Singapore and the Soft Power 30

A general view of the skyline in the central business district of Singapore. PHOTO: REUTERS

It has been, in many ways, a hard year for soft power. In the Middle East and Africa, the spread of violence stands as a daily rebuke to those who argue for the primacy of diplomacy, persuasion and cultural attractiveness in achieving foreign policy ambitions.

In Europe, the crisis over Greece has seen consensus replaced by division. There is civil war in Ukraine and tensions in Asia have been rising.

These provide ammunition to the critics of soft power who say it is, as ever, military force and economic might that matter. But it is not a view shared by more and more political leaders and governments. Or one supported by Singapore's remarkable influence in the wider world.

Old hierarchies and certainties are breaking down. Power has become much more diffuse - moving from west to east, from north to south, from state to non-state actors and, through social media, increasingly from the elite to the universal. Challenges are now rarely constrained by national borders.

In this more complex world, countries have realised that Professor Joe Nye, who first coined the phrase soft power 25 years ago, was right when he said "power with others can be more effective than power over others". This power is best built and harnessed by attraction and persuasion so networks are forged and collaboration fostered. But while there is a growing enthusiasm for soft power, it has not always been matched by a growing understanding of what it is or how it can be deployed successfully. Yet only with better knowledge can it be protected and used in a strategic, coordinated and, ultimately, effective way.

The Soft Power 30 is a new, authoritative index that aims to help governments and countries understand better the resources they have at their disposal. It ranks leading countries using a combination of objective metrics and new international polling data to measure soft power, covering categories such as Government, Culture, Education, Global Engagement and Enterprise.

Included for the first time are metrics, developed in partnership with Facebook's data-science team, on the reach of digital diplomacy. Analysing the Facebook pages of both national leaders and foreign ministries, we looked at two types of data: followers and engagement.

Importantly, Facebook's data-science team was able to disaggregate data for both of these metrics, allowing us to separate domestic and international interactions. As a result, we could focus our data collection on instances of governments using Facebook to engage with people internationally. This allowed us to capture the impact social media has on soft power.

We have also made use of specially commissioned polling in 20 different nations to gauge the appeal of countries and their assets. We asked respondents to rate countries based on seven different categories, including culture, cuisine, foreign policy and friendliness, among others. I am confident it is the most comprehensive and up-to-date assessment of soft power yet.

So where does Singapore stand in these global rankings?

It is in 21st place, which confirms just how powerfully this small country punches above its weight in the world.

Singapore, in fact, has the smallest population of any nation in the top 30 yet ranks above the giants of Brazil, Turkey, Mexico and China. It is also one of only four Asian countries, along with Japan, South Korea and China - which comes in 30th place - to make the list.

This remarkable success owes a great deal to the attractiveness and strength of its economy. Only Switzerland comes above it in the Enterprise sub-index. The lowest levels of corruption in the world and a highly business-friendly environment have added hugely to economic soft power pull and reputation. An open and successful economy is, however, not the only asset that Singapore has. The country is also seen as a society in which education is prized and viewed as uniquely outward-looking. The only negative was anxiety picked up in international polling about the country's harsh criminal penalties, including the continued use of the death penalty.

But the overall result shows that soft power gives Singapore an impressive competitive edge over its rivals. It is an exceptionally powerful platform on which to build and to help the country achieve its foreign policy goals and extend its influence.

Another, if much bigger, country with a trading tradition and an open outlook tops the soft power global rankings. The UK scores highly in every category but with a particularly strong performance on Culture, Digital, and Global Engagement.

Germany's second position is, perhaps, a bigger surprise. The country is a hugely successful economy but its international influence is again down to the way this hard economic power has been matched by building up soft power assets. No country has transformed its image so successfully in such a short time.

The United States comes only third despite its leading position in the Education, Culture and Digital categories. It is pulled down by widespread distrust of its foreign policy. China's bottom placed ranking, despite investing hugely in soft power assets such as the Confucius Institutes and its global broadcasting platform CNC World, also shows it is struggling to overcome concerns about foreign policy as well as its human rights record.

Soft power has come of age. In our inter-linked world, investment in building up its resources is increasingly paying dividends, gaining countries influence, winning friends and attracting investment. Given the size of the challenges our world faces and the financial and human costs of using hard power, soft power - as Singapore is demonstrating - will become more and more important.

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

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 15, 2015, with the headline Singapore and the Soft Power 30. Subscribe