Why am I writing about “soft power?” Because for some reason, the Thai government, and subsequently the media and private sector spokespeople, all have started citing Thailand’s alleged “soft power” on the most inappropriate occasions. Most recently, it was a few Tweets from Russell Crowe, who happened to be in the Kingdom shooting a new movie. A New Zealand superstar being handsomely paid to work and travel in Thailand for a few weeks.
You call THAT “soft power?” I call it soft in the head, to make such a furor.
Before that it was the release of a new song and video from Buri Ram native Lisa, the only Thai member of the global Korean pop sensation, BLACKPINK. The video caused a bit of controversy, as critics claimed it “appropriated” traditional Thai iconography and temple locations in quite the “non-traditional” context of a sexy, Westernized, singer, moving in ways that Buddah never imagined.
She was immediately rewarded by a big pharma company that signed her on as the new spokesmodel for a brand of “spit don’t rinse” toothpaste. Show that smile, Lalisa!
What IS “soft power,” anyway? I went down a few rabbit holes on this one, emerging only with the notion that it was introduced, and promoted over the last 30 years, by a single political scientist and author, Joseph Nye, a respected faculty member at Harvard University. There are many aspects to this “theory” that are credible, and indeed, entire “indexes” of various nations’ “soft power” superiority are available to read and cite. However, as my letter, published 21 October (last Thursday) in the Bangkok Post, makes clear, most serious thinkers believe that in any real conflict only the basic “hard” powers of military might and money will prevail.
Music certainly could be among Thailand’s most influential “soft” powers. There are any number of native musical styles that could be “appropriated” in the same way artists like Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel – to name just two of the many that have been so influenced – engaged with various African and Latin rhythms and singing styles. And, the popularity of rock artists like bad boy Sek Loso and Caribou could easily have translated to rough ‘n’ ready Western audiences, given the right opportunities. If only the bands would consider cutting some songs in English!
I realize not everyone is a fan of this kind of cultural stone-skipping by musicians, but without it, what are the incentives for most music listeners to consider the vast offerings of “world music,” made beyond their own borders?
So, music could be leveraged by Thai decision-makers. Cuisine, too. Bangkok is a foodista paradise, where the term “fusion” long ago ceased its usefulness as a buzzword, and is certainly considered a pre-requisite for aspiring chefs. There are many other exemplary Thai contributions that could be added to any “soft power” list, from arts and crafts, fabric work, and “green” innovation. The government need not lean on precarious connections like pop and movie stars. There are REAL Thai people doing innovative and creative things. Don’t hide their talents under the proverbial basket. PROMOTE them. EXPORT them. FREE them.
Respectfully, IMHO the world would benefit from an increase in Thai and Buddhist cultural influence.