How to Make a Singaporean Laugh

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 much to laugh about. We are the same country, remember, that created an uproar about Gotcha, a local TV program that’s similar to Candid Camera. Why? Simply because we don’t like to be made fun of.

So when I received an e-mail from a friend, Toastmaster and Accredited Speaker John Kinde, asking me to tell his American readers how to deliver a humorous speech when in Singapore, my initial reply was: “I think it will be easier for me to write an article on why Singaporeans have lost their sense of humor!”

And then I remembered something. This past May, I attended an event here in Singapore called the National Achievers Congress. Almost all the speakers were from the United States and Europe, yet they were amazingly successful in making us laugh. That’s when I realized that Singaporeans do enjoy humor – in fact, even more so in difficult times like these, when it provides an escape from the terrorism and natural disasters looming at our doorsteps.

So I figure that if I can help speakers find our funny bone then perhaps they can give us lots of things to laugh about. 

Know What We’re About
The number one rule to making us laugh is to, first of all, know our culture. It’s analogous to the speaker’s universal rule of knowing the audience, but it’s even more important if you want to be successful in delivering a humorous speech in another country. Knowing our culture includes learning how we think, what gives us pain and pleasure, and what makes us tick.

Singaporean society believes in meritocracy. As a result, parents know the importance of giving their children a good start, which often means sending them to the best schools at all cost. Inevitably, there is elitism; students from the better schools think they’re smarter than the rest.

So when one of the speakers at the National Achievers Congress, Andrew Matthews, brought up Singapore’s Raffles Institution – known for many years as the top school in the country – the entire audience roared in laughter. Matthews was saying that one of the reasons our citizens aren’t happy is because most of them aren’t studying at Raffles. Which is true!

Singaporeans don’t like to admit to this attitude, so the only way for us to express our feelings about it is to laugh. 

Speak Our Language
I also notice that when foreign speakers attempt to talk in our language (Mandarin) or attempt to use “Singlish” (Singapore English), it almost guarantees laughter from us. Perhaps because they sound really silly. I suspect that the laughter is also an expression of relief – a feeling that people from other countries care enough about us to try to speak our language. That reflects a certain degree of approval.

When one of the speakers from that recent gathering spoke Mandarin for about a minute, the audience was both amazed and amused. It was clear that he memorized the phrases, but the performance was still impressive, and we loved it.

In fact, I recently tried the same tactic. I was giving a presentation to the managers of Seylan Bank (in Sri Lanka) and decided to introduce myself in their national language, Sinhala. As expected, they bellowed with laughter. Why? Because I “sounded funny,” one of them said.

A rapport between myself and the group was immediately established, and the rest of the presentation became easier to deliver. Interestingly, those managers still volunteer to teach me new words every day – aching, I suppose, for another good laugh the next time I give a presentation in their country.

Speaking in Singlish is also very funny to us. The vocabulary of this language consists of words originating from English, Malaysian and dialects of Chinese. Though the Singaporean government discourages the use of Singlish in favor of Standard English, we are very proud of speaking in this tongue since we can call it our own. Let me give you some examples of Singlish at work:

When returning a phone call…
English: “Hello, this is Joe, did you call me?”
Singlish: “Hello, who call?!”

Expressing doubt about something…
English: “I really don’t recall you giving me the money.”
Singlish: Spread hands and say, “Where got?”

When declining someone’s offer to pay…
English: “Hey, put your wallet away – the drinks are on me.”
Singlish: Give a disappointed smile and blurt out, “Nonid” (no need).

So if you can pepper your presentation with some familiar Singlish phrases, you’re going to be very popular with a Singaporean crowd. 

Know Our Alphabet Soup
In Singapore, we make jokes about 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 minister is called by his initials.

A few examples: 

  • LKY – Lee Kwan Yew (our much revered and feared mentor minister)
  • HDB – Housing Development Board
  • PUB – Public Utilities Board
  • GST – Goods and Services Tax
  • ERP – Electronic Road Pricing (Each time you pass a road zone, you pay.)
  • PAP – People’s Action Party (the ruling government party in Singapore)

Of course, we put our own spin on this alphabet soup. Here are “translations” of the above acronyms: 

  • HDB – Highly Dangerous Building
  • PUB – Pay Until Broke
  • GST – Government Services Tax
  • ERP – Everyday Rob People
  • PAP – Pay and Pay

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 humorous. You can hang out with the locals in food courts or pubs. Listen in on their conversations. Take notes on what makes them laugh. They may find you weird, but who cares?

Read our local newspapers, The Straits Times. Check out the columns written by our writers. Go down to the bookstores and pick up some Singaporean joke books. This research will help you tremendously in connecting with your audience via laughter.

                    “Feel free to not only make fun of yourself, but your people too.
                    If you are an American, go ahead and make fun of Americans.
                    If you’re Chinese, make fun of the Chinese.”

My suggestion is to use local examples as much as you can for your humorous material. And if you want to introduce topics from your own country in order to tell a joke, make sure you explain what they mean before you proceed. If your audience can’t understand the context of what you’re saying, you’re going to have a hard time squeezing a chuckle from them.

Wow...I never thought I could write so much on how to make Singaporeans laugh. Here are two more tips before I call it a day:

Self-deprecating humor still works wonders with all audiences. As a foreigner, you are bound to experience a lot of mishaps as you interact with the locals. For example, when I was in the United States, I tried to hitch a ride to Yosemite, but no matter how hard I tried, no car stopped for me. For a moment there, I thought Americans were racist.

It was later that I realized I was actually doing the hand sign for hitchhiking all wrong! Instead of a thumbs up, I gave oncoming motorists a thumbs down. And quite vigorously, too, since I was eager to get in a car. No wonder no car stopped for me. I should be thankful that I wasn’t gunned down!

Feel free to not only make fun of yourself, but your people too. If you are an American, go ahead and make fun of Americans. If you’re Chinese, make fun of the Chinese. You are warranted to do so. This simple tip has worked extremely well for me. It even helped bag me a first-place trophy when I competed in Philadelphia in a division’s humorous speech contest.

My contest speech was titled, There’s Something About Singapore, and for seven minutes I spoke on the misconceptions Americans have about Singapore. I mentioned how Singapore is tiny compared to America. How Singapore is so clean that you can eat from the floor (and get soap poisoning). And Singapore being a “fine” get fines for everything!

Finally, focus on telling funny stories instead of jokes. Jokes are a one-note strategy and may misfire. However, if your stories don’t make the audience laugh, they could still make an interesting or relevant point. And remember, stories are universal. No matter who your audience is, they will appreciate personal anecdotes. Such stories create instant connections and keep audiences engaged and entertained.

So starting from today, begin to collect personal anecdotes or stories you read that tickle your funny bone. They will help form your arsenal of funny material. If you’re worried that the Singaporean audience may not appreciate one of your stories, test it out on a smaller group or even your local guide. Check to see if it’s effective and appropriate.

If you diligently collect humorous stories, I’m sure you’ll find at least one that will have your audience laughing hysterically – even us Singaporeans. 

Eric Feng, ACS, is a member of the NUS Toastmasters club in Singapore. Reach him at his Web site