Feature

The End of Karaoke Diplomacy?

The short, tragic history of ASEAN's silliest tradition.

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The annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is held to coordinate action on such weighty topics as democracy, economic integration, and climate change. But since 1995, every diplomat worth his or her salt has known that the real reason everyone attends ASEAN is for the infamous skit in which the pan-Pacific power elite get to ham it up, summer-camp style. But don’t think it’s all fun and games. When national pride and diplomatic standing are at stake, skits are serious business. Here’s a brief history of the tasteless tradition.

1995: The skit’s origins are shrouded in mystery, but the earliest press reports come from 14 years ago in Brunei when the U.S. delegation, led by then Secretary of State Warren Christopher, sang a parody of "This Land Is Your Land" with the lyrics altered to "reflect Asia’s political and economic peculiarities," according to Reuters. The event was closed to the press, but reporters caught a glimpse of Under Secretary of State Joan Spero on her way to the banquet "wearing a pink silk outfit and carrying a ukulele, and other U.S. officials wore grass skirts."

1997: Madeleine Albright made her debut at the ASEAN farewell dinner in Malaysia with "Don’t Cry for Me, ASEANies," complete with a black dress and what Agence France-Presse (AFP) described as "blood-red" lipstick. "Some countries might sue me for libel," the U.S. secretary of state crooned. "In others I’d risk house arrest/But I confess to having said that/ASEAN men are Asia’s sexiest!" Meanwhile, the Australians karaoked the Men at Work classic "Down Under," and the Burmese foreign minister performed a traditional dance with his wife and daughter. The Europeans — seeming a bit out of their element — stumbled through "Frère Jacques."

1998: Russia and the United States stole the show in the Philippines with a "West Side Story" spoof, reported the Associated Press (AP). Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov joined Albright in a duet (sample lyrics: "I just met a girl named Madeleine Albright/And suddenly I find, she thinks she’ll change my mind/For free"), and members of both delegations appeared onstage dressed as the Jets and the Sharks. The Indians, meanwhile, attempted to downplay their country’s recent nuclear tests. "Why such fuss over a few crackers in the Thar?/They weren’t as loud as Nevada."

1999: Japanese Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura knocked ’em dead with a martial-arts display costarring two aides, reported the AP. The minister limped offstage faking pain when one aide kicked his boss in the shin. The Philippine and Thai ministers channeled Frank Sinatra with a rendition of "My Way." Russia performed alone with a "patriotic jingle." And though Albright was a no-show, she prerecorded an apology and had a male "clone" stand in for her. The cross-dressing clone, and six other U.S. officials, poked fun at host Singapore’s draconian litter laws with a reworked "Home on the Range": "So we’re meeting once more/Here in old Singapore/Where they said that I couldn’t chew gum."

2000: European representatives riffed on Abba with "Knowing Me, Knowing EU," while Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer rocked out to "Mambo No. 5" in a hot-pink shirt and gave a not-so-subtle nod to Albright, reported AFP: "Downer … had the assembled diplomats in stitches as he lewdly air-groped Albright … singing, ‘A little bit of Madeleine in my hand.’" Albright herself arrived in a tuxedo jacket and submitted her final performance as ASEAN’s sweetheart with a rendition of American entertainer Bob Hope’s "Thanks for the Memories."

2001: Jaswant Singh, external affairs minister of India, parodied the Eagles with "Hotel California," reported the Japan Economic Newswire: "There’s plenty of room in the Hotel Aseana, but only for Korea-Japan-China." New U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell made a risqué ASEAN debut by teaming up with Japanese Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka for the country-western classic "El Paso." Vietnam vet Powell played a cowboy who falls in love — and shared an onstage smooch — with a Vietnamese woman played by Tanaka.

