Suffering for the Classics


The classics normally enjoy a dream run in Southeast Asia. Parents eagerly shell out small fortunes so their children can learn the violin, piano or ballet, while the works of Shakespeare are a must read on high school curriculums.

But it now appears the classics have raised the ire of regional killjoys. Not content with calling for bans on risqué rock concerts or engaging in a religious crackdown on unwanted fashion, hardliners in Malaysia had hoped to ban a performance by a Singapore dance troupe.

The apparent ban came as Thailand’s Film Censorship Board (FCB) banned a local adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, called Shakespeare Must Die.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Rais Yatim, Malaysia’s Minister of Information, Communications and Culture, insists there was no ban on the Singapore Dance Theatre, arguing: “There is no ban and the show should go on as planned.”

The troupe told another story, saying licenses for their performance had been denied. They believed this was because The Nutcracker was to be performed, as it usually is, in tights and a tutu

Rais said costumes and the ballet shouldn’t be a problem and the show must go on, but the troupe insists the original ban, which Rais said never happened, meant it was now too late to proceed and perhaps a performance could be organized for later in the year.

In February, the minister banned a concert by American singer Erykah Badu in the name of religious sensitivities and cultural values after a photo of her was published that revealed body art, tattoos and the Arabic word for “Allah.”

Meanwhile, over the border in Thailand, authorities are finding it just as easy to mix politics with art.

The FCB issued a statement saying:  “The Board deems that the film Shakespeare Must Die has content that causes divisiveness among the people of the nation, according to Ministerial Regulation.

“Therefore, our verdict is to withhold permission; the film is grouped under films that are not allowed to be distributed in the Kingdom, according to Article 26(7) of the Royal Edict on Film and Video.”

The biggest gripe, some say, was that the film was seen as divisive because of its anti-monarchy overtones in a country where any form of royal criticism is strictly forbidden.

Apparently, one of the characters also bears a strong resemblance to former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a coup in 2006. This added to the irritation of a Shakespearian plot that revolves around a rather nasty general who covets the throne.

Of further interest was that the scuttled project was the last film funded by the Ministry of Culture under the previous Thai government headed by Abhisit Vejjajiva, a Thaksin enemy.

Abhisit was ousted in elections by Thaksin’s sister Yingluck, who may not have approved of comparisons between her brother and a central character in the film.

With apologies to Shakespeare, they all protest too much. Art and politics are indeed a tragic mix.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief