As keywords such as ‘badut’ and ‘dedak’ enter into our political vocabularies, we are driven into an age of satirism. Political satire is not a novelty. So too are the descriptors ‘badut’ and ‘dedak’. What is new, however, is their increasing relevance and their explanatory power on the present political fiasco.
With the recent crackdowns on graphic artist Fahmi Reza and cartoonist Zunar, satire has become more vibrant and alive. Any attempt at suppressing political satires often fuels more sarcasm. The defensiveness of satirism is its best offence - the more oppressive the government, the more relevant the satires. And of late we have welcomed both Fahmi’s and Zunar’s caricatures with rejoicing.
But our optimism seems to come a little too quickly. We have omitted the radicalism intrinsic to satirism. Surely, if taken at face value, political satires are ‘weapons’ against an obvious enemy. But the targeted assault of satirism should extend beyond the usual suspect. Political satires are a double-edged sword. Like a cunning mirror, satires laugh at us laughing at our national buffoons. We laughers are the ‘collateral damage’.
There is a kind of reflexivity in satirism that makes political caricatures truly radical. That our sardonic laughter is only self-deprecating and bittersweet at best, if not a sigh of temporary relief against a dismal future, should reflect the sense of irony that underpins satirism.
If Najib Abdul Razak’s administration is responsible for launching us into the age of satirism, it is we, the laughers, who crowned and clowned him. It is convenient to appreciate the various sarcastic renditions of Najib as signs of mischief hostile against him, but satires leave no one untouched. Satires know no friends.
Satires decry the rulers as much as they mock the readers. We are not the only one laughing. The persistently slick smiles of Fahmi’s clowned Najibs and Zunar’s beaked Donald Dedaks are telling. These bastardised Najibs are still smiling because they are unwreckable. With cunning grins on each of his faces, our cynical laughter serves only to buttress his staying power as we ignore our own ignorance.
Who will get the last laugh?
“Laugh before laughter is banned,” said Zunar. Or, laugh before laughter is normalised. Truly, in an Orwellian setting, laughter is the best ‘medicine’. As we scan through a plethora of image depicting caricatures of Najib, we simply laugh them off.
But we neglect the fact that these caricatures are laughing at us, too. The clowned Najibs are still smiling. Satires are radical precisely for this reflexive critique directed at our own ‘laugh-them-off’ indifference towards the hegemony we live in.
During the Margaret Thatcher years, Homi Bhabha described the period as a “heyday of high theory and low spirits”. It was a moment where radical theories proliferated in the academe amidst curtailed resistant politics. Malaysia today faces a similar situation: a period of high visuals and low spirits.
The baduts and dedaks are visual cues to an increasingly detached form of political discourse. In times of crisis, satirism emerges as a product of discrepancies: what is actual has strayed off from what is expected. This detachment is likewise a manifest of credibility gap and systemic dysfunction.
But this detachment is not unilateral. Najib is as much politically detached and indifferent to the rakyat as is the rakyat to Najib. It is this sense of detachment that gives rise to a moment of high visuals and low spirits, to absurdism and badut-isation.
What impedes the full recognition of satire’s reflexivity is our interpassivity consequential to the politics of detachment. Interpassivity, an inversion of interactivity, accounts for an atmosphere of passive detachment that sustains itself and subscribes to itself.
As we observe from our media screens these satires, we are reading a discourse interminably regurgitated. We fall prey to the sense of frequency in the mediated circulation and dissemination of image, a process which has taken a life of its own.
While the caricatures by Fahmi and Zunar have added colours to our palettes, they are indicative of our low-spirited political atmosphere. We can laugh off the satires but we must not laugh in vain. Political satires are self-mockery - do laugh at ourselves for retaining Najib, or risk resigning ourselves to become his laughing stock.
Fahmi’s clowns and Zunar’s Donald Dedaks are not just critiques of Najib, they are bleak reminders of our incapacity to topple an authoritarian regime. We are the one who keep Najib smiling.
TAN ZI HAO is a postgraduate student in the Department of Southeast Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He is also a conceptual artist whose artworks can be viewed at www.tanzihao.net. As both artist and writer, he is interested in the arts, language, cultural politics and mobilities.- Mkini