COMMENT: Laugh at ourselves more in Singapore - and save lives

Laughter is good for you, and humour - especially the self-deprecation sort - shows empathy besides improving heart health

A group of people laughing.
A group of people laughing. (PHOTO: Getty Images)

A TEACHER took me to one side. She had that look. I’d crossed the line. It wasn’t the first time. Humorous writing of any kind is a tightrope, one that’s always moving with societal changes, as it should be.

But I’d crossed the line. I’d given a students’ workshop on humour writing and made fun of that underprivileged, underrepresented, voiceless group.

Ang mohs.

I’m sure you were just thinking about donating to the many virtuous causes dedicated to lifting that poorest of souls: The White, Middle-Aged, Heterosexual Male. God knows, he needs your thoughts and prayers right now.

But the teacher was concerned that I’d been offensive to Caucasians.

I’d mentioned only one ang moh in a story. Me. The entire joke was on me. The cheeky build-up, the silly slapstick and the outlandish payoff were all at my expense.

“Yeah, but some could find it offensive,” she said.

So, on behalf of anyone who found a joke I told about an ang moh (me) offensive in any way (to me), I apologise to the joke’s target (me). I promise to work much harder on me and avoid further jokes about an oppressed group (me).

Self-deprecation was – and remains – my fallback position, a safe space for both the writer and the audience to relax and exhale and do what comes easily to us, what makes us human, social and joyful.


We are supposed to laugh. Our minds want us to laugh, but our bodies actually need us to laugh, for medical reasons, according to recent findings.

Worrying about the subject of the joke

Last month, a Yahoo article reported that laughter can improve heart health. Research showed that patients with coronary artery disease who underwent a course of laughter therapy had reduced inflammation and better health. And this wasn’t a daft claim on one of Russell Brand’s demented YouTube videos, the results were presented at the annual meeting of the European Society of Cardiology in Amsterdam, the world’s largest heart conference.

A study examined 26 adults with coronary artery disease. Over a three-month period, one watched popular sitcoms, the other half watched serious documentaries. At the end, their hearts’ ability to pump oxygen around the body was measured again. The comedy half had improved by 10 per cent. They were also at a lower risk of heart attacks and strokes.

That’s a stats-heavy way of saying something that you already know. Laugh more and you’ll feel better. Test the theory. Have a sly look at the people around you right now. The one with a face like a bulldog chewing a wasp probably hasn’t laughed since his mother-in-law died. You know it. And he definitely knows it.

But there’s already a slight wince. That was a problematic joke about mothers-in-law, inferring that we’d all be better off if Mother-in-Law kicked the bucket and left all her CPF savings, which is a doubly offensive proposition in a society that prides itself on filial piety and … we’re back where we started, worrying more about the subject of the joke, rather than its target and potential outcome.

The mother-in-law was made up. She was a hypothetical device. She doesn’t exist.

But still, the tightrope endures, with OB markers on one side and the threat of the POFMA office on the other, with sphincters tightening at the mere mention of either. A casual misstep is a fall into the bottomless pit of societal uncertainty. Talk about ang mohs? That’s race! Make fun of a Chinese void-deck funeral? That’s religion! And maybe also race! And culture! Draft a strongly-worded letter to the Forum editor!

Identifying with frailties, making others feel better

I became well-known for telling a story about a Chinese void-deck funeral. I’ve written 28 books but if a double-decker bus takes me out tomorrow, I know people will say, “Humphreys die ah? The ang moh one who thought a funeral was a hawker centre, is it?”

But the target (me) and desired outcome are the same (to make others laugh). And apart from the obvious, narcissistic and selfish reasons – I get to feel good about it – the medical benefits are increasingly understood, too. According to that Yahoo story, laughter releases endorphins, which reduces inflammation, helps the heart and blood vessels relax and brings down stress hormones (which makes sense. Those who obsess over my content seem to have a real struggle with their stress hormones.)

Self-deprecation is always a solid starting point, a reliable safety valve in reducing pressure and alleviating concerns. A little, reflective self-mockery creates warmth and empathy with an audience. Stand-up comedian Rishi Budhrani is terrific at this and well on his way to becoming an international success.

But self-deprecation requires a subtle acknowledgement of failure, an admission of a cock-up or a mistake, things that are robotically drilled out of us from the very first school exam in Singapore. We are No.1 or we are nowhere. We win. Others are losers.

But comedy is so often for – and about – losers. Sitcoms have a fine tradition of championing noble (and ignoble) failures. Basil Fawlty, Edmund Blackadder and The Office’s David Brent are all failures with deep-seated psychological issues. We identify with these human frailties. We empathise and connect. And we make others feel better, literally, according to the latest medical research. No one is losing here.

About 10 years ago, a woman introduced herself as we lined up in a pharmacy queue. She told me that she’d read some of the sillier passages from my Singapore books to her dying mother, to give both of them a brief distraction from the inevitable. She was grateful. I was humbled.

There was a poignant silence.

And then the pharmacist explained loudly how to apply the cream for my groin rash.

The woman and I laughed again. At my expense. And we both felt better.

Comedy is so often for – and about – losers... We identify with these human frailties. We empathise and connect. And we make others feel better.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 28 books.

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