Much scope for Singapore to grow its soft power further

When the argument is made about global power shifting from West to East, it is primarily based on Asia's remarkable economic rise, although China's steady build-up of military and naval capability is also regularly cited. But a new authoritative study suggests that it is not just in hard but also soft power where Asia is fast making gains.

The second edition of The Soft Power 30 illustrates how Asia's appeal around the globe is expanding. We may finally be at the tipping point when Asia starts to translate its growing economic might into soft power, and with it the global appeal that will give Asia new levers of international influence. Using a composite index that combines objective data with international polling, The Soft Power 30 - compiled by Portland and Facebook - assesses countries based on a range of their soft power assets, including global engagement, higher education, culture, enterprise, government and even digital diplomacy metrics, which is becoming a much more critical component of soft power. Professor Joseph Nye, who first coined the term, has called the study "the clearest picture of soft power to date".

As with the 2015 rankings, only four Asian countries made the top 30 this year. However, three of those four, Japan, Singapore and China, have all made progress climbing up the table. In contrast to this progress, the majority of European countries in the rankings have fallen, as the continent is gripped by challenges and divisions. Besides the United States and Canada moving up the rankings, the real soft power momentum in 2016 seems to reside in Asia.

There is no better example of this trend than Singapore. It was, by far, the smallest country (by territory) to place in the inaugural top 30 last year. And the new ranking has seen Singapore improve its position further by two places to 19th, putting it above major emerging powers such as Brazil, China, Mexico, Turkey and Russia.

Breaking down the data, we see that Singapore moved one spot up to top the Enterprise category, cementing its position as the most attractive country for business. But it's not just Singapore's economic model that accounts for its global appeal. Singapore ranked sixth in the Digital category, underpinned by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's savvy approach to digital diplomacy through social media. The Prime Minister has managed to engage effectively with both citizens and people around the world.

Visitors at the Festival of Tech trying to chat with a mini Merlion through mobile texting last October. The festival was organised in celebration of Singapore's Golden Jubilee, and marks the country's efforts to become a smart nation. An exhibition
Visitors at the Festival of Tech trying to chat with a mini Merlion through mobile texting last October. The festival was organised in celebration of Singapore's Golden Jubilee, and marks the country's efforts to become a smart nation. ST FILE PHOTO

There is no reason, either, why Singapore could not do better in the future. Writing in The Soft Power 30 report, Professor Tommy Koh, Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, highlights three reasons for optimism. He says Singapore's harmonious society built from a diverse population, an economy free from corruption and the country's model of well-planned, sustainable living all make for a strong platform from which to project global influence.

Visitors at the Festival of Tech trying to chat with a mini Merlion through mobile texting last October. The festival was organised in celebration of Singapore's Golden Jubilee, and marks the country's efforts to become a smart nation. An exhibition
An exhibition in the National Gallery titled "Siapa Nama Kamu?" ("What is Your Name?" in Malay). The new National Gallery could be more aggressively leveraged to promote the cultural appeal of Singapore - and even the wider region. ST FILE PHOTO

Ambassador Koh is absolutely right that these are three areas where Singapore is leading by example. Importantly, for a world in which societies are struggling increasingly with divisions, where prosperity has stalled and there is increased pressure on the environment, they are also challenges that will have a stronger resonance every year. The way Singapore has systematically developed solutions to these challenges makes it an example for the rest of the world.

In fact, I suspect Singapore's improved showing in the 2016 index is partly a result of increasing global awareness of what the country has achieved. Last year saw two momentous events in the country's history - the 50th anniversary as an independent nation and the passing of its founding father, Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

Both events rightly led to great displays of national cohesion, solidarity and pride. In some ways, this was unusual as Singapore is a country that prefers to let its achievements speak for themselves. It is not part of the national character to boast or draw attention to successes. But there was a great deal of international attention surrounding these two moments of celebration and mourning.

It is why I believe, if the country sheds (some of) its natural modesty, there is greater scope for Singapore to further develop its soft power in the future. Of course, Singapore must avoid the appearance of lecturing or talking down to its neighbours. However, there is a great deal of interest in Singapore's experience and expertise in sustainable urban planning, maintaining social cohesion, economic development and good governance.

But there is more to Singapore's soft power than technical excellence. The country's rich culture and creativity remain something of a secret in the wider world.

To much of the outside world, Singapore retains the stereotype of functional but boring. Anyone who has ever paid a visit to Singapore knows this label to be outdated, unfair and even puzzling. A stronger push to introduce Singaporean culture to the world would help dispel the stereotypes. The new National Gallery is certainly an impressive asset that could be more aggressively leveraged to promote the cultural appeal of Singapore - and even the wider region.

Singapore's economic success has been the foundation of its soft power to date. Combining this with a push to promote its dynamic cultural offering, and a more confident approach in helping others learn from its experience and success, would all help Singapore build on the soft power gains made over the last year.

• The writer is a partner at Portland in London and the author of The Soft Power 30.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 22, 2016, with the headline 'Much scope for Singapore to grow its soft power further'. Print Edition | Subscribe