to 7%)
ERP – Electronic Road Pricing (each time you pass a road zone, you pay)
PAP – People Action Party (the ruling government party in Singapore)
 
Of course, we put a spin to these acronynms. And believe me, there are some truths in the way they are now interpreted!
 
HDB – Highly Dangerous Building (coz’ we stay very very high up!)
PUB – Public Utilities Board (pay until broke)
GST – Goods and Services Tax (government service tax)
ERP – Electronic Road Pricing (everyday rob people)
 
And since PUB, GST and ERP were all created by our current ruling government party in Singapore (PAP), it is also conveniently known for “Pay And Pay” government!
 
We even have one for our famous tourist attraction Sentosa, a beach resort, also known as “So Expensive and Nothing TO See Actually”!
 
Another fail-safe way to be funny in front of a foreign audience is to make friends with the locals! And get them to tell you what’s funny. Like what I am doing right now. Alternatively you can just hang out with the locals either in the food court or in the pub. Listen in to their conversations. Take note of what makes them laugh. Jot them down. (They may find you weird but who cares?) From your notes, you will begin to find out some of the things that make a typical Singaporean laugh! Go read our local papers (The Straits Times). Check out the columns written by our local writers. Go down to the local bookstores and pick up some Singapore joke books. It will help you tremendously in locating our all-elusive F spot.
 
Personally I think Americans are a very funny bunch of people with a lot of funny material to share. However, one of the biggest problems we face is appreciating the jokes, especially if it is the set up that we don’t understand. Here’s why. A lot of of American jokes revolve around sports and politics, which Singaporeans may not be familiar with, unless it is soccer. When you use slang like “home run” or “the Yankees” or “bollocks”, we get confused. Sometimes we even misunderstand what you are trying to say. When Pepsi was first introduced to Taiwan, the slogan “Come Alive” was translated into Chinese as a rather sacrilegious message: “Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave.” Not very promising if you are trying to get the Taiwanese to buy your drinks! Similarly if your audience cannot understand the context of what you are saying, you are going to have a hard time squeezing a chuckle from them. My suggestion is to use local examples as much as you can. And if you have to introduce something foreign, make sure you explain to them what it means before you proceed to telling the joke or anecdote.
 
Wow… I never thought that I could write so much on the topic of making Singaporeans laugh. Here’s two more tips for you before I call it a day.
 
Self-depreciating humor still works wonders regardless of who you are speaking to. As a foreigner, there are bound to be a lot of mishaps that happen to you as you interact with the locals here. For example when I was in the States, I tried to hitch  a ride in Yosemite but no matter how hard I tried, no car stopped for me. For a moment there, I thought the Americans…yes, some of you…were racist. It was later that I realized I was doing the hand sign all wrong. Instead of a thumbs up, I gave the incoming cars the thumbs down!!  And yes, quite vigorously too since I was eager to get in the car. No wonder no car stopped for me. I should be thankful that I was not gunned down!
 
Feel free to make fun of your own people too. If you are an American, go ahead and make fun of the Americans. If you are Chinese, make fun of the Chinese. You are warranted to do so. This simple tip has worked extremely well for me.  It even bagged me a First Place trophy when I competed in Philadelphia for the Toastmasters Division Humorous Speech Contest. My contest speech was titled: There’s Something About Singapore,  and for 7 minutes, I shared about the misconceptions that Americans have about Singapore. And just a few days ago, I made fun of the Chinese race by saying to a group of Sri Lankan managers that all Chinese people look the same. As you know, this is an unsaid consensus. So on my last slide, I put up my picture and explained that this will help them identify me. Again, this made them laugh. So go ahead and make fun of yourself. Best if you can identify all the stereotypical statements they have about your race and then bring them out in a light-hearted way.
 
Lastly, focus on telling funny stories instead of jokes. Jokes are a one time shot and may misfire. However if your stories do not make the audience laugh, they could still make a point. Furthermore, stories are universal. No matter who your audience is, they will appreciate personal anecdotes.  They create an instant connection and keep your audience engaged and even entertained. So starting from today, begin to collect personal anecdotes or stories you read that are funny. They will form your arsenal of funny material that you can use in your presentation. If you are worried that the local audience may not appreciate them, test them out on a smaller group or even your local guide. Check to see if they are effective and appropriate. If you diligently collect stories that you find funny, I am sure that when the time arises, you will have at least one that will appeal to your audience and have them laughing their heads off. That’s right, even us, the Singaporeans will be no exception.
 
Check out other excellent humor articles written by Eric Feng.