In a music market saturated with songs about suicide, gang fights and domestic violence, the Ministry of Information last month banned a song because of the perceived danger of its message.
“Always Clean”—an updated version of a decades-old tune outlining hygiene practices for children —last month joined “Regret for Leaving the Monkhood Because of Love,” “Kill Me With an Injection” and “Though You Have a Wife, I’ll Still Take You” on a list of songs that television and radio stations are forbidden from broadcasting.
The prohibition of “Always Clean” has perplexed listeners and observers alike because of its innocuous subject matter.
“Well this is funny, isn’t it? A lot of songs and also comedies are also quite violent and sometimes are violent towards women, but they don’t ban them,” said Thida Khus, a prominent gender rights advocate.
“It’s an irony in how they select the subject to ban.”
Produced by the Hang Meas Video Company, the song features popular entertainer Pich Sophea, who sings the chorus, and DJ David, who raps additional verses that mainly encourage children to be hygienic.
“Always clean, always clean/We should not forget to wash ourselves,” the chorus begins. “At sleeping time, when eating, a clean body before going to school.”
The music video is set at a school and shows a group of children raising the Cambodian flag, cleaning the grounds and giving a thumbs up to the front gate before running gleefully inside. They later play with fake money in the dirt and flirt cheekily while hanging out of classroom windows.
According to a statement signed by Information Minister Khieu Kanharith on February 24, both the rap verses and video drew the ministry’s disapproval and led to the song being banned from TV and radio.
“The way DJ David raps, along with the actions portrayed in the video, show lazy students with poor character,” the statement said.
The ministry reserves special criticism for a scene that portrays a boy faking an illness in order to be let out of class early, as DJ David raps about how he “felt very bored” as a young student.
Buth Bovuth, director of the information and broadcasting department at the ministry, said this week that “Always Clean” was singled out because it had the potential to promote bad behavior among children.
“In the original song, the student did not give their teacher an excuse to leave class, but in this new song the lazy student doesn’t want to study,” he said.
Ngin Sokriwar composed the original in 1982 and is now head of children’s programming for state television broadcaster TVK. A month ago, he was appointed as an adviser to the Information Ministry.
He said that while the “Always Clean” remake had not been removed from the airwaves at his request, he approved of the ban.
“This new song contradicts the original song. The old song educated all young students to be good, but the new song teaches young students to give an excuse to their teacher for getting out of class.”
But not everyone agrees that banning songs should be the mandate of the government.
“It’s very innocent. More importantly, why are they playing cultural police in 2016?” said Ou Virak, a political analyst and social commentator.
“We have a Ministry of Information and nobody seems to know what they do—they want to stay relevant,” he said. “They do these things once in a while. They seem to be overreacting in this case, but you know, particularly after Hun Sen denounced some ministries for being inactive and slow and lazy, the ministry is trying to show that they are trying to take measures.”
CNRP lawmaker Mu Sochua said the remake’s message seemed to be in line with that of the original, and cast doubt on the ostensible reason for the ban, calling attention to the fact that a secondary school in Kandal this week hosted a concert sponsored by a beer company.
“[W]hy does the government allow Leo beer to run rock concert on the school compound in Kandal?” she said in an email.
“I want to see support for artists rather than banning their work because it is ‘culturally’ not acceptable.”
Ms. Khus agreed, saying blanket bans on music or other art would only hamper creativity in the future.
“Maybe the government looks at it as making a mockery out of the kindergarten song…but this is the creativity of artists, and I don’t think the government should have a role to restrict people’s creativity,” she said.