Since the beginning of the Movement Control Order (MCO), the public has largely been confined to live within the four walls of their home. It is without doubt that COVID-19 is a major crisis that has crippled the normal rhythm of life including social, economic, political, psychological facets of the global community. To almost everyone on earth, life has never been the same since the deadly virus made its way into the human society just over a year ago. Millions have died, breadwinners of many families have lost their sources of income while many have also been affected emotionally which led to deterioration of mental health which caused them to suffer from anxiety and depression.

According to researchers at Boston University School of Public Health, United States, depression symptoms were three times higher during COVID-19 lockdown than before the pandemic. In the local scene, data showing domestic violence cases presented by the Women and Family Development Ministry and NGOs show that the number has escalated since the first MCO was imposed on 18 March last year. As for the working and education sector, offices, universities and schools have not been able to operate like before.  Office operations as well as teaching and learning have shifted from face to face interaction to fully online mode using various platforms available. Hence, hours are spent every day sitting in front of computer or smartphone immersing in hosts of online-based activities. These range from serious matters such attending board meetings, academic discussions and sitting for final examinations to the more trivial ones like casual chatting, shopping and watching movies.

It is however interesting to note that during this distressing period and global crisis, humorous information is abundantly produced and widely circulated online. There are countless funny WhatsApp messages, memes, parody songs and videos, status updates related to the pandemic are shared among the members of the global community. People share funny incidents that took place during the MCO. For example, at the beginning of the first MCO, only one family member was allowed to go out at a time. Hence, there were many stories shared in the social media about man’s vulnerabilities when purchasing groceries and ingredients for baking raya cakes and cookies.  Parody songs and comical lyrics are rewritten based on popular songs. Some new lyrics echo predicaments experienced by the public coping with the continuous control order.

Even the Malaysia Prime Minister’s plea to the public not to ‘ke sana, ke sini’ (go here and there) was turned into a rap song and became a meme. Besides the self-irony content, the humorous messages were widely circulated online also aimed at the authority, government, VIPs as well as celebrities. Such protests, in the forms of cartoons, sarcasms, parodies and memes among others, revolve around controversies such as  flouting of SOP by celebrities, vaccination process and some politically-related issues.

While crisis and humour seem to be two contrasting subjects and to be pole apart, both actually can co-exist and work hand in hand. In fact, humour actually plays important roles in mitigating crisis. It has been used as a coping strategy by those who have been emotionally and psychologically disturbed. There is an abundant evidence or documented research which revealed positive physical and psychological health benefits of humour. According to Paul Osincup, President of the Association of Applied and Therapeutic Humour (AATH), as part of the treatment to heal and help patients to cope with crisis, therapeutic humour has also been roped in as an intervention that promotes health and wellness. This is done by stimulating playful discovery, expression, or appreciation of the abnormality and unexpected situations in life.

From the historical perspective, the role of humour or specifically parody as a medium to protest against oppression by the people in power has been used as early as during Greek civilization. Plato was said to have used parody to make fun of self-important Athenians who took themselves and their role as guardians of civilization too seriously.  The critical nature of parody can also be traced way back to the Medieval Age in Europe where carnival tradition was very popular. The Medieval Age or Dark Age refers to the period of time after the fall of the Roman Empire between the 5th century and 14th century. The fall of the Roman Empire had profound consequences. In the Early Dark Age, there was no more single government that rule or united the people in Europe.

Instead, feudal system was in place where small kingdoms were scattered around the continent.  According to Tim Lambert, a British historian, the feudal system was akin to a pyramid. At the top of the echelon was a king who had barons under him. The nobles were also in a strong alliance with and received protection from the churches. At the bottom of the society were the peasants who were known as serfs or villeins. Life was particularly harsh for the peasants who lived in deplorable condition, with limited diet and vulnerable to diseases such the Black Death and natural catastrophe like famine

Despite the hardship, it is interesting to note that the peasants were also given off days from their hard work during Holy days. This was when the people took part in a celebration called carnival. In his work ‘Rabelais and His World’, Mikhail Bakhtin who was a Russian philosopher, scholar and literary critic, defined carnival as a form of comedy that was very popular during the Medieval Europe.  The carnival refers to a specific time of the year when aspects of society turned into opposite order and all these were sanctioned by the authority. During the carnival celebration, the lower-class people including the poor and oppressed were allowed to laugh at the powerful figures. In fact, even the churches that were strongly aligned to the upper class were subject to ridiculing humour. The peasant performed parodies and sarcasms to poke fun at the nobles and churches and religion. The carnival provided a space for expression of humour and displeasure during a time of rigid class structure, oppression of the public and seriousness encouraged by medieval churches.

The use of humour as a coping and healing strategy and medium to show protest and discontent continue to thrive in the modern day society especially at places where conflict take place. There are jokes among Palestinians that ridicule the ruthlessness of Zionists. There are also sarcastic humour on the Soviet Union government after the destructive Chernobyl nuclear blast in the country and there are jokes on the 9/11 terrorist attack. The COVID-19 pandemic has further accelerated the creation and wide circulation of humour as a mean to express frustration or protests. For example, a research conducted in some Arab countries found the use of satirical and deriding texts and videos that were shared online as a form of resistance to online learning that is widely practised in the absence of face to face classroom meetings. There was a tweet which sarcastically proposed the cancellation of online learning for the fear that ‘coronavirus may infiltrate into the Internet and then into students’. Such a sarcastic remark reflects the nature of some Arab cultures which tend to ‘respond to crises by poking fun at new behaviours, thoughts, ideas and initiatives’

As people continue to stay at home, spend their time online where information is easily created while the feeling of discomfort and discontent persist, we can expect more memes, parodies, cartoons and other funny materials to be circulated and shared online. In the Malaysian context however, the use of humour needs to be treated with extra precautions regardless of any purposes. Many aspects need to be considered before producing jokes, sarcasms, memes or any other humorous materials especially if they are meant to be shared publicly. Unlike in some of the European countries that have gone through nation building process for centuries, in Malaysia or any other Asian countries, jokes ridiculing religion, races and royalties may not be perceived positively and may even land one in hot soup. Let us use humour to unite people instead of causing polarisations among the citizens of the country.



Principal Investigator

Centre for Communication Science (CComS)

Deputy Dean

Centre for Language Studies

Universiti Tun Hussein Onn Malaysia (UTHM)