Entertainment

Here’s How Singapore’s Version of ‘The Onion’ Thrives Where Satire Could Get You in Trouble

In a country where political discourse is kept on a short leash, “The Pressing Times” is a comic oddity.
singapore satire the pressing times instagram
A newspaper-style poster created by The Pressing Times. Photo: Courtesy of The Pressing Times

In 2006, an article published by Reuters talked about the Singapore government’s “allergy to satire” that antagonized entertainers in the country. More than a decade later, comedians are still grappling with authorities while trying to be funny. But the uptight political atmosphere hasn’t stopped two satirists from taking humorous jabs at what it means to live in Singapore.

Advertisement

The Pressing Times is a website and Instagram account dedicated to satirizing local events and uniquely Singaporean experiences. Since it started in early 2021, it has amassed almost 20,000 followers who appreciate its snarky brand of humor and cultural relevance.

Behind the account are Rice and Shark, two twenty-somethings who work in the advertising industry. With monikers adopted from a cousin’s pet cats, the two creators wish to stay anonymous so that their posts are viewed as they are, apart from the perceptions their real identities may encourage.

Left-Shark Right-Rice.jpeg

Shark (L) and Rice (R), the cats whom The Pressing Times’ creators borrowed their monikers from. Photo: Courtesy of The Pressing Times

In a video interview with VICE, the pair shared how The Pressing Times came about at a time when the news cycle was dominated by bleak COVID-19 updates.

“The news landscape was very, very dark,” Rice said. “And at that point we just thought it would be good to have this outlet for humor, where people can just laugh away all the problems.”

In January 2021, the duo published their first post on The Pressing Times, about Singaporean pastors who deem COVID-19 a “lifestyle choice”—a tongue-in-cheek nod to the rhetoric used by religious groups (especially when talking about the LGBTQ community). 

Longtime fans of The Onion, Rice and Shark first modeled their posts after the satirical news site, then slowly figured out what works for their Singaporean audience and fine-tuned their style. They also drew inspiration from New Nation, a local satire site that has become largely inactive, and The Noose, a defunct TV show that parodied local news. 

Advertisement

“Nowadays, it’s no longer about the memes that are really, really straightforward, right?” said Shark, citing the trove of hilarious parody content on social media created by Singaporeans. “All these things kind of show us that there is that appetite for that sort of ironic humor.”

Taking notes from daily life, local events, and conversations with friends, The Pressing Times pokes fun at dismal situations and is always challenging Singaporeans’ threshold for absurdity—like one post announcing that the government was implementing a “10-day work week with three rest days.”

“I think that got the most question marks from a lot of people because they thought it was real,” Rice said of the post. While it was meant to ridicule the culture of overwork that’s rampant in the country, the post sparked actual alarm among some who didn’t seem to get the joke.

Rice and Shark said that when people take their jokes as actual news, they actively reach out to Instagram users to clarify that their posts are satirical.

Everyday observations are the easiest to joke about, because they’re about as controversial as a discussion about crooked McDonald’s burgers.

But satire inevitably pokes fun at more touchy topics, and in Singapore, satire has gained somewhat of a bad rap—both because of potential legal repercussions and seriously unfunny attempts at humor. Just last year, the creator of a parody Twitter account was jailed for publishing racially offensive tweets while portraying a caricature of an insensitive Singaporean. A month later, a piece published in the The Straits Times—the country’s leading newspaper—packaged as satire was met with public outrage when it hurled blatant insults at women.

Advertisement

Acutely aware of the potential pitfalls of using satire in Singapore, Rice and Shark said they pay a lot of attention to what they call the “subtext” of their pieces, or the larger cultural context that they’re poking fun at.

“So normally, the joke is where it’s the most fun,” said Shark. “But then I guess that subtext bit is always the tricky part, especially when it comes to political events or things like corporate culture that people might feel a bit touchy about.”

“When we try to get into the subtexts that we feel might be a little bit more complicated, we do try to make sure that we have the full picture, before we decide on the stance that we’re taking,” she added. “I think the onus is on us to make sure that what we are saying is fair before we slap a joke on it.”

In November, The Pressing Times published a post about Raeesah Khan, an opposition politician who admitted to sharing a false account in parliament. In their post, The Pressing Times likened her to Game of Thrones’ Daenerys Targaryen, the charming heroine whose unexpected ending in the TV series triggered scathing backlash from disappointed fans. Similarly, Khan started her political journey as a promising crowd favorite before eventually losing her popularity. 

Advertisement

While much media coverage surrounded the opposition Workers’ Party leadership, The Pressing Times steered clear of discussing party politics, focusing instead on simply spoofing the Game of Thrones character.

“I think that was a piece that we really thought very hard about. And I guess one of our main concerns with not just that piece, but our pieces in general, is when people read this, would they take it the wrong way? How might this be misinterpreted?” said Shark, adding that they want to be very careful to avoid their content being weaponized for political purposes.

When local comedian Preetipls and her brother Subhas, a rapper, made a parody video of an offensive local commercial where a Chinese actor appeared in brownface, they were investigated by the police and slapped with a two-year conditional warning. In the 2019 video, the siblings dissed Chinese privilege in Singapore. The original posts have since been removed from social media platforms, but the siblings continue to advocate racial justice in the country, even as Subhas faces charges for allegedly promoting racial or religious enmity.

Advertisement

Singapore has a set of notoriously broad laws that are used to penalize political dissent, including the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, a law targeting fake news but has been used many times against political dissidents.

But none of this is stopping Rice and Shark from using satire as a creative outlet—they’re just being extra careful with their jokes. And so far, this sensitivity has paid off.

“I think the most satisfying part is when people notice that we try to include nuance in the subject,” said Shark, adding that they try to focus on the issue rather than calling out or canceling people.

While satire isn’t banned under the fake news law, it was once erroneously listed as a type of fake news in an infographic created by Singapore’s Media Literacy Council in 2019, just as the fake news law was about to come into effect. “This is part of [the council’s] work to encourage online discernment,” said an apology statement that was only met with more disbelief and criticism.

Incidentally, that goal of cultivating more savvy internet consumers is also shared by The Pressing Times.

“Part of our mission also, as ironic as it seems, is media literacy,” said Rice. “We want to try to teach people to just fact check whatever you read.” 

Follow Koh Ewe on Instagram.