2002: Seeking to top his previous performance, which failed to go over too well with his wife, Powell went meta by spoofing himself and even brought U.S. President George W. Bush into the act by video. "Onstage in Brunei, Powell convened a mock staff meeting in which he shuns discussion of the Middle East and South Asia to talk about ‘something even more important’ — the upcoming ASEAN dinner skit," the AFP reported. In the skit, Powell’s wife appeared by telephone. "Do not embarrass the family again that way and definitely no rolling on the floor with any foreign ministers," she said. By video, Bush claimed the Russian delegation had been practicing their skit for the past 12 months, telling Powell, "I want you and your staff to be better than the Russians this year. Got it?"

2004: Powell raised the bar again by dressing up as a construction worker and performing "YMCA." Unfortunately for him, video of the performance leaked to the press, about which the retired general was said to be livid. Welcome to the YouTube era, Mr. Secretary.

2005: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov donned a Darth Vader suit and waved a plastic lightsaber in a fit of tackiness while singing to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s "Jesus Christ Superstar" in front of a map showing the United States as "East Asia." Then U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick (filling in for his apparently skit-averse boss, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice) chose the now-tired cowboy routine as his aides stood "stiffly by," reported AFP.

2006: Japanese Foreign Minister (and future Prime Minister) Taro Aso, broke out his Humphrey Bogart impression, the Chinese delegation formed a choir, and South Korea’s then foreign minister Ban Ki-moon "strutted the stage in green sequins," according to the New York Times. Rice played a solemn Brahms piece, and the Canadians reenacted that year’s Zinedine Zidane World Cup head butt during a mock ASEAN-Canada soccer match. To complement Aso’s Bogart, the Japanese delegation arrived dressed as frogs, fish, Power Rangers, and "mutant lobsters."

2007: Aso returned as a samurai leading "a group exercise. As he gyrated on stage, ASEAN’s name appeared on a huge screen in the backdrop," the AP reported. Lavrov lampooned ASEAN’s image as a talking shop when his skit had him asking why it was necessary to fly halfway around the world for some "blah blah blah."

2008: Notorious killjoy Singapore cut out the skits at ASEAN amid suggestions, including by ASEAN’s secretary-general, that the song-and-dance numbers were getting too competitive. Sadly, the world won’t get to see if Hillary Clinton can top her predecessors.

The annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is held to coordinate action on such weighty topics as democracy, economic integration, and climate change. But since 1995, every diplomat worth his or her salt has known that the real reason everyone attends ASEAN is for the infamous skit in which the pan-Pacific power elite get to ham it up, summer-camp style. But don’t think it’s all fun and games. When national pride and diplomatic standing are at stake, skits are serious business. Here’s a brief history of the tasteless tradition.

1995: The skit’s origins are shrouded in mystery, but the earliest press reports come from 14 years ago in Brunei when the U.S. delegation, led by then Secretary of State Warren Christopher, sang a parody of "This Land Is Your Land" with the lyrics altered to "reflect Asia’s political and economic peculiarities," according to Reuters. The event was closed to the press, but reporters caught a glimpse of Under Secretary of State Joan Spero on her way to the banquet "wearing a pink silk outfit and carrying a ukulele, and other U.S. officials wore grass skirts."

1997: Madeleine Albright made her debut at the ASEAN farewell dinner in Malaysia with "Don’t Cry for Me, ASEANies," complete with a black dress and what Agence France-Presse (AFP) described as "blood-red" lipstick. "Some countries might sue me for libel," the U.S. secretary of state crooned. "In others I’d risk house arrest/But I confess to having said that/ASEAN men are Asia’s sexiest!" Meanwhile, the Australians karaoked the Men at Work classic "Down Under," and the Burmese foreign minister performed a traditional dance with his wife and daughter. The Europeans — seeming a bit out of their element — stumbled through "Frère Jacques."

1998: Russia and the United States stole the show in the Philippines with a "West Side Story" spoof, reported the Associated Press (AP). Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov joined Albright in a duet (sample lyrics: "I just met a girl named Madeleine Albright/And suddenly I find, she thinks she’ll change my mind/For free"), and members of both delegations appeared onstage dressed as the Jets and the Sharks. The Indians, meanwhile, attempted to downplay their country’s recent nuclear tests. "Why such fuss over a few crackers in the Thar?/They weren’t as loud as Nevada."

