Thai soft power, or a soft sales job?
published : 31 Jan 2023 at 04:00
newspaper section: Oped
Last week Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-cha issued a new soft power policy to promote Thai culture as part of efforts to attract international visitors. Upon close scrutiny, what the government is trying to do is actually raise revenue. In a nutshell, it is a sales pitch, nothing more.
If the government is serious about promoting soft power, there are still zillions of things it has to implement before it can proudly say that Thai soft power really exists.
Thailand is a regional player, a founding member of Asean and an active supporter of UN-related activities. But Thailand has yet to be identified as a country that has real soft power as many Thais might have mistakenly understood.
For the past several months, anything that has to do with the so-called 5Fs -- food, film, fashion, fighting and festivals -- has been identified as "Thai soft power".
For instance, the long-existing sticky rice with mango has been on the Thai menu for ages. But the 20-year-old female rapper Danupha "Milli" Khanatheerakul made this dessert famous when she ate it during a performance at a concert in California last April.
Her video went viral. Since then, sticky rice with mango has become the must-eat after a meal.
Then, Lelisa Manoban (Pranpiya) of Black Pink, came out with a solo album featuring a song in which she was dressed in traditional Thai costume with chada (headgear).
Again her video went viral which attracted both negative and positive reactions inside the country.
Traditionalists at the Ministry of Culture and Social Development were not happy to see Thai traditional dress being featured in the video. They thought it was not appropriate. Others hailed her presentation as an innovative idea.
Indeed, scholars on soft power have been puzzled by the Thai depiction of "sticky rice with mango" or other popular foods or sports as soft power. Local experts on Thai culture and the private sector have been embracing the knee-jerk concept of soft power because they can pick which aspects of Thai culture and heritage could be monetised.
Immediately after the conclusion of Apec 2022, food and cultural items that were consumed, used, or put on a show at Apec-related events and exhibitions were popularised and upgraded to national brands and labelled as Thai soft power. It is an effective way to promote products from certain provinces or localities.
The Prayut government thinks Thailand can imitate the success of the Korean Wave (Hallyu), which has boosted the country's economic growth following the financial crisis in the late 1990s.
Korea has crafted specific strategies and measures to boost its positive international image and cultural influence. The government has a clear vision of the people's and country's future.
The Ministry of Culture, Sport and Tourism has allocated a large amount of funding to improve the standard of living of Koreans and enhance their aspiration to do great things.
Alongside this effort, the government in Seoul also built various infrastructure such huge auditoriums, a music academy and other facilities that would enable local talent to grow.
The general public also must give their support, or the government's effort would be in vain as they would prefer to have the state funds for other purposes. Now, K-related things have become the country's key economic driver and aspirants for youth and the future generation.
Within the Thai context, the service and hotel industry has misused the concept of soft power for their own business interest.
Obviously, they prefer to label anything or any action that would attract foreign visitors or increase their market share or have them spend more as soft power.
This understanding is proliferating at all levels of society. In certain provinces, promoting local culture could come at the expense of lesser-represented cultures in the same area.
It is one thing to strengthen the sense of belonging and cultural roots, it is another when it overrides other cultures in the same milieu.
To prove Thailand has soft power in real life and the international area, the first thing the country needs to do is ensure that all stakeholders have ample opportunity to take part in nation-building.
Society must be open to all citizens so they can contribute to the societal process. Social justice for all must be followed.
As a country where nobody is left behind by growing equality, Thailand then would be seriously considered a country worth supporting whether in terms of foreign or economic policy.
Apart from the well-known 30-baht universal health plan, which has gained international traction over the years, another emerging attribute of the country's soft power could be the new economic model, known as the Bio-Circular-Green (BCG) economy.
In November, Thailand embedded the BCG in the ongoing Apec cooperative framework. In more ways than one, the Bangkok Goals on BCG could serve as a small indicator of its soft power status.
The 21 economies in the Asia-Pacific region agreed to support the Thai new economic model.
Therefore, for the time being the best way to promote Thai soft power, especially in the Global South, is to implement the Bangkok Goal declaration. It is a clear pathway for others to follow Thailand's economic model.
Then and only then, we can safely assume that our soft power really exists as manifested in tangible outcomes for sustainable development and stronger resilience in the post-pandemic world.
A veteran journalist on regional affairs
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs
- soft power