Understanding Thailand's soft power

Understanding Thailand's soft power

Thailand is a curious place. On the one hand, it is a country that foreigners love to visit for the scenery, the shopping, partying and street food, even if they have to suffer traffic fumes and dust. They may even find themselves tucking into pad thai in the shadow of the T22 tanks of the Thai Army Regiment 2.

But over the past few weeks, the whole country has been thrown upside-down due to the spread of the novel coronavirus -- or the Wuhan virus, as some call it. That has given rise to a Catch 22 situation: do we follow other countries and block Chinese tourists from entering Thailand, or just allow them to come in.

Our attitude is -- all are welcome.

On the other hand, our Land of Smiles has been branded one of the most corrupt countries in the world, where anything goes. Foreign non-governmental organisations stationed in Bangkok often criticise it as a mean city where the rich trample on the poor and slavery lives on in a modern form.

So, how can one brand Thailand as a country? In addition, what (if any) is the nation's soft power? These questions are being asked more and more frequently these days, since the country can no longer rely on its traditional exports of rice and natural resources.

Today, the tourism industry is highly competitive. The country is now moving towards the 4.0 Industrial Revolution under its 20-year national strategic plan. As such, there must be something fresh and exciting about Thailand in the digital age that can push the country to the forefront of the global stage.

Truth be told, for decades, the country has been labelled as the land of the 4S's -- sun, sand, sex and surrogacy -- and these singly or together have attracted all kinds of tourists to Thailand. The last label in the list followed reports of foreigners using Thai women as surrogates for their children. Thailand temporarily became a baby factory.

According to Kitti Prasirtsuk of Thammasat University, who has carried out extensive research into Thailand's branding and repositioning in the age of interconnectedness and social media, Thailand and its culture, values and foreign policy have charisma and high persuasive power which can attract admiration and cooperation. But the Thai people and bureaucrats must change their mindset and perceptions and appreciate their country in real terms first before they take up new challenges.

The Soft Power Report 2019, by the University of Southern California's Centre on Public Diplomacy, ranked Thailand at No.6 among Asian countries. Japan topped the soft-power chart, followed by South Korea and Singapore respectively.

Within Asean, Thailand is behind Singapore as No.1. The report stated that Thailand has the potential to rise into the top 30 in the world, if the country can strike the right political balance between the rural poor and urban elite. It went on to say that Thailand's weaknesses are problems related to corruption and inequality. It also said that the Thai government is failing to showcase the full potential of Thailand's rich cultural offerings beyond tourism. One more weak link is its poor performance in public diplomacy and digital infrastructure.

On the country's strengths, it noted that the kingdom has a unique cultural identity that enjoys broad global recognition through its vibrant tourism industry.

The report stated that Thailand plays a positive role in the region's political and economic architecture, and that perceptions abroad remain strongly positive, despite political unrest.

In other words, Thailand must rid itself of the stereotyped perception of those 4S's that have dominated both the virtual and black-and-white narratives of the country. But tackling Thailand's uniqueness in terms of weaknesses and strengths is, without doubt, a tall order that will require all concerned authorities and stakeholders to work together to create new national narratives and behaviours.

Thailand's soft industries have some unique products, according to Mr Kitti. For instance, in recent years the entertainment industry has gained a wide market within Asia. Its booming film industry is enjoying brisk business both in the region and in the West. Furthermore, Thai period TV series have made inroads into new markets in a way never before seen; even its comedies are popular in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. When China halted the import of South Korean dramas and entertainment a few years back due to a dispute over the placing of a missile defence system, Thailand became one of the biggest beneficiaries with demand for its entertainment programmes skyrocketing in China.

Since the 1970s, when Thai cuisine began to show up in foreign capitals, pad thai, tom yum and somtum have been the three main dishes. Today, Thai cuisine has grown beyond these staples to more sophisticated dishes that increasingly rely on organic and high-quality ingredients. Nowadays, the gamut of Thai cuisine ranges from simple street snacks to the banquet known as sam rap Thai. Those with deep pockets can even hire private chefs to produce the same dishes at 10 times the price.

Today, too, serious attempts are being made to promote both traditional Thai boxing and massage on the global scene. Indeed, Thai spas and Thai kick boxing venues can now be spotted in major cities all over the world. Meanwhile, various local and foreign sponsors are competing to promote their own versions of Thai boxing combined with martial arts to a global audience.

As a country, Thailand is a sabai-sabai (take it easy) multicultural society, with a moderate standard of living and tolerance towards various gender groups. Thailand's LGBT-focused culture is famous the world over at a time when the LGBT movement is still taboo elsewhere in Asean. Thai TV programmes featuring LGBT themes have been translated and screened in Taiwan and Vietnam, just to mention a few places.

Mr Kitti and his team are trying to instil in young Thai policy-makers new thinking that is both creative and positive so that they can rebrand and reposition Thailand in creative and constructive ways. That cannot come soon enough.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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