A comedian in New York who joked about the safety of Malaysian planes in an apparent reference to the disappearance of flight MH370 has sparked a heated backlash in Malaysia and Singapore.
Controversy over the joke by lawyer-turned comedian Jocelyn Chia at Manhattan’s Comedy Cellar erupted soon after a short clip of her stand-up performance was posted online earlier this week.
Chia’s bit, which the comedian said she had used multiple times in the past, centered on the uneasy past between Singapore and Malaysia, which were once part of the same country. She led off with a suggestion that since the two had separated in 1965, Singapore had risen to become a first-world country while Malaysia had allegedly remained a “developing” one.
She then went on to take aim at Malaysian airplanes by suggesting they “can’t fly,” before making what many have taken as a reference to Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, the Beijing-bound flight which went missing along with 239 passengers and crew after taking off from Kuala Lumpur on March 8, 2014.
What happened to the flight has never been conclusively established, though pieces of debris suspected of belonging to it have occasionally been discovered.
“What? Malaysia Airlines going missing not funny, huh?” she quipped to laughter, before delivering her punchline: “Some jokes don’t land.”
Chia told CNN that her routine has been performed “more than a hundred times” for a year and a half without an issue, but when this particular segment was taken out and condensed into a short clip for social media, some of the necessary context went missing.
“I do stand by my joke but with some caveat – I stand by it in its entirety, when viewed in a comedy club. Upon reflection I do see that having this as a clip that gets viewed out of a comedy club context was risky,” she said.
She added Singaporeans have long had a friendly rivalry with Malaysia and it was what the joke was based on, adding that she bears no grudge against Malaysia. It was also a common culture for comedians to “roast” their live audience, she added.
Malaysian audience members often come up to Chia after her shows to tell her that they loved her gig, she said, which showed “they clearly didn’t take offense”.
But the joke has caused a wave of controversy in both Malaysia and Singapore after it went viral online in recent days.
In Malaysia, the youth wing of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) – one of the biggest political parties in the country – marched to the US embassy in Kuala Lumpur on Friday to protest what they see as an insult.
About 100 protesters and representatives handed a memorandum to the US diplomatic outpost, according to the youth group’s chief Dr Muhamad Akmal Saleh.
“This is something that is unacceptable for the whole nation and we are here,” he said, adding, “freedom of speech must come with sensitivity.”
Singapore meanwhile has distanced itself from Chia, who according to her website is originally from the Asian city state, and apologized to Malaysia.
“The Singapore government does not condone words or actions that cause harm or hurt to others and Chia,” said Vanu Gopala Menon, Singapore’s High Commissioner to Malaysia in a statement online. “(Chia) does not in any way reflect our views,” he added.
Menon said Chia’s joke contained “gratuitously offensive comments,” adding, “I sincerely apologize to all Malaysians for her hurtful remarks.”
In a tweet, Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said Chia “certainly does not speak for Singaporeans” and he was “appalled by her horrendous statements.”
“We treasure our ties with family and friends in Malaysia, and are sorry for the offense and hurt caused to all Malaysians,” he added.
His Malaysian counterpart, Dr Zambry Abd Kadir, accused the comedian of lacking sensitivity and empathy toward Malaysians and the families of the victims.
“This video also clearly depicts behavior that is contrary to the values of an Asian country that is known for its manners and morals,” he said, according to state-run news agency Bernama.
As of Sunday, Chia’s Facebook and Instagram accounts were no longer available to view.
However, Chia said there is never spite behind a comedian’s jokes, adding at the end of the day, the goal is to put a smile on people’s faces.
“We all know in the comedy club context that this is the comedian trying to get a laugh, and there is no actual malice behind it,” she said.