Taking a hard look at soft power in Thailand
Minister of Tourism and Sports Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn turned to Thai iced tea to give a simple example of how the country can use a cultural product to enhance its reputation globally, noting that the beverage was recently named the seventh best non-alcoholic drink in the world by TasteAtlas.
“We should include scenes showing people drinking Thai tea in movies, serve it at international meetings, and use it as a welcome drink in hotels,” Phiphat told the seminar “Thailand’s Future: Soft Power To Drive Country”.
Phiphat admitted his government was not investing enough in soft power.
Like other speakers at the seminar he noted that soft power has a spill-over effect on the economy. It can draw more tourists, for example.
Thailand can increase tourism revenue to 25% of GDP from the current 18% in five years, Phiphat said.
However, enhancing security and providing meaningful experiences are also necessary for attracting more high-spending tourists, he added.
So soft power, whatever it is, is not a cure-all.
The phrase “soft power” was coined by American political scientist Joseph Nye.
He defined it as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payment”, saying it reflects “the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals and policies”.
Thai officials see the concept as a way to promote exports and attract investment and tourism. They are promoting what they call “the 5Fs” – food, film, fashion, fighting and festivals – as potential vehicles for soft power.
Pun-Arj Chairatana, director of the National Innovation Agency, told the seminar that more innovation was needed and the supply chain had to be fine-tuned to increase exports of the 5Fs.
Other speakers from the private and public sectors discussed how Thailand can become a soft-power leader in the global market and what role the government can play to promote “Thainess” internationally.
Much was made, too, of the 2022 Global Soft Power Index, which ranks Thailand 35th out of 120 countries – 6th in Asia and 2nd in Asean – in terms of soft power.
Thailand’s ranking on the index was cited as proof that the government needs to do better, during Tuesday’s three-and-a-half-hour seminar hosted by Nation Group at the Pullman Bangkok King Power hotel.
But there was no discussion of the index’s validity or its methodology.
No one, it seems, has taken a hard look at “soft power”.
Pavee Phoyee, acting director of the Support Arts and Crafts International Centre of Thailand, wants to inspire the new generation of Thai designers to turn Thai woven fabrics into fashion.
Soft power is “wisdom”, he said.
“We hope that we can help turn Thai community wisdom, which is soft power, into craft power and promote the economy,” he explained.
Chumpul Jangprai, a two-star Michelin chef, wants to do the same with food.
“Thai food is the most delicious medicine in the world,” he said.
He wants to send professional Thai chefs to every corner of the globe – he’s aware the restaurants are already there, but expressed chagrin the recipes are not always exactly the same as at home – and launch a seven-language online Thai culinary academy to promote Thai food.
“Thai seafood dip will soon be in every household around the world because it cannot be duplicated as the chilies grown in Thailand are the most fragrant,” Chumpul said.
Sorathep Rojpojchanarat, president of the Restaurant Business Club, urged the government to end the ban on selling alcohol between 2pm and 5pm, saying: “If the government truly understands the importance of the food and restaurant business, it will become a super soft power for Thailand's future economy.”
He also urged the government to use movies, documentaries and Netflix to showcase Thai food and its history.
Thai street food can be elevated, he said, adding that the government should dedicate an entire agency to promoting the Thai restaurant business around the world.
Politicians, meanwhile, had their own takes on soft power.
Suwat Liptapanlop, chairman of Chart Pattana Kla Party, said his party had colour-coded soft power. White is for spirit-seeking tourists, yellow for cultural exports, green for food, and blue for wellness, Suwat explained.
The creative industry could be used to promote soft power through a fund for international festivals, he suggested.
Sita Divari, secretary of the Thai Sang Thai Party, took to the stage wearing elephant pants.
“Soft power is combining Thainess – such as food, spas, and boxing – with a global mindset. It has to be pushed by the people who understand it,” Sita said.
He wants local liquor to be Thailand’s soft power.
Abhisit Laisatruklei, representing the Move Forward Party, was not the most upbeat speaker.
“People in the creative industry today have no future,” Abhisit said.
“Creativity is being hindered by oppressive laws.”
Laws that block creativity have to be removed to turn the creative economy into a national industry, he explained, adding that funding is also an issue.
Jiraporn Sindhuprai, a representative of the Pheu Thai Party, said the party had three soft-power policies – before naming at least four.
Its “one family one soft power” project would create 20 million jobs, while its plan to offer free courses will re-skill workers, she said.
Thailand’s creative content agency will develop the ecosystem for all industries at home, while Thai diplomats will help create opportunities for Thais around the world.
“Thailand must be a democracy and be accepted by every country in the world,” Jiraporn said.
Watanya Bunnag, who leads the Democrat Party's working group on political innovation, said the key to opening the door to global soft power is to push the arts and entertainment industry.
“Foreigners get to know Thailand through the entertainment media, but it is they who control the game and our story, not us. We can only hope they speak about Thailand in a good way,” she said.
More funding for creative ideas is needed, said Watanya, who is the wife of Nation Group CEO Shine Bunnag.
Nikorn Chamnong, chairman of the policy and strategy committee of the Chartthaipattana Party, proposed setting up a fund to help failed businesses and promote street food.
“We need to be careful not to copy South Korea,” he said, referring to the country’s success in promoting its music, television and movies globally.
Each of the political party representatives ended the seminar with a closing point.
“Soft power is a national treasure,” Suwat said.
“People should not give up on the government and political parties have to listen,” Sita said.
“Soft power belongs to everyone and to make it work we must give everyone equal opportunity,” Abhisit said.
“Our party is different because we think big and know how to execute. We are able to do everything that we promise,” Jiraporn said.
“If we can successfully push Thai soft power globally, we will be able to reduce inequality and give people more opportunities,” Watanya said.
“In a world where sustainability is a big deal, Thailand will get attention by proposing soft power that is environmentally friendly,” Nikorn said.
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