Nation Roundtable: Parties, experts lift lid on Thai soft power, lay out strategies
K-pop, LGBTQ issues, and creativity centres were on the menu as political parties sat down with experts to discuss the future of Thailand’s soft power at the latest Nation Roundtable in Bangkok.
Thursday’s debate offered the chance to showcase their views and policies ahead of the general election in two weeks’ time.
Participants were first asked to define “soft power” and its benefits.
Nantaporn Damrongpong of the Chart Thai Pattana Party gave a broad definition. “It is intangible. It is a type of power that does not require force, influence, nor universal principles, and changes according to values, beliefs, and attitudes,” she said, adding that it could be used to boost the economy.
Apisit Laisattruklai of the Move Forward Party said soft power was “persuasion without violence”. He offered culture and art as examples.
“Culture and the arts now have a broader definition. Art has evolved from a simple noun to a verb, and even the definition of creativity has expanded,” he said.
The Democrats’ Payu Nerngchamnong said the intangible nature of soft power made it difficult to understand, even for governments and officials tasked with deploying it.
“There is a charm that has not been framed because [soft power] seems incoherent when taken literally. And because it is so new, many influential organisations and people don't understand it, which makes it fall apart,” he explained.
“Thai soft power must be promoted by a specific organisation, and that organisation must have a strong foundation.”
Surapong Suebwonglee of the Pheu Thai Party agreed, saying “Hardware can’t work without software and the same goes for hard power and soft power.”
“While hard power takes control over space, soft power dominates the conscious and creative economy,” he said.
He explained that the Foreign Ministry is crucial to Thailand’s soft-power push, which also requires a comprehensive global marketing plan.
Surapong identified Thai cuisine, Songkran, Thai massage, and the “wai” greeting as effective soft-power weapons. They should be deployed by different talent specialists, along with rhetoric designed to win hearts and minds, he added.
Voranai Vanijaka of the Chart Pattana Kla Party sought to dispel what he called misconceptions about soft power.
“Soft power is not mango sticky rice or an individual artist's work. It is a political strategy used internationally to get people worldwide fascinated with a particular culture,” he said.
“Today, when Britain is mentioned in the news, it is still seen as a noble and powerful nation. Yet, people who have been there are aware that it is small. Still, the notion that England represents a global civilisation has been exported effectively,” he explained.
Voranai added that the country’s creative ecosystem formed the idea, while soft power was the process of transforming that idea into reality.
However, Thailand faces two barriers in its soft-power push, namely conservative values and systemic corruption, said Prof Kitti Prasirtsuk, Professor at Faculty of Political Science, Thammasat University.
“When we think of culture in Thailand, we only consider the old, particularly in a climate where everything is conservative – including the government.”
But in reality, he explained, culture is something fresh that influences people's thinking.
“The nation's ‘operating system’ and its importance are the most crucial factors to consider. Corruption will prevent soft power from expanding,” he said.
Move Forward’s Apisit said Thailand should use creativity to mould and respond to the demands of the world and combine it with other industries.
Panellists were then asked for their ideas on the so-called 5Fs of soft power: food, fighting, film, fashion, and festivals.
Voranai was pessimistic.
“For me, all the Fs equal fail,” he said.
“We need a creative-thinking agency like South Korea’s. But we cannot allow bureaucrats to handle it because they live in a shell.”
“The agency's staff members must come from a variety of backgrounds, including entertainment and academia, and they must collaborate to find how to proceed and in which directions,” he added.
He proposed pushing LGBTQ culture as one of Thailand’s soft powers.
“The LGBTQ community has potential but has no soft power mechanism. ‘Boy-love’ series are well-liked across South America and if it can be done here, the rest of the world will view Thailand as cool, equal, and human rights-abiding,” he said, referring to the Japanese genre of homoerotic tales.
Government policies on LGBTQ issues such as same-sex marriage would also promote this soft power, Voranai said.
Apisit and Chart Thai Pattana’s Nantaporn explained that the 5Fs were just a framework for creating awareness of Thai soft power among foreigners.
That led to the final question: How can we draw up a soft-power strategy that is not focused on the 5Fs; what approach do we take?
The Pheu Thai Party wants to establish a creative content agency.
“We need a strategy and knowledge, but soft power can only thrive if Thailand is a democracy, which requires that we repeal outdated laws,” said Surapong.
The panellists agreed that a creative content agency would help advance Thai soft power under one coordinator.
Nantaporn said research on Thai soft power was needed before it could be implemented to influence the fast-changing world.
She suggested using the recent Apec conference in Bangkok – where world leaders showcased Thai cuisine, Muay Thai and other Thai soft powers – as a model for future international activities.
Apisit expressed doubt that Thailand could follow in the footsteps of South Korea with its globally popular K-pop.
“We continue to use South Korea as an example because we see how successful they are, but can we actually follow them?” he asked.
“Thailand and South Korea have completely different cultures,” he added, citing the formers’ peacefulness versus the latter’s fierce competition and discipline.
The Democrats’ Payu also pointed to differences between the two countries.
“Although the countries are similar in population size, they [Koreans] differ from us in terms of [economic] performance,” he said.
“It's unfortunate that Thais wait until Thai products are famous abroad before adopting them,” he added.
Apisit, Voranai and Surapong agreed that in order for soft power to be effective, leaders must have a vision, understanding, and take it seriously.
Kitti suggested more tie-ins for food and other Thai products, especially in movies and series. However, he cautioned against a heavy-handed approach, saying the promotion of Thai-ness and Thai products should be seamless.