When does a joke go too far? When a country’s government wants to track you down, it’s a sign you might need to rethink your punchlines.
This is the situation that Jocelyn Chia, a stand-up comedian in New York, has found herself in.
Chia was performing at The Comedy Cellar in Manhattan on April 7, 2023, doing her usual comedic routine where she pits Malaysia against Singapore. The two countries have had historical tensions over the decades.
Singapore used to be part of Malaysia until August 1965 when it separated to become an independent and sovereign state.
Chia’s jokes that evening revolved around poking fun at Malaysia still being a developing country while Singapore had progressed into a “first-world country”.
Chia then went on to taunt Malaysia, saying, “Why haven’t you visited us (Singapore) in 40 years?”
“Yeah you know, our airplanes cannot fly,” Chia answered her own question, speaking for Malaysia.
Chia later on asked the audience, “What? Malaysia Airlines going missing is not funny, huh? Some jokes don’t land.”
Many have assumed that this poor punchline was in reference to Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 which disappeared on March 8, 2014 while flying from Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KUL) to Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK) in China.
Although the performance took place in April 2023, a clip, which has since gone viral, was only uploaded in the first week of June 2023. The original video was removed by TikTok, which cited a violation of its hate speech guidelines.
Backlash from Malaysia
US-born Chia now finds herself in hot water after Malaysians expressed disgust over the bad joke.
A Malaysian woman posted her reaction to the joke, saying that up to this day her son still cries over his missing father, who was one of the passengers of MH370.
“Having a heart and living in a developing country is so much better than being in a first-world country and being a heinous human being,” the woman said.
Harith Iskander, a Malaysian actor and comedian, also expressed his opinion.
“As a comedian, I respect the freedom of expression that we comedians require to do our job, but it is equally important to exercise some level of sensitivity and empathy, especially with topics that are deeply personal and tragic,” Iskander said.
Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan also said that he was “appalled” by the “horrendous statements” made by Chia, who was raised in Singapore.
Chia told CNN that this specific comedic routine of hers has been performed more than a hundred times for the last year and a half without an issue.
Chia believes that the particular segment, which has been condensed into a short clip, has been taken out of context.
“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,” Chia told CNN.
On June 14, 2023, Al Jazeera reported that Malaysia’s police chief Acryl Sani Abdullah Sani told Malaysian media that the police would file a request for Interpol’s assistance to track down Chia.