1999: Japanese Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura knocked ’em dead with a martial-arts display costarring two aides, reported the AP. The minister limped offstage faking pain when one aide kicked his boss in the shin. The Philippine and Thai ministers channeled Frank Sinatra with a rendition of "My Way." Russia performed alone with a "patriotic jingle." And though Albright was a no-show, she prerecorded an apology and had a male "clone" stand in for her. The cross-dressing clone, and six other U.S. officials, poked fun at host Singapore’s draconian litter laws with a reworked "Home on the Range": "So we’re meeting once more/Here in old Singapore/Where they said that I couldn’t chew gum."

2000: European representatives riffed on Abba with "Knowing Me, Knowing EU," while Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer rocked out to "Mambo No. 5" in a hot-pink shirt and gave a not-so-subtle nod to Albright, reported AFP: "Downer … had the assembled diplomats in stitches as he lewdly air-groped Albright … singing, ‘A little bit of Madeleine in my hand.’" Albright herself arrived in a tuxedo jacket and submitted her final performance as ASEAN’s sweetheart with a rendition of American entertainer Bob Hope’s "Thanks for the Memories."

2001: Jaswant Singh, external affairs minister of India, parodied the Eagles with "Hotel California," reported the Japan Economic Newswire: "There’s plenty of room in the Hotel Aseana, but only for Korea-Japan-China." New U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell made a risqué ASEAN debut by teaming up with Japanese Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka for the country-western classic "El Paso." Vietnam vet Powell played a cowboy who falls in love — and shared an onstage smooch — with a Vietnamese woman played by Tanaka.

2002: Seeking to top his previous performance, which failed to go over too well with his wife, Powell went meta by spoofing himself and even brought U.S. President George W. Bush into the act by video. "Onstage in Brunei, Powell convened a mock staff meeting in which he shuns discussion of the Middle East and South Asia to talk about ‘something even more important’ — the upcoming ASEAN dinner skit," the AFP reported. In the skit, Powell’s wife appeared by telephone. "Do not embarrass the family again that way and definitely no rolling on the floor with any foreign ministers," she said. By video, Bush claimed the Russian delegation had been practicing their skit for the past 12 months, telling Powell, "I want you and your staff to be better than the Russians this year. Got it?"

2004: Powell raised the bar again by dressing up as a construction worker and performing "YMCA." Unfortunately for him, video of the performance leaked to the press, about which the retired general was said to be livid. Welcome to the YouTube era, Mr. Secretary.

2005: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov donned a Darth Vader suit and waved a plastic lightsaber in a fit of tackiness while singing to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s "Jesus Christ Superstar" in front of a map showing the United States as "East Asia." Then U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick (filling in for his apparently skit-averse boss, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice) chose the now-tired cowboy routine as his aides stood "stiffly by," reported AFP.

2006: Japanese Foreign Minister (and future Prime Minister) Taro Aso, broke out his Humphrey Bogart impression, the Chinese delegation formed a choir, and South Korea’s then foreign minister Ban Ki-moon "strutted the stage in green sequins," according to the New York Times. Rice played a solemn Brahms piece, and the Canadians reenacted that year’s Zinedine Zidane World Cup head butt during a mock ASEAN-Canada soccer match. To complement Aso’s Bogart, the Japanese delegation arrived dressed as frogs, fish, Power Rangers, and "mutant lobsters."

2007: Aso returned as a samurai leading "a group exercise. As he gyrated on stage, ASEAN’s name appeared on a huge screen in the backdrop," the AP reported. Lavrov lampooned ASEAN’s image as a talking shop when his skit had him asking why it was necessary to fly halfway around the world for some "blah blah blah."

2008: Notorious killjoy Singapore cut out the skits at ASEAN amid suggestions, including by ASEAN’s secretary-general, that the song-and-dance numbers were getting too competitive. Sadly, the world won’t get to see if Hillary Clinton can top her predecessors.

Brian Fung is an editorial researcher at FP.

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