'Soft power' is not built upon sweet music

'Soft power' is not built upon sweet music

The buzz over #khaonieomamuang and #MILLILiveatCoachella seems to have an ironic twist with Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha jumping on the bandwagon and claiming he was the one who nudged Thailand to develop its "soft power" to attract the world's attention.

That sounds impressive. So what will the government do next?

According to news reports, it seems its first priority would be to make sure Unesco recognises mango and sticky rice as an intangible part of our cultural heritage.

The Commerce Ministry rushed in to share the soft-power spotlight as well.

It is not clear what the ministry has done, or intends to do, in this area though.

One of the minister's advisers belted out a long speech that did not seem to address how Thailand will become a "soft power" but used the term multiple times.

The Commerce Ministry has promoted a creative economy with a focus on "soft power" development since the start of this year, the adviser said.

In terms of "soft power" policy, the ministry intends to promote "soft power". It is keen to make Thailand's "soft power" stand out in the world market, so the speech went.

One can't help but wonder if the ministry knows what it is doing, or what the so-called "soft power" it is espousing is about.

Or is the whole situation is too awkward for the government, especially for PM Gen Prayut, to respond to in a more meaningful way?

Last Sunday, teenage rapper Danupha "Milli" Khanatheerakul fired up the local scene especially on social media with an hour-long performance at Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California.

The 19-year-old became an instant sensation as the first Thai artist to go solo onstage at the popular international music festival alongside well-known artists as Jackson Wang from GOT7 and iconic Japanese-American singer-songwriter Hikaru Utada.

Thailand's Lalisa "Lisa" Manoban performed on the Coachella stage in 2019 but as part of the Kpop group BlackPink.

Milli's self-taunting line "I don't ride an elephant" may sound a bit old but her rapping about how "the country is good, people are good, our food is good but the government is bood," seems to have struck a chord.

"Bood" means rotten in Thai. It is thus understandable if the government was not too coherent when discussing anything about the phenomenon that Milli created.

Indeed, PM Gen Prayut should feel awkward discussing the "soft power" of Milli and mango sticky rice when he filed a defamation charge against the teen rapper himself back in June last year.

Milli sent out tweets about the PM's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic when many people, including actors and celebrities, expressed their dismay about the seemingly deteriorating situation.

She admitted the charge and paid a fine of 2,000 baht.

Another highlight of Milli at Coachella was her eating mango sticky rice on stage at the end of the show while performing the song of the same name.

It immediately sent delivery food riders standing in long queues at local sticky rice and mango outlets.

Google searches on mango sticky rice spiked while hashtags about the dessert and Milli's performance were among the top trending topics in Thailand.

People, whether they were in the government, opposition, entertainment industry or arts, spoke as one that this was Thailand's "soft power" on display.

Talented as Milli is, and extraordinary her achievements both locally and at one of the world's most famous music festivals have been, the teenage rapper really has nothing to do with so-called "soft power" which government figures are talking about.

Her success is largely individual. Milli created a sensation and a craze. It was phenomenal, especially considering how young she is.

But the teenage rapper, or mango sticky rice for that matter, is not part of a carefully curated cultural force or "power" that may influence other nations or create an economy.

For Thailand's "soft power" to be built, let alone recognised globally, it takes more than one successful artist or delicious dish.

The whole product must be good if it is to exert influence. As experts argued, it takes a wide range of qualities for a country to say it has "soft power". These include the quality of its political institutions, education, digital development, innovation, cultural appeal, strength in arts or business brands.

That is why it is odd for everyone to talk about Thailand's "soft power" now when we don't seem to have ticked any of the basic requirements.

Milli and mango sticky rice are promising but they are not likely to take the country that far.

Atiya Achakulwisut

Columnist for the Bangkok Post

Atiya Achakulwisut is